Waiting For The Next Wave
November 4, 2011
If anything struck me while I attended the talk radio conventionâ€“type thing in Dallas last week, it was the feeling that our industry lives in a bubble, in which nothing ever really changes much. That might not be a fair characterization, but after over twenty years of these things, it's remarkable how much the 2011 version of talk radio resembles the 1991 edition.
It's not the fault of the conventions themselves, or those of us who attend, but we in talk radio are a fairly homogenous group. We're mostly in the same age group, predominantly male, close in age and socioeconomic position. It might explain why talk radio, at heart, hasn't changed much in twenty years. It's not the best environment for innovation.
But why innovate when the tried and true continues to be successful in many cases? It's true that your standard issue, older-skewing political talk radio often gets ratings and usually makes money, and I'm not advocating getting rid of that. Traditional talk radio remains viable, to say the least, and putting it on FM is likely to extend the life of the format by several years. But that can't last forever, and that also undersells the potential of the spoken word format for the future.
Yet, outside of the sports format, it's clear that the talk radio industry hasn't quite figured out a way to reach younger audiences. I think the assumption has been that as those listeners get older, they'll fall into the habit of listening to the same kind of talk radio that their elders listen to today.
I'm not so sure about that. Every young generation likes to think that it is somehow different from the generations that came before it. Usually, they're wrong. Usually, it's a safe assumption to make that we all, ultimately, turn into our parents. That might be true, even for this crop of young people, but for the first time, we have generations that can find spoken word programming that addresses their interests, and that programming is not on talk radio. They're getting used to going elsewhere for their talk entertainment.
So, who's talking to young people? Podcasts, for one thing. I know, they don't make money the old-fashioned way. Advertising on podcasts may never even remotely approach the kind of money the traditional radio makes, and no single podcast is going to approach the kind of audience size that traditional radio can reach, with few exceptions. But they don't have to make that kind of money, especially not from advertising, because podcasts generate money in other ways, like selling tickets to live events and through merchandising. And many podcasts exist not to make money but because the hosts are just having fun, or satisfying their creative instincts, or bolstering their egos. Meanwhile, every time somebody is listening to a podcast, they're not listening to traditional radio. Add them up and you have the vaunted "long tail," the future, some have predicted, of media, the mass-appeal replaced by a nearly infinite number of niches. (I suppose I should drop in a Full Disclosure statement here that besides All Access, I work for a company that has a network of prominent podcasts, although I don't personally work on the podcasts themselves)
Can traditional radio play in that field? I think it can, but I think it will take a recognition that you can't just take traditional hosts and traditional shows and drop in the occasional reference to the Kardashians. That's where new blood will be critical. Rather than teaching old dogs new tricks, it makes more sense to let the old dogs be old dogs and continue to serve the same audiences they serve today, and create new programming with new dogs to appeal to the next wave of listeners. It's going to require finding hosts and producers who, in the words uttered by countless consultants, "live the lifestyle," people who read the same websites and watch the same webisodes and listen to the same music and have the same concerns, hosts who understand the pressures of paying back student loans on a starting salary and who watch "The Guild" instead of "NCIS" and can feel the pain of diminished expectations of living as well as one's parents and who don't think (or resist thinking) "I've heard all this before" when listening to current music.
Finding talk hosts who can relate to that audience might be difficult, considering how much we've lamented the loss of the "farm system" for talent. But I think that the first place to look would be music morning show hosts. It's not about age so much as it is about relating to the audience, and a good morning show host knows how to do that. Besides, a lot of them might be available, seeing as how, well, you know, RIF and all that.
That would be a start, and a start is what talk radio needs in appealing to the next wave of listeners. Again, it's not a direct replacement of the status quo, it's planning for the future. I'd like to think that talk radio has a future, but we're overdue for the groundbreaking.
Whether you're trying to reach younger audiences or talking to older audiences or whatever you're doing, Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports has hundreds of ideas and stories for your talk radio needs; find it here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. This week, you'll also find "10 Questions With..." WBEN-WGR-WWKB/Buffalo PD Tim Wenger, who's built some solid local institutions in his hometown. And as always, you'll the best radio and music industry coverage at Net News (including the most complete list of the RIFfed -- if you were let go and aren't on the list, let us know so we can let folks know how to find you), 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.
One thing for which those talk radio convention-type things are valuable is the opportunity to see your peers and friends face-to-face. It was good to see everyone again (and I'm still blushing from that shout from BJ Shea, although I vigorously deny everything). And if it wasn't for those events, I might never see anyone other than my wife, my cat, and the cashiers at the supermarket. I should really get out more.