Buzzkills and Backups
February 1, 2013
Ever since the PPM came into being, we've seen talk radio stations take a dive in the Holiday book, or phase, or month, or whatever we're calling it now. And by "take a dive," I mean that some stations practically crater. Every time this happens, those of us in the industry have the same automatic reaction: it's just the Holiday phase. People aren't in the frame of mind to listen to political talk radio. Everybody's on vacation. It'll pass.
And it does, usually. Ratings eventually recover, mostly. It's not an issue for advertising, either, so no worries. And my reaction is the same as everybody else's -- not concerned -- but I was thinking about it the other day and something didn't sit quite right. While talk radio isn't the only format that slips a little bit during the holidays, it's certainly the format that takes the biggest hit. And it's not uniform: some stations survive better than others. Why is that? After all, every station has hosts going on vacation, and listeners are all in that holiday frame of mind no matter what station they normally listen to, so why do some stations do better than others if we're assuming that it's a bad month for the entire concept of talk radio?
Here's the first thing came to mind: You know how you're at a party, and a friend comes up to you and starts talking, and he's going on and on and complaining or pontificating and at some point you think, you know, this is a party, and I don't want to spend it with somebody who's such a downer? It's not that you don't like the guy, and you may even enjoy his company in other situations, but at that moment, you'd rather be with somebody else. Talk radio, too often, is That Guy. So one element is being confrontational, angry, or negative when people are looking to be in a good mood. It's a matter of being able to read the audience and know what they're looking for when they come to your station. (You'll note that all-news held up okay, so it's not that people aren't paying attention to what's in the news, they're just not that into HOW you're giving it to them.) You don't want to be a buzz kill.
But you knew that one. Part two is the vacation thing, namely how so many front-line talent are off during the Holiday month. That can't be helped, and as somebody who takes off at the same time, I'm not in a position to complain. But talk radio has the problem music formats don't in that if you're a jukebox, the DJ isn't that critical; listeners might notice a difference, but they'll stick around for the music. (If you're playing Christmas music, apparently, they'll glue themselves to your station.) But substitute hosts in the talk format and the loyalists flee. Yet, put on a "best-of" and they'll flee, too, once they realize that they've heard it before or that you're talking about something that happened ages ago. You can't win.
Or maybe you can, and I'll bring this up now in February because it requires time to make things work. You need a bench. By that, I don't necessarily mean having a staff of hosts on salary ready to go, although if you can pull that off, more power to you. Short of that, it means having regular, familiar, go-to hosts for each show, hosts with whom the audience gets familiar over time. They can be on staff, they can be weekenders, they can be remote ISDN hosts, they can even be the show's sidekicks or producers, but there should be a short list that the audience will come to know and trust. That way, the show's in familiar hands. It won't trigger the instant tune-out quite the way that a less familiar voice does. But it requires those substitutes to be around all year, not just substituting but being on as guests, being part of the show in one way or another. Make the fill-ins "our own," a member of the team, and it's not nearly as jarring as when, suddenly, it's someone you've never heard before. Build that bench now, and maybe your audience won't drop by a third or more when the Salvation Army sets up its kettles outside Ralphs.
And now, we have all year before we have to deal with it again. But it's never too early to work on being more attractive to your listeners at all times of the year, holidays or otherwise. You don't HAVE to be That Guy.
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I suppose I should say something about the Super Bowl here, being that I'm a football fan and all. I'm not that into it this year, though. Can't work up much passion for or against either team. I'm more concerned about whether I should make my annual beef-beer-beans chili for the occasion. It could go either way. I'll go ponder that now and meet you here next week.