Trust, But Verify: Radio's Role When Twitter's Breaking The News
This Week's 'The Letter' From All Access News-Talk-Sports by Perry Michael Simon
May 6, 2011 at 9:00 AM (PT)
Before we get started, here's one last plug for Saturday's REVLON RUN/WALK FOR WOMEN in LOS ANGELES, in which my wife and I walk to raise money for research and treatment of women's cancer. This is our fifth time doing the walk, and it also marks FRAN's fifth year of survival, so we're pretty excited. And if you haven't yet donated, your support will, of course, be greatly appreciated. You can donate at do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon. Thank you!
All right, then, we all know what happened last Sunday night, and by now every media expert has written the obligatory "everyone found out on Twitter" column. Yes, I found out via Twitter, too. I was right here writing and checked my Twitter timeline and someone had tweeted something about BIN LADEN being dead, and then, a few posts up, there was another. And that would be the genesis of a "social media beats traditional media" column, except that I then did what I suspect a LOT of people did: I went looking for confirmation. Two tweets weren't going to do it. I needed reliable information. So I went to the major news organizations' websites, and they weren't ready to call it yet, but, soon enough, they were hinting it in headlines and that was that.
Social media was where I (and countless others) got the first tip, and they're built for that: unfiltered, open, and prone to wildly variable accuracy. If you want to know what's going on first, Twitter and Facebook are now necessities. But we know that. It's what this means for radio that's interesting.
Now, you're going to assume here that I'm going to tell you that your radio station, show, and hosts have to be on Twitter blah blah whatever. That's so obvious that... hey, you know what? While we're here, I'll give you a quick Everything You Need to Know About Social Media: 1. Sign up. 2. See what other people are doing. 3. You'll get the idea. 4. If you didn't get the idea, you probably should leave it to someone who does. 5. The end.
The story, for me, was more about how the rise of social media has recast radio and other media, or, more precisely, how it's given more focus to where radio site in the news hierarchy when a big story breaks. Radio is not the only place people will find out about breaking news anymore. It's one place, but social media is, as it was this week, ideal for that. What radio can better contribute is confirmation, validation, background, and a place for the conversation to continue. And it goes back to what I and others did when those first tweets popped up: We looked for confirmation from a trusted source. Radio should be high on the list of trusted sources, and it is just that if there's a confidence among listeners that they can turn on the radio at that moment and easily find what they need. I think too many stations in that position AREN'T providing that, maybe because they don't think it's their job, but when, say, word is spreading that the world's Public Enemy Number One has been killed and you're looking for confirmation on the radio, in most markets, were you going to get that or were you going to find stations locked into voice-tracked music sweeps and taped "best of" talk shows? That's not a blanket indictment -- in fact, most major market talk and news stations jumped on the story fairly quickly, and the radio news networks were on top of it, too. But for most people, the perception is that turning on the radio was going to return LADY GAGA and LADY ANTEBELLUM, and not necessarily OSAMA BIN LADEN news.
Which is fine, if nothing's going on. The hard truth is that there's a lot of money to be made and audience to be aggregated by shutting up and playing music, even with alternatives like iPods and PANDORA and cell phones. But when a massive story is breaking, it's time to at the very least have a live body in the studio to stay on top of things, or the presence of mind on the part of whomever is in charge to pick up the network feed and go with that. If the prospect of dumping regular programming seems crazy, think about the television networks dumping out of things like "Celebrity Apprentice" or that Top Restaurant show to cover the story. Sometimes, you gotta do it and worry about the PPM impact later. (And, hey, this was Sunday night -- did radio stations have anything to lose by going wall-to-wall on the news?)
And for talk radio -- actually, for ANY format -- an event like this is an ideal time to open the lines and let people talk about it. Yes, they were talking about it on Twitter and Facebook, too, but this kind of thing is what radio really does well. Forget the "experts" -- it was time for people to vent and celebrate and argue and share, and there's something about hearing it as opposed to reading it that conveys opinion and emotion far better than 140 characters. Again, even if radio isn't serving as the primary source, it would be providing what it does well.
That's the bottom line. If you can afford to have a big news department, or you can get solid news blocks from an outside source, you do that, but if you can't, or won't, you can still be part of the conversation if you understand your role in people's media needs. If you're not the information leader anymore, you still play a role that other social media -- see what I did there, including radio as a "social medium"? Hah? -- may not be playing. Next time momentous news happens, be what people need you to be: a trusted source to confirm and supplement, and a town square for discussion. So you're not first anymore. You're still needed.
Hey, did I mention the REVLON RUN/WALK FOR... I did? Okay, then, I guess it's time to let you know about Talk Topics, the show prep column at AllAccess.com, which is here. This week, among the hundreds of ideas for stuff to talk about are things like what things you do every day could cause a stroke, the most disheartening part of the "hot baby names" story, how unemployment claims are up while crude oil prices are (finally) down, an unusually large number of stories involving people running around without clothes, why you're supposed to be cooking your deli meat, what human disease is plaguing dogs, too, and many more, covering everything from hard news to sports to entertainment to the just plain weird. Meanwhile, there's also "10 Questions With..." consultant VALERIE GELLER, who discusses good talk radio, social media, and her new book "Beyond Powerful Radio," and the rest of ALL ACCESS with all the news and resources the radio industry needs, all in one place.
More: For my personal site, go to pmsimon.com, where you'll find large measures of pop culture history and complaints that I don't have time to write more. For my other writing, there's Nerdist.com, where I write and edit a leading "nerd culture" website that you don't have to be a nerd to enjoy (and how do you know you're NOT a nerd? Huh?). Those sites are not ALL ACCESS-related, just to be clear. But if you like this column, you might enjoy them, too. Hey, they're free, right?
Once again, please donate to the REVLON RUN/WALK FOR WOMEN, and thank you. And if you happen to be in the vicinity of USC and the COLISEUM Saturday morning, join us. It's a nice way to spend the morning and it's for a good cause. Plus, there are snacks.