February 17, 2012
This column is going to touch on some of the same things I discussed in last week's column, but from a different angle, so forgive any redundancies, okay?
Okay. Let's try something for a moment. Go find someone -- anyone -- who has some free time on his or her hands. Got someone? Okay, now, have them transcribe everything you say for the next four hours. And for the next, oh, let's say month, have them do the same thing every weekday at the same time. Then, have them go through everything you say and see if they can't find stuff that someone might find offensive, edit it down to remove context, and throw it on the Internet.
Fun, huh? But that's how people see talk radio today. That's why so much of the press coverage of talk radio is about the "outrageous" things hosts say. That's what gets hosts fired or suspended or branded as "controversial." That comes from saying the same things everyone else says in real life all the time. Everyone says things off the top of their heads all the time, but for talk hosts, spontaneity what you do for a living. It's like being a stand-up comedian, but you don't get to work out your material at some Tuesday night show in the back of a restaurant where you can do 15 minutes and test the reaction. You work it out on the air, with an audience. You come up with fresh material every day, mostly on the fly, no script. You react spontaneously to things in the news and react to things callers say and react to whatever's around you, and you move on, as real people do in real life conversation. By the time you discover that something you said is getting a bad reaction, there's a good chance you've forgotten you said it.
Some people would say that the lesson is that you need to be careful what you say at all times, lest you say something offensive. That's how the talk radio business has developed, at least. It's been driven by what we talked about last week, the fear that saying the wrong thing will cause boycotts and advertiser backlash and locusts and stuff. I think we, as an industry, have ourselves to blame for that, because, over the years, few among radio's leaders -- not the NAB, not the group heads -- have stood up to complainers and pressure groups and the professionally outraged and said anything like this:
"A talk show host is an entertainer. He or she will say countless things over the course of a show. Some of them will be well-thought-out, some will be off-hand, some will be meticulously researched, some will be pulled straight out of his or her butt. Some of it will be funny, some of it will be serious. Some of it will offend someone for whatever reason, because some of it WILL be offensive. But that's what we do. We say what's on our minds at any given moment. If you don't agree, or if it offends you, call in to the show, or choose among the many other entertainment and information choices on this station and others. But this is a free speech medium, and you don't have a right not to be offended."
That hasn't happened. Instead, over the years, the industry pretty much rolled over on that. Hosts get fired or suspended for comments or jokes that offended someone. The industry, instead of fighting indecency regulation, did deals and tried to have the same rules applied to satellite radio; it's the television industry that's fighting those rules at the Supreme Court. Radio? Can't be too edgy, can't be too spontaneous. Someone's sacred cow might be gored, and we mustn't do that.
But talk radio works best when sacred cows are obliterated. It's special when hosts are fearless, not just on political issues but also in trying to be funny. We need the right to make mistakes, say stupid things, go too far, because that's part of the process. If you have a creative bone in your body, you'll understand how cruel it is to tell a creative person "you can't do that" or "what you did is wrong." We don't let people be who they are. And now, we have competition from podcasts and online streaming that will only grow stronger as more creative talent opts to go where there's no GM or corporate lawyer or HR department issuing edicts and/or punishment. Maybe that won't have a major impact now, or in the next few years, but let's ask ourselves this: If a listener can choose between listening to a host working under all sorts of content restrictions and restraints or one who's allowed to say whatever he or she wants and even swear or talk about topics that might draw a fine if it was on "old radio," which one do you think he or she will choose? Where do you think the growth will be?
Aah, but I might be full of it. I probably AM full of it. I'm just talking off the top of my head, and I'm free to exercise my right to be wrong and say what I happen to be thinking right now. Here, I'm allowed to be spontaneous, even if I occasionally miss the mark. If only radio had that freedom. I fear we gave that up a long time ago.
All right, that's two weeks in a row on controversial talk radio. But whether you, yourself, are of a controversial talk manner or play it safe(r), you'll find all the material you need for your show at Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, which offers hundreds of show topics for talk radio and can be found right here, and, for your convenience, all the topics are also linked on Twitter at @talktopics. This week, you'll also find "10 Questions With..." the always provocative Michael Medved of Salem Radio Network, who has his own thoughts about politics, culture, and taking callers who take issue with his views. And, as always, don't forget the radio industry's first-best-most complete coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess, either.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I only have a few days before my wife Fran's birthday, so I have to go think up something special to do for it. Her birthday and Valentine's Day are a week apart, meaning that every year, I have to come up with two different special celebrations, and I'm not very good at that. Plus, I'm cheap. Talk about pressure.