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Silence is not golden
Monday, December 16, 2013 - by Bob Carson

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Editor's Note: The USTA website is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular "Outside the Box" features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink -- but the purpose behind them is serious. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

Bob Carson

Dead air in broadcasting is a crime.

Seriously, in some countries, dead air over the airways is against the law.

"In the United Kingdom, any station which transmits dead air for more than ten minutes without rectifying the situation, broadcasting an announcement, or otherwise warning its listeners, can be penalised and may be fined up to £25,000 per minute by the Independent Regulator and Competition Authority for UK communications industries."

Dead air may not be illegal in America, but in harness racing productions silence does not help our sport.

Try this experiment. Click onto a race podcast emanating from a middle tier harness racetrack. Pick up a stop watch. Click “on” when you hear something, anything. Click “off” when you hear absolutely nothing. Astonishingly, in many cases, the silence is more prevalent than the sound -- often by hours.

Autumn Ryan graphic

Should a visitor stumble across harness racing they are more likely to hear silence than a human voice. In the entertainment business a moment, one-half of a moment, of dead air is a mortal sin in the race for attention.

We need to listen to research that demonstrates sound is very important. We should not skip audio cues. Our talk should be peppered with hooks, controversy, predictions, foreshadowing, trivia, history and a million other attention grabbers. Our voices should be bold, brave, ingenious and occasionally outrageous. We should have a touch of bombast counterbalanced by voices of reason.

We have a wide range of harness racing presentations. We also have a surprising depth of talent in our booths.

One “show” that demonstrates what could be is the Little Brown Jug feed. This presentation draws some of us for entertainment and once there, we will wager. There are no gaps. Sam McKee, Dave Bianconi and Ellie Sarama do a nice job of jabbering. They keep our interest. As listeners, we learn and we have a chuckle or two. This trio will stroll off the harness racing path and find time to tease each other. They occasionally tiptoe up to the line of silliness. We need every presentation of harness racing programs to be like this -- on steroids.

We have other entertaining voices in harness racing booths. We also have voids. If race callers do not feel the need to add “entertainer” to their resumes, they can continue to do their race calls and allow the entertainment portion to be delegated.

Finding guests and co-hosts should not be a problem. There is a huge reservoir of people deluded into thinking they are experts. Many people yammer on under the impression that they are entertaining and that other people actually want to hear them. Thousands are looking for a break into sports/show biz. People will sometimes work for free to get “on the air.”

A few hardcore purist “core gamblers” may object to additional talk, but they can always use their mute button.

Entertainment, drawing a crowd, should be the target of every single race presentation. Our hosts should not approach the broadcast as a day at the office, they should view each show as an opportunity to keep the viewers they have and add to the total in any way possible.

And yes, in reality the audiences may be small in numbers, perhaps infinitesimally small (at first) but a real pro puts on a show.

I recall attending a concert where the singer/songwriter had an audience of a thousand. The next year I caught him at a bar with 11 people in the audience and he worked just as hard in both venues.

In today’s world, even dedicated amateurs can draw numbers. A friend has a niche pastime (a very specialized segment of music). Several years ago, he found free space on an internet site where he could put on a weekly program. He works very hard at his passion for zero money. At first, maybe he had five listeners, but he kept at it, reminding people of his show via e-mail, tweeting, networking, trying to be informative, net chatting. Five listeners became a dozen. I called him last night for this article.

“On my YouTube channel, I have almost 2,400 subscribers and by the time the weekend is over will have 7.1 million views of my videos. Pretty good numbers for music videos of the eclectic type I am posting, I think. In the last 30 days alone, people have spent 300,000 minutes watching my videos. Just so you don't have to do the math that is 5,000 hours over the last 30 days.”

People behind the microphone or camera should have time and license to experiment. One of the remarkable aspects of the internet is, like my friend, we can track interest. Breakout hosts could get paychecks if they bring the traffic -- that’s the way it really is in the world of entertainment and sports. You draw some numbers or you fall down the ladder.

Dead air on a video feed does not save money; it seems to be a waste of time and opportunity. Why in the world would we squander any potential asset?

What should the talk be about? In harness racing the topics seem infinite. Wagering tips and theories from knowledgeable handicappers could be the foundation of discussion, but side roads are waiting to be traveled. Sample topics could be who are the owners and what are their back stories? How much and how did a particular horse get purchased? How did that horse end up with their name? What are some Industry trends? Most veteran programmers will toss a new subject on the table every show and then revisit topics that inspire visitors.

For years, some racetracks and announcers have let silence reign between “That is your official order of finish” and “the horses are approaching the starting gate.” Every single wasted minute was a chance to reinvigorate old fans and hook a new fan.

How much would enthusiastic talking heads help harness racing? Who knows? But silence does not move the harness racing ball down the field.

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