Talk Radio, Refreshed
September 9, 2011
This week, I'll keep it very brief before heading to Chicago for next week's convention:
The President of the United States gave a speech Thursday night, and as I monitored reaction to it online, one sentiment seemed to cross party lines. Democrats, Republicans, independents, Naderites, Greens, Socialists, Communists, Whigs, everyone was unified in one thought:
"I hope this is short so we can watch the football game."
Oh, people were interested in the jobs proposal, but it seemed like the interest in just kicking back and watching Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and Darren Sproles and Randall Cobb was a little greater. I don't think people don't care about jobs and what the president said, but at a time when you could easily go online and read about what the speech would say before he said it, combined with short attention spans, general impatience, and a large dose of fatigue, the political stuff didn't stand a chance.
Which reminds me... I've written here about the need for talk radio to address the large portion of listeners who aren't hardcore political wonks. It's not to say that there's no room for traditional political talk, because there is. But if there's a huge number of people who are just tired of the usual political bickering, that's a market political talk isn't tapping. And as talk moves to FM, where the existing audience isn't necessarily your standard talk radio P1 type of listener, there's an opportunity available. Sports stations are well-positioned to take advantage of that, but that's not the only kind of spoken word programming that can appeal to those for whom traditional talk radio doesn't do anything. When people say they "don't like talk radio," they're saying they don't like what they think talk radio is, stentorian announcers and political debates. In other words, it's dad's, or, worse, granddad's radio. The way I remember thinking about what my mom listened to on the radio when I was a kid ("Dr." Bernard Meltzer "with advice and counsel") is how someone in his or her 20s thinks about some of the stuff you hear on AM. Radio needs to give newer generations their own talk radio. But the younger listeners you'll find on the FM side, more accustomed to music radio and morning show chatter, aren't looking for the pace and style that's worked in the past on AM. The topics, the pace, the imaging all have to fit.
You can do all that without discarding everything; You don't have to become "Your Number One Choice For 'Real Housewives' Gossip and 'Toddlers and Tiaras' Talk," because that isn't really what anyone is looking for. (Not anyone I want to spend a lot of time with, at least) You can still talk about political issues and serious matters, but your approach, and the parts you focus on, need to address what matters to more than just the people deeply into the horse race aspects of politics. Jobs, taxes, health care, traffic, schools -- those issues are universal, and while they take a back seat to party politics and candidate personalities on traditional talk radio, there's room for a different approach for a different audience. And do it with humor, because to someone under 30, "The Daily Show" and The Onion and Gawker and the snark of comedians on Twitter ARE the news. As generations weaned on faster-paced, short-attention-span media move into your target demographics, talk radio has to adapt to what they want, not what you think they should want. Don't think of it as dumbing-down, because it isn't. Think of it as an opportunity to evolve the format for a new age and keep it viable.
On a day when an FCC Commissioner raised that stubborn FM-chips-in-smartphones issue again, and the NAB rushed to commend him for it, I got to hear the radio industry get another chance to do the emergency thing when someone did something someplace that plunged San Diego County into darkness. And let's give credit where credit is due: I heard good coverage on the Clear Channel cluster from KOGO, simulcasting on the FMs and including reporters from KPBS, which was off the air. KFMB was using its sister FM to get information out while the AM was off the air, and I heard some reports on at least one station that stuck with music.
The issue here wasn't the coverage; yes, a few stations were inexplicably playing music instead of getting emergency information out there, but there was a lot of appropriate coverage, too. The issue is, well, geez, if your business depends on being on the air at all times, where's your generator? Several stations went off the air in the power outage, and, okay, that can happen. So can technical problems that don't allow the generators to kick in. But that's when you're needed the most. And if the industry's trying to sell that FM-in-your-phone thing hard, making sure that every station takes all reasonable measures to stay on the air to send out that emergency information should be a top priority. Having FM radio on your cell for an emergency is useless when the FM stations aren't working.
But other than that, radio did come through pretty well this time. The people who sat in the dark all night would probably agree.
What else? Well, there's always the weekly plug for All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where you'll find hundreds of topics about which you may speak and discuss and pontificate. You will find that particular resource right here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. Also at All Access this week, you'll find "10 Questions With..." Dave Williams, who's anchoring at Merlin Media's new WWWN (FM News 101.1) in Chicago after an illustrious run in L.A. and Sacramento, 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, it's the Radio Show, the NAB and RAB event in Chicago. I'll be covering the festivities, so if you're there, come by and say hi. You'll find me in the conference rooms wherever there's a working power outlet. Assuming there ARE any. Some places are more accomodating to the working press than others.