Taking Heart From Taking Chances
August 19, 2011
What's been most interesting to me about the big stories in the talk radio business over the last month or so has been how so much of it is throwing conventional wisdom out the window.
That's a good thing, by the way.
For everyone who, like me, has spent the last several years complaining that the people in charge of radio are, variously, clueless, pennywise/pound foolish, myopic, or failing to even consider the long-term needs of their businesses, the moves being made by companies like CBS and Cox and Merlin should be welcome news. For now, there are, at least in some ways, companies and people who are deviating from business-as-usual. And if I'm going to point out when I think they're screwing up, which I do all the time, it's only fair that I point out when I see positive developments.
So I will do that here. What's positive to me is that they're bucking the kind of thinking that I believe has been holding spoken word radio back for years. Whether it will work or not is another story, but I'm encouraged when stations and managers take actions that run counter to the accepted collective wisdom that has dominated radio for a long time. For example:
There's Already One Of Those On FM In This Market: Where there have been FM talk formats tried, it's been rare that there's been a second entrant, mostly because of this attitude. But just because there's already a Talk station on FM doesn't mean there can't be more. It's wise, however, to take a different approach if you're going to do that, offering an alternative that's not just the same thing with different hosts. In Orlando, the existing FM talker is one of the pioneer guy-talk stations, and putting traditional issues-talk WDBO on FM doesn't mean direct competition, because the stations truly serve different constituencies. In fact, you'll find that Sports and guy-talk stations are competing less with traditional Talk stations and more with music stations. WIP and The Fanatic in Philly aren't going to be competing only with each other, they're up against WMMR, WMGK, Radio 104.5, any stations that serve their target audiences, whether they're talking all day, talking in the morning like WMMR, or not talking at all. Nobody ever says "well, there's already a music station in town, so we can't do another."
We Can't Move Our Format To FM -- What Would We Do With The AM?: That was the argument I heard from practically every large group in the '90s and '00s. We can't lose that additional revenue stream, they said. But that was when everyone was focused only on the present quarter and ignoring the long-term. I think things are changing because it's becoming very apparent that with the exception of the largest-market, biggest-signal AM spoken-word stations, AM stations will have an increasingly hard time maintaining their revenue as their audiences literally die out. Anyone arguing that great content will draw audience no matter which band a station is on isn't likely listening to an AM station much. If you can't get a station wherever you go in a market (and switching to streaming is not yet an answer, and too unwieldy an answer anyway), you won't stay with it no matter what's on the air. For a few years when I lived in one particular part of the Philadelphia area, my home was in the signal null of two of the big AM signals there, WIP and KYW, even though I was in the metro, and I found myself not listening as much as I would have if they'd been on FM. What to do with the AM? I'd simulcast -- no additional staff/expenses, just the power bill, and you lose none of the 45-plus audience that might still be on the AM side. But there's always brokered religion or ethnic programming. Job one, though, is to preserve and grow the former AM format, and you have to move it to FM to do that.
We Give Them 22 Minutes, They Give Us The World: A lot of the criticism of the Merlin Media launches in New York and Chicago revolves around the attitude of people in the radio industry that there's one way to do news, and what they're doing isn't it. Whatever you think of the execution so far, the fact is that there's room for more than one approach to doing news. Listening to what's been on so far, it's really more analogous to local TV news, which discovered in the early 1970s that being more conversational and feature-laden drew much larger audiences than doing it the traditional way. Or has everyone forgotten Al Primo and the terms "happy talk" and "Eyewitness News"? I'm not saying that it's better or worse than anything else, or that it's being executed well or not, or that it'll succeed or fail. What I'm saying is that it's another approach, and if you really hate it, chances are very good that you aren't in the target audience. Just remember that there's no one "right" way to do any format. (Full disclosure: I worked with Merlin's Walter Sabo in the early years of New Jersey 101.5 and other stations, and I remember the industry and public reaction to what we did. So I'm a little sensitive to that kind of automatic rejection. I have my own ideas about how the Merlin stations sound and should be, but I don't work there, they're not asking me, and it ain't my job.)
All Of My Friends Think It's Terrible, So It Must Be Terrible: Putting these stations on FM flies in the face of the countless number of people inside and outside the industry who think "FM is for music." And if you read Internet message boards and comments on news sites, you'll assume that everyone thinks that these moves are just awful. But when you see people insisting that hosts with strong ratings and revenue should be fired, or that stations you know to have failed be preserved, you should get the message that those opinions don't matter. They're self-selecting; Nobody's really motivated to go online and say good things about your station, but it's fun to be snarky. You can't, however, worry about that. Just do what you're confident will be good radio, focus on your target audience, and tune out that noise. It's hard enough for companies to pull the trigger on knocking off stations with dwindling but still very loyal and vocal followings, very hard to have to let people go from the music stations to do that, and harder still for management to hear the complaints from their friends and angry listeners and people in the industry. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
All-Local And All-News Are Too Expensive To Do Anymore: They ARE expensive. The payoff, though, might be enormous. Surely, it's audacious, especially in light of the conventional wisdom that hiring a big staff to do a personnel-intensive format like all-News or mostly local Sports is just not going to fly in radio's new normal economy. But now stations are apparently more willing to staff up and try to make it work. That's the opposite of a bad thing, no matter what you otherwise think of the stations involved.
To be sure, there are plenty of things many of these stations are doing that I'd do differently, but, again, that's not my job and I'm not volunteering. (I got kinda tired of that whole "working for free" thing. Turns out that "working for free" isn't acceptable payment on a mortgage) Besides, I want to keep this week's column positive. There'll be plenty of time for snarking. Right now, let's just indulge in a feel-good moment as we see spoken word formats spread across the FM dial, and let's hope that they succeed to the extent that we see more and more of them. More success means more stations, and more stations means more jobs. That's a good thing, too.
Awkward segue? Sure, got one right here. Um... yeah, I don't have a smooth way to get into the plug for All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, so I'll just say it's where you'll find hundreds of ideas for topics to talk about and it's right here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. Also at All Access this week, you'll find "10 Questions With..." Jeff Davis, one of the leading news-talk-sports imaging voices as well as an actor, writer, and WLS historian, and you'll get the best radio and music industry coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess. And, unrelated to All Access, you can follow me on Twitter at @pmsimon, read my stuff at Nerdist.com, and check out my personal website at pmsimon.com.
Next week, I'm pretty sure I'll be back in the negative category. I thought of several aggravating things just now while writing this column. I have a whole week to build up a seething resentment about them. That should be fun. See you then.