May 24, 2013
Why did you get into radio?
That's not a trick question. I really want to know what drove people to do this for a living. Was it the glamour of being that disembodied voice talking to the world? Was it the desire to be famous, or at least as famous as being a radio host makes you? Was it the need to be heard by as many people at once as possible? Was it hearing one of the greats of the past and thinking that someday you wanted to be him or her when you grew up? Was it not having anything particularly better to do with your life? Was it the allure of hooking up with request line callers? (Don't lie, you know what you did.) What was it?
I thought about that when I saw a press release for a station changing formats this week, and I saw the phrases "Today's Best Music" and "more music" and "the best of 2000s and today," and I wondered... did anyone get into radio for that? That's focus group speak. It's how we got Mix and Variety and The Station Everyone At Work Can Agree Upon and Silently Resent. Look, I'm not going to argue that some stations do very well with more-music-less-talk and liner card readers and voice tracking and automation. It may very well be the route to victory, in the short term, at least -- I doubt that it'll fend off customizable, skippable streaming music forever -- and I don't begrudge the Lites and Qs and Zs and Mixes of the world their success. But when I hear The Best Of The '80s, '90s and Today, I wonder who can do that for very long without wondering whether there were better career choices, like maybe actuarial work or industrial equipment sales or acupuncturist. If you can do that, more power to ya.
But I didn't get into radio thinking, hey, I want to make the very best Today's Best Music Mix station. I didn't want to do Another Commercial-Free 10-Jamz-In-A-Row. I wanted to be part of something with personality, and something that would ultimately be different. I didn't know what that was going to be, but it ended up being talk radio, and unusual talk radio at that, thanks to management willing to take risks and be patient. And now, there's sort of stagnation there, too.
And if I asked the next generation of adults why they'd want to go into radio, they'd say that they wouldn't. All the reasons we wanted to do radio are no longer reasons to do radio at all. You don't need to go on the radio to reach a mass audience, even an international one. You can get famous much faster, and for free, doing YouTube videos than from doing radio. Radio isn't generating stars like it once did, so there's less "I want to be like him/her" going on. And nobody even calls request lines anymore, so you're back to Craigslist for your hookups.
Which means the radio industry has to take a long, hard look again at where we've gone and where we're going, and how to attract creative people to the business. That's not the same as signing up celebrities to dabble in radio, which is an answer I've been given before; how often does THAT work out? (That, sadly, is a topic with which I have some gruesome personal experience....) No, it's more about offering some of the excitement and creative freedom that got sucked out of the medium when everything got focus-grouped into "Today's Best Music." It's offering actual career paths instead of the prospect of being voice tracked out of a job. And, most of all, it's realizing that the long-term prospects for the radio medium, whether over the air or over the Internet, depends on developing content with personality and creativity -- a reason, in short, for people to listen to your station or show or channel rather than an all-you-can-eat jukebox or a customized stream -- and that needs creative, motivated people. You won't get them with "More Music, Less Talk." You won't get them with cookie-cutter Angry Guys In Ties political talk. You won't get them with Your Wacky Morning Zoo Here's Today's Celebrity Birthdays Coming Up Next A Phone Scam. Only an industry that encourages taking chances, that embraces innovation, that isn't locked into doing exactly what the competition is doing because you'd rather take a chunk of someone else's 25-54 billing than grow your own piece of the market...
...And there I go again, daydreaming. Sorry, I know, I'm talking to myself. I do that a lot. But I have a vested interest in encouraging the radio -- excuse me, the audio entertainment -- industry to grow and prosper. Radio has the resources to be the leader in developing talent for the next era. All it needs is the will to do it, and the desire.
Okay, back to reality: You have to do a show. You're looking at the big stories and thinking, no, this isn't going to work. You need something else to talk about. What to do? Here's what: Go to All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. It's all free, which is the best price.
Follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and visit the other site I edit, Nerdist.com. And watch "The Nerdist" on Saturday night at 10p (ET) on BBC America (or Sunday at 7p (ET) on Space in Canada). This week: director Guillermo del Toro talks about the upcoming "Pacific Rim," plus "Battlestar Galactica"'s Starbuck, Katee Sackhoff, and comedian Ron Funches. (Next week: season finale with Seth Rogen and Zach Galifianakis)
Reminder: Due to the Memorial Day weekend, Talk Topics will take an extra day off and be back for Tuesday morning. See you then.