The Other Water Cooler
September 30, 2011
Wednesday night was, as you may have noticed, an awesome night for baseball fans. Four games deciding both leagues' wild card playoff winners, two extra-inning games, two epic collapses, and an intense four minutes at the end... there's been nothing like it in the regular season, ever.
Now, something like that would qualify as the best possible scenario for sports radio. There was an avalanche of memorable moments to talk about, from Kimbrel blowing the save and the rain delay in Baltimore to the Rays' comeback and the Boston meltdown. In the past, my first reaction to the entirety of the situation would have been to flip on my favorite sports radio station and hear what people had to say about it. And, surely, that was something a lot of people did late Wednesday and deep into Thursday. But, as has become more commonplace in the last few years, there was more going on.
I watched the games, but while I did, I kept my Twitter client open. And what I saw there was instant reaction to everything: Red Sox fans in agony, Cardinals fans in happy shock, Braves fans resigned to fate, Yankees fans openly rooting for their own team to lose just to stick it to Boston, Phillies fans (like myself) amused by the outcome while fretting that it made for a tough first round for our own team, and experts analyzing every manager's moves. It was all there, happening in real time. There was no need to wait until after the game, but within seconds after Evan Longoria's second homer of the night dropped behind the short fence in the left field corner, Twitter practically melted down with comments. So did Facebook. This was a situation made for social media, too. That's nothing particularly new, but to see it in action was pretty striking.
And that poses an interesting situation for talk and sports radio. In the past, radio had the instant reaction business to itself. Sure, you might call a friend to talk about the game, but to hear what the general public thought about breaking news or sports events, you'd go to the radio. Radio's still in the mix today, but so are Twitter and Facebook. Google Plus will probably have an impact as well. Texting definitely does. And the 140-character limit on Twitter acts like the consultants' standard "keep the calls short" exhortation does in radio, keeping the pace fast and entertaining. In short, you -- talk radio, sports radio, radio in general -- have intense competition for listeners' attention in a category you used to own.
Keep in mind, too, that the competition has something radio doesn't: quality control. Your Twitter timeline and Facebook ticker show only opinions and comments from people you follow, or from others being forwarded by those selected individuals. You're not at the mercy of who's calling in to talk on the radio. It's no longer "Bob from Feasterville" or "Darren from Chula Vista" or "Irv from Winnetka." It's only people you select. My Twitter feed was populated on Wednesday night by sportswriters, radio hosts, comedians, friends, even active ballplayers whose games were over. It wasn't quite random, and the content wasn't dependent on the luck of the draw. It was filtered, by me. And that meant that the signal-to-noise ratio was favorable. For every less-than-illuminating "WOW" or "Did you see that?," there was a witty comment or astute observation or even just an alert that something was happening in one of the concurrent games that I might want to see. In a way, following the action on social media sites was better than a lot of talk radio. (It also emphasized to me the importance of a professional call screener in talk and sports radio, but I've railed about that here before)
Radio, however, has its advantages. For one thing, following social media isn't ever likely to be easy in a car; even if and when in-car systems read you texts and tweets and status updates, that will still be awkward, not to mention horribly distracting and hard to do when you're also trying to listen to, say, a ball game. And then there's the human element, which, if you're a talk or sports host, means you. It's the difference between a box score and Vin Scully; both will tell you what happened, but one will do it in a way that transcends the numbers. You, the host, are a competitive advantage for radio.
That doesn't mean, however, that you can just do business as usual forever. We may not quite be at the point when social media wipes out talk radio, and may never get there, but there's now competition for attention and it could, for a lot of people, supplant radio as the place to get the kind of discourse this medium has excelled at producing. This means hosts need to be more compelling, to be ready with material that you can't find on Facebook or Twitter or a message board or in a text. This means you have to be ready with original insight, with something that isn't just a rehash of what you might see online. This means that, rather than following what's on Twitter and Facebook, you'll have to produce a show that leads the social media conversation. You have to set the agenda. You have to create something that makes listeners feel like they need to be listening to know what's going on, to be ahead of the curve. Whether it's insight about what happened in the game last night that everyone else missed, or drawing attention to a news story that isn't on the front page but should be, or grabbing hold of a local issue and becoming the primary source of information about it, you'll need to give people a reason to tune in after they've seen all the tweets and comments online.
Again, I don't think that social media will entirely take over the entire experience of discussing breaking news and sports from talk radio. But that space is now shared. And you'll have to, once again, step up your game to stand apart and hold onto your share. You get more than 140 characters; use them wisely.
One place you can find material with which you can set the conversation agenda is All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, which, as always, is available by clicking here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. You'll also 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.
I suppose I should put some kind of baseball-related comment here, something about the Phillies' chances or whatever. I'm too busy. Fill it in yourself. I have some ballgames to watch.