It's Not Radio, It's 'Alternate Podcast Distribution Medium'
August 10, 2012
It was buried in the news about schedule changes at the Pittsburgh NPR affiliate: among the shows added to WESA's lineup this week was a program called "WTF with Marc Maron."
Huh. That's a reversal.
See, "WTF" is one of the most prominent podcasts out there. It's been profiled by major news outlets all the way up to, and including, The New York Times. And it's finding its way onto a traditional broadcast outlet. It's not the first or only podcast to get picked up for broadcast in recent years -- actor and raconteur Stephen Tobolowsky's show has been airing on KUOW in Seattle -- but it's among the first evidence that someone in radio's paying attention to what's going on in radio-that-isn't-quite-radio. And maybe it's something to which traditional commercial radio programmers should be looking as well.
I've been railing, as regular readers are only too aware, about the lack of talent development in the industry, but it's easy to say the usual "there's no farm system" thing. Clearly, though, there IS another area in which talent is developing, and that's the podcast world. Let's throw in a caveat here: Some of the top-circulation podcasts are recycled terrestrial radio shows, most notably public radio shows, and some of the biggest podcast-only or streaming shows are hosted by former terrestrial radio hosts, including Maron. Yet they're not alone, and there's a wave of talent reaching a still limited but growing number of people for whom a podcast is as good as a radio station is as good as streaming. For anyone under, say, 30, it's all the same. There's no special glamour in radio for them. It's all just something to which they listen, however it's delivered.
The real challenge for radio is that it isn't strictly necessary for talent to be on it anymore. Up until now, I would argue that radio's advantage is its distribution, and that if a talent wanted to really be heard by a mass audience (and, in turn, be paid), radio was the only effective option. But more hosts and aspiring talent are finding that there's great value in an alternate path: Find a much smaller but intensely loyal audience with a clearly defined demographic, super-serve that group, and derive revenue through several streams, from traditional (usually live-read) spots to merchandising and live shows. That's a growth model, and several shows are taking advantage of that. Add in the freedom to say what you want without the concern that the FCC will fine your station or advertisers will bail, and it's almost ideal.
The "almost" part is still radio's ace in the hole, if it has one. Radio, even with disappointing growth or declining revenue, can still monetize audio entertainment in a more simple and direct, if less efficient, manner. The old method of getting ratings and selling spots based on that still draws more money than any other way, even with commissions and other expenses. It's still appealing to podcasters, even with speech restrictions and ads and formatics, to imagine doing a broadcast radio show. Paychecks are nice. And radio COULD take advantage of that if it wants to do so.
But it doesn't have to be either-or. And it's a situation crying out for creativity. I'm not talking about something like what one San Francisco AM did a few years back and just run random podcasts in a disjointed order; that's not going to work, and listeners can string together their own podcast "stations" in their own preferred order, anyway. But there might be value in adapting popular podcasts to broadcast radio, either in edited, repurposed form or with separate, newly-produced shows that can also be distributed as podcasts, and there might be value in developing programming expressly for podcast distribution, with content restrictions turned off. Public radio's already there. I'd suggest that commercial radio, ever in search of new ideas, might do well to look in that direction. Beats whining about how there's no new talent on the horizon, anyway.
(And, of course, in the interest of full disclosure: I also work for Nerdist Industries, which produces and distributes a network of prominent podcasts. I'm not in charge of the podcasts, though, so, that.)
Enough lecturing for now. It's time to plug Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports, where you'll find a lot of material for radio shows of all kinds. Click here for it, and follow it at Twitter at @talktopics. What else? How about an appropriately Olympic "10 Questions With..." Fox Sports Radio evening co-host and Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken? Nice, huh? And, as always, you'll find industry news first/fastest/best at Net News, which you can also follow on Twitter at @allaccess.
Oh, one more thing. If you emailed me recently and didn't get a response, there's a very good chance it's because my computer crashed while upgrading to the new Mac OS. It... didn't go well, and that's WITH a full backup. Sorry, and rest assured that I'm trying to reconstruct my mailboxes from over 100,000 recovered messages that are presently in one massive folder. Moral: Backup, schmackup, if your hard drive gets wonky, you're going to feel the pain no matter what you do. (But DO back up. I can't stress that enough)