Get On My Lawn!
June 10, 2011
I'm at another convention, this one the "New Media Seminar," which is, naturally, a talk radio conference, because "new media" means what you want it to mean. (I want it to mean "free beer.") As I write this, it hasn't started yet, so I was looking over the agenda. That's dangerous, because so much of a convention is in meeting people, getting some face time with friends and business acquaintances, and shoveling in the hors d'oeuvres at cocktail hour, and you can't do that from elsewhere. But I was checking who's scheduled to appear and something jumped out almost immediately: There are very, very few people under the age of 40 on these panels.
Yes, this is a problem. It's been noted before that there is a dearth of new talent coming up the pike, and that there's no "farm system." Yet it's not like people who are in their teens, twenties, or thirties actively don't want to talk on the radio. It's that a) there's no place for them on the air, b) there's definitely no place for them to talk about the things that interest them, and c) they have other options, not necessarily paying options but options nonetheless.
If you have a talk station, do you even have a slot where you can put a young talent to let him or her develop an act? And if you did, would you allow that talent to talk about things that aren't political? That's not to say that a young person isn't going to be talking politics, but, let's face it, when you were 20, were you deeply into Republicans vs. Democrats and liberal vs. conservative and inside-the-beltway wonkery? Maybe YOU were, but were your peers? And if the content is the same-old, does it matter how old the host is, and would it be any more relevant to those listeners? I write for another site that's targeted at young adults, and, believe me, they're not listening to your station. (Especially if it's on AM, which, for them, does not exist unless they want to hear a ballgame. It's that weird buzzy thing that comes on the car radio when they hit the "BAND" button one time too many, always flashing "530 AM")
And they don't need to be on your station to talk to people en masse. They can podcast. They won't get paid for it, but they also won't have to worry that they have to talk about what the station orders them to talk about. They can talk about anything there. Pop culture, music, their jobs, their lives, anything. They don't think they can do that while working for you.
That's a problem for this format. Moving to FM helps, but it still doesn't address the content and stylistic problem. It's not that an older host -- hey, I'm out of their demo, too -- can't be relevant to them, or entertaining (and it should be noted that Jon Stewart is 47 and Stephen Colbert is 48, yet their acts play far younger). But it turns out that today's hosts won't live forever, and there's nobody to replace them. Worse, there's not even much interest among the next generations in replacing them.
Solutions? Going to FM helps, and being online and offering podcasts help, too, but that's just being where they might be. Getting the content to match up will be trickier. It doesn't have to be a radical format flip -- it doesn't need to be a wholesale return to "Free FM" -- but in order to grow this format, it has to be relevant to the next wave of listeners entering the 25-54 demographic. That doesn't mean talking about "The Voice" and the Kardashians. It does mean identifying the concerns and interests of that group and hiring talent who can talk about them. Do your hosts talk about how the economy has affected career choices for recent graduates, or how hard it will be for them to pay off their student loans? Are your hosts as conversant with hip-hop and indie rock as about Toby Keith? Are your hosts the kind of people who embrace Twitter and Facebook rather than grumbling about it and resisting social media? Are your hosts excited about new technology? Are they on top of every brand-new meme before anyone else is?
Shouldn't talk radio stations be looking for people like that, of any age?
It's a shame that talk radio, as an industry, has done so much to resist bringing in truly new talent (not young people who are just like the old ones). And if it's a matter of not knowing where to find them, go listen to local podcasts. Go to local college radio stations and talk to the advisors and see if there are any students or volunteers working there who might be interested in trying talking instead of playing music. Look outside the industry -- remember, there are successful talk hosts who started out as callers, or running hot dog stands, or as comedians. Or stand pat, and see how that turns out.
Enough of that. Now, I have to actually go to the convention, so I'll just advise you to go to Talk Topics for stuff about which you can talk about on the radio, including some of that stuff that's relevant to young people (and old people, and... is there another category?), which I've managed to be able to update as per usual despite the cross-country trip (airplane Wi-Fi FTW). It's here. And you'll also find it on Twitter at @talktopics. This week's "10 Questions With..." Fred Holland looks at Fred's journey from jock to talker to salesman to the Bog Boss as well as morning host at WTKI and WEKI in Huntsville-Decatur, Alabama. And you can get industry news first/fastest/best at Net News, with the biggest headlines delivered to you through Twitter at @allaccess.
Me? Why, yes, you can find more of me at Twitter: @pmsimon. There's my blog at pmsimon.com, too, and I'm the editor and, frequently, writer of TV's Chris Hardwick's Nerdist.com. None of that's related to All Access, but you might like 'em. Tell your friends.
And now, off to the convention. If you're here in New York, I'll be, as per usual, somewhere in the back of the room. Say hi.