October 17, 2014Barbie And You
A stark reminder of exactly how much things are changing came this week with the news that shook the world to its core: Barbie sales are down.
Okay, you're wondering what Barbie has to do with talk radio. It's this: By the time Mattel realized Barbie was in trouble, the sharp decline was already in motion. By the time talk radio realized that the same-old political talk is in decline, it had lost the attention of a few generations. In each case, the signs were right in front of the decision makers, but when you're focused on THIS quarter and investors want profits NOW, it's easier to just stand pat and hope that the troubles don't manifest themselves until you're retired and someone else has to figure it out.
So, dolls. Technology's raised the expectations for kids; If you have a choice between something that has animation and sound and plots and action -- video games, TV, stuff on the Internet -- a doll is sort of inert. Sure, they exercise your imagination, but if your attention span's been shaped by a video screen, sitting around with dolls positioned on a playset or wielding action figures at each other going "Pew! Pew!" and providing your own dialogue just isn't the same. Kids have different sensibilities now, different expectations. Entertaining them requires a different approach. Mattel isn't blind to this -- they were extending Barbie to other media years ago, and bought into American Girl (also seeing some sales slippage), which is all about brand extension into books and movies and retail, over 15 years ago, too. And nobody is going to claim dolls will ever go away, not by a long shot. But Barbie just isn't the brand she used to be, nor are kids the same.
And, talk radio. Again, nobody (well, some people, but not me) says that radio will ever go away, not totally, not even if you choose to define it by the transmission medium rather than by content. There'll be FM broadcasting for quite some time, AM will limp along with smaller, older, and more specialized audiences, but it'll be one of the choices for audio entertainment and information. But consumers have been conditioned to think of talk radio, accurately or not, as a sweaty guy in a suit and tie fulminating into a microphone about the President and Congress and issues that are not going to be solved by a radio talk show and may not appear to have any direct effect on listeners' lives. They're also getting conditioned to receiving their fill of political opinion and information via social media and through friends. And they're definitely conditioned to think of AM as dad's, or granddad's, medium.
We know this. We've talked about this ad nauseam. We also know that there are people within the talk radio hierarchy who know this and want to change things, want to serve a changing audience with spoken word programming that speaks to the interests of a young or middle-aged adult in 2014. But it's been slow. Very slow. And so far, most of the attempts to put it on FM have involved just slapping AM-style talk on an FM signal and then being shocked and disappointed that young people didn't flock to hear sweaty suit-and-tie guy complain about something he read in the papers that morning. We can do better as an industry. And with more competition from streaming, podcasts, and whatever else might be on the horizon, we're in past-due territory now.
I wouldn't know what to tell Mattel about how to revive Barbie. Maybe there'll be a back-to-analog trend among parents who'll yank the tablets out of their kids' hands and make them play old school style. Maybe kids will turn retro hipster like the guys who buy vinyl records. (Can little girls grow "ironic" facial hair?) That's the toy industry's problem. Talk radio has its own problem, but the solution's been here all along. What it'll take to move things along, I really don't know, either. But it's time.
Whatever kind of show you're doing now, even on music stations, you can always find stuff to talk about on the radio at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, where you'll find hundreds of items and ideas, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Click here for the magic. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Plus, you will want to read "10 Questions With..." Rob Carson, who, speaking of change, went from a long-time music show host with a separate career writing comedy for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and all the top radio comedy services to talk show host, and is now heard filling in on practically every station everywhere.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
And a reminder: No column next week, because I'll be out all week. Talk Topics will have sporadic and limited updates, because a guy's gotta walk away from the computer now and then. You can still reach me at the below locations (Twitter's probably best) while I'm in Undisclosed Location. In the meantime, talk to you on Halloween....
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