James Cridland: Voice-tracking – wrong for radio?

Illustration: Voice-tracking module on RadioHost from Skaga FM, Denmark.

James Cridland: If you’re looking for trouble throw “voice-tracking” out there and sit back. Most radio people will bite and there are some strong views on both sides of the table. James got a question about it during a Q&A recently.

“What do you think of voice-tracking?” came a voice in Q&A after one of my presentations.

The question came from a man wearing a t-shirt. The t-shirt was black, with a community radio logo on the front, and on the back, in bright white capital letters: “CORPORATE RADIO STILL SUCKS”.

Voice-tracking has a bad reputation; and I can understand why. It’s been used, in many cases, as a tool to remove skilled presenters from stations; and a tool to stop stations being live. Many people feel that it is a destroyer of all that was good in radio twenty or thirty years ago.

In the country I was in, New Zealand, the feeling against voice-tracking runs strong. A devastating earthquake in Christchurch six years ago was accompanied by some radio stations – yes, the “corporate” ones – just continuing in automation mode. It caused severe damage: yet some stations took too long to come out of cheery-sounding DJs voice-tracking music as if nothing had happened.

So, voice-tracking is bad, and radio should go back to being live and local, you’d assume.

I’m not so sure. Just like any other tool, voice-tracking can be used badly or well.

Used well, voice-tracking can allow you to get stuff on the air really very quickly. We don’t need offices or studios to drive to; with an iPhone and remote access, we can get high quality information out much quicker from anywhere.

Used well, voice-tracking can ensure great radio presenters can produce some awesome radio – without sitting through commercial stopsets and three songs in a row.

Used well, voice-tracking enables the best use of great content – yes, repeating it at times (particularly at times of crisis). From repeating the best bits of a breakfast show to repeating police advice, voice-tracking is a tool to enable better radio and getting the most out of talent.

Used badly, voice-tracking and automation can make cookie-cutter radio which doesn’t look after your listeners. But then, we can do that quite adequately with live human beings if we’re not trying, too.

In many cases, I suspect that radio stations would do better by using tools like voice-tracking more often. “Live is lazy” is one, slightly over-the-top, way of saying it; but in a world where we’re seeing astonishingly good post-produced audio like the New York Times Daily podcast, it would seem sensible to ensure that our product is also as polished.

And, of course, it’s important to ensure that if you do use voicetracking, you know what to do in case of emergency, and also know how to get new content on-air from anywhere. That’s what they’re designed to do.

By all means, chase bad, ‘corporate’ radio – there’s a lot wrong with it. But voice-tracking probably isn’t one of those things.

James Cridland is a radio futurologist – a writer, speaker and consultant working with the brightest radio brains in the world. He has worked for the BBC and Virgin Radio in London. Join over 3,000 other radio professionals and subscribe to his free weekly newsletter (in English) at https://james.cridland.net

Illustration: Voice-tracking module on Digas, thanks to P5 Hits Bergen, Norway.

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