The Unspeakable Truth: Or, The Value Of Saying What Listeners Can't Say
This Week's 'The Letter' From All Access News-Talk-Sports by Perry Michael Simon
May 20, 2011 at 10:30 AM (PT)
We often speak of "making good talk radio." We discuss who's doing "good talk radio." I've asked interview subjects what they think goes into a "good talk radio" show. But it struck me the other day that nobody ever actually defines "good talk radio."
Maybe that's because there's no clear answer to that, unless you want to apply the Supreme Court Justice POTTER STEWART method and say "I know it when I hear it." This is probably the most accurate way to describe it, although it's useless if the General Manager is telling you that your show stinks and defines what he wants to hear as "I'll know it when I hear it." And, surely, much of what makes good talk radio is hard to pinpoint. But there must be some things common to all good talk shows, and at least one criterion came to mind when this topic popped into my head.
It happened, strangely enough, while listening to a host and his crew talking about bathroom habits, and I won't go into exactly what that entailed or who it was because you never know who's reading this and whether they're itching -- an appropriate term for reasons I will, again, not address -- to file a complaint with the FCC. The segment was cringe-inducing, not a little disgusting, yet very funny and totally compelling. I couldn't NOT listen. And while I was listening, it occurred to me that one of the reasons I was listening was that they were talking about something universal, something that listeners probably feel they couldn't ever readily discuss with pretty much anyone. It was a segment of the unspeakable. And there was a vicarious thrill in hearing someone fearless enough to talk about things that you might even hesitate to bring up to your doctor.
Eureka, I thought -- that's one of the keys to good talk radio, saying what the audience wishes it can say but knows it can't. It's a fearlessness, expressing opinions and hopes and fears that listeners don't feel comfortable raising. It goes back to what I remember thinking when I first heard HOWARD STERN in the early eighties, and it wasn't in that case about the strippers and Wack Pack or anything like that; no, it was how he complained about the boss, complained about his home life, told his own parents things sons generally don't tell their mothers in private, let alone on a 50,000-watt radio station. He was saying things I could never say to anyone, and doing it on the radio.
This applies even to political talk. It's not about just bashing the other side, it's about bringing up what the "mainstream media" won't, about being the child who notes the absence of the Emperor's clothes. Again, it's the lack of fear. Do that well, and do that in an entertaining way, and you're on the road to good talk radio.
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying -- I'm not saying that outrageousness for outrageousness' sake is the key. There has to be some kind of point to the material, and there has to be a relatability (hey, there's another element) that makes listeners feel like they care about what you're saying. But, in a way, a talk host is a representative of the audience. You have the mic because you can say things the listeners are merely thinking about. You can ask the questions they wish they could ask. It's a matter of being open about your life on the air. It's a connection.
So that's one element. Two, if you count relatability, but you knew that one, since programmers and consultants have beaten it into your brain over the past 30 years. There are other common elements to good talk radio, and we'll discuss them here once I figure out how to boil them down into words. In the meantime, I suppose we'll know them when we hear them.
Another common element to good talk radio is an inexhaustible supply of interesting or pertinent or just funny things about which to opine, which is when you need Talk Topics, the show prep column at AllAccess.com, found here. It's where you'll find hundreds of topics, conversation starters, kickers and news items from which you can build a show. This week's pile o' fun includes how office elevators are conspiring against you, the dangers of pressure cookers, a video-game-themed wedding, how duct tape solved a crime, losing weight the Twinkie Diet way, a substitute teacher doing something in the classroom that he should have done in the bathroom, why people are stealing hair, senior pranks gone wrong, an ice cream truck from which you don't want to buy a Fudgsicle, and much ado about ARNOLD, plus stuff about "real news" and much more. After that, you can read "10 Questions With..." KFAQ/Tulsa morning man PAT CAMPBELL and the rest of ALL ACCESS with all the news and resources the radio industry needs, all in one place, all free.
Got Twitter? Then get all the topic headlines at Talk Topics with links to the individual articles, updated immediately, at @talktopics, and the top headlines in Net News at @allaccess. And me at @pmsimon.
I'm assuming that there's going to be a column next week, because I'm assuming that the apocalypse isn't really scheduled for SATURDAY. If I'm wrong, however, you won't need me to tell you what to talk about on the radio. Just try to control your hysterical screaming while you do it.