In Search of Social media DJs

Following on from the recent SXSW it seems all eyes in social media are fixed on the box – Zeebox to be precise. To quote the words of Mugatu from the movie Zoolander:  Social TV is “so hot right now”.

But beyond all the hoopla, another media channel has been quietly perfecting the art of engagement for decades without getting the credit it deserves. I’m talking about radio.

Did video kill the radio star?

The emergence of music video gave birth to MTV and transformed the ways in which we experience music, creating stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson in the process. Years later the Internet would revolutionize things again. This time both MTV and the record labels were caught napping, allowing YouTube, iTunes and more recently Spotify to gain ascendancy.

But it turns out video didn’t kill the radio star after all. The latest listening figures from Rajar show essentially a flat picture with marginal growth between 2011 and 2012. The lack of growth is unsurprising when you consider that over 90% of the UK population listens to radio (yes, that’s more people than log on to Facebook). What’s perhaps more surprising is that even in this media saturated world, the amount of hours spent listening to radio is actually going up.

The return of  ‘Smashey and Nicey’

There are a number of parallels between social media and radio – specifically talk radio. Both aim to engage audiences in one-to-many conversations using news, entertainment, gossip, competitions and polls to stimulate conversation. Both are obsessed with growing audience share and building loyalty. Crucially, both appear to be easy, but are deceptively difficult to do well.

In the early 1990’s comedians Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse created the characters of Mike Smash and Dave Nice to highlight how cheesy celebrity radio DJs had become. When I look at the world of social media, I sometimes think that their personalities have been reborn on a number of brand Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. These pump out meaningless clichés and trite conversation starters in a desperate bid for the all-important ‘Like’, comment or Retweet. This is all relatively harmless, but there is also a darker side to radio.


Shock Jocks

As I’ve written before, there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that courting controversy can help content to go viral.

In the UK, talk radio veterans such as Vannessa Fletz, James Whale and Nick Ferrari have built their careers by being highly opinionated. In the US, ‘Shock Jocks’ such as Howard Stern have turned being provocative into a performance art.

The danger is that the constant need for attention can drive increasingly extreme behaviours. Talk radio has provided a platform for individuals such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to air extremist political views and find sympathetic audiences. But as the on-going backlash against Limbaugh’s recent remarks about Sandra Fluke demonstrate, even in the land of free speech, it is possible to go too far.

Social Media DJs

Anything that helps brands develop more distinctive and meaningful personas on social media is to be welcomed, but we should be mindful of the lessons to be learned from talk radio.

Both Betfair Poker and Waterstones Oxford St have used writers and comedians to help create quirky characters on Twitter. Given radio’s long history of effective audience engagement, instead of hunting for social media gurus, perhaps agencies should start employing DJs. Just be careful about which one you choose.

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