The Shock of the New
June 7, 2013
I realize that the expectation everyone has for my columns after every conference and convention is for me to come here and complain and gamble and kvetch about how nobody in the industry gets it and we're doomed. I know that it's sort of what I do, my calling card. Yet today, the day after yet another talk radio event, I'm feeling strangely... well, maybe "optimistic" isn't the word. "Charitable?" How about "not terribly disgusted?" Yeah, something like that.
But it has nothing to do with the seminar, which was full of the same stuff we always hear. Let me get the negatives out of the way first: major talent blowing off "digital" and social media as a distraction that doesn't make them money and only competes with their primary job (memo: that's now part of your primary job, it's a different discipline, and if you think it competes with your show, you don't understand how these things work); sales folks focusing on the traditional sales metrics and sort of dismissing the results-based, highly-targeted sales focus of digital (and assuming that Pandora is the primary enemy; guys, you don't even know your "enemies"); attendance a little down again, and the same people as always being there; a lack of representation from the more successful streamers and podcasters (the number should be more than the low single digits); and practically no tweeting from the event (three people other than me -- yeah, talk radio people are right there at the cutting edge! Some are considering taking the plunge and getting a pager next year!). In short, it was the usual stuff from the usual suspects.
Somehow, I still came away with a measure of positive thinking, and, oddly enough, it came from a conversation in which Walter Sabo said something I've heard him say several times before. He was noting the fact that the radio industry in other countries -- he cited Australia, I believe, but I know they do this elsewhere -- includes in its annual awards categories for "Best New Format" and "Best New Talent" and "Best New Technology," yet we don't do that in the U.S. And, well, yeah, there's never been a lot of encouragement for people taking chances in this business.
Think about it. What happens when someone tries a format that's even slightly off the beaten path? I know, because I was part of it. It's simple: you get ridiculed and attacked. In 1990, we put New Jersey 101.5 on the air and people laughed -- talk, on FM, with (at the time) the occasional oldie mixed in, talking about just New Jersey stuff? Can't work, embarrassing, should have done "The Best Mix Of The '70s, '80's, and Today." Yet 23 years later, that "embarrassing" format is doing better than ever. Jeff Smulyan, who I differ with on a lot of things, put an all-Sports format on WFAN in 1987 and you can go back and find a lot of people -- a majority, I'd say -- who thought it would not work. You know the rest. There were people who didn't think Rush Limbaugh in syndication would work -- didn't ABC try syndicated talk and fail? How could it work? -- and Howard Stern couldn't take his New York show into D.C. and Philly and L.A. and make it work. But he did. The idea of "talk for women" -- let's not get into THAT debate here -- was dismissed as various attempts at it flopped, but somehow myTalk 107.1 -- non-political, lifestyle, pop culture and gossip -- in the Twin Cities chugs along over a decade later. Yet, according to most people in radio, none of this happened, because it couldn't work.
So, where's the positivity? Simple: I believe in people. I believe that, somewhere, someone else will be brave and creative and try something new, whether it's because of a deeply-held conviction that it will work or out of sheer desperation. I believe that it will happen, whether it's on terrestrial radio or satellite or online. As music radio faces more competition (free advice for the sales folks there: while you panic over Pandora, young listeners are discovering new music on... YouTube. Yup.), there will be a need to find new spoken word or hybrid options, and someone will try something that, yes, will get trashed and dismissed by the "experts" but will be given some time to succeed, and it will. Maybe it'll be more lifestyle talk. Maybe someone will try a business news format that ISN'T dry and filled with gold-selling hucksters, something more like CNBC or Fox Business or a full-time Wall Street Journal Radio as a format. Maybe it'll be talk for young guys that ISN'T Stern-wannabes but instead talks about MMA and movies and X-Games and "Game of Thrones" and the other stuff that a 20-year-old guy actually cares about. Maybe it'll be a talk station that gets rid of traditional spot ads and sells live reads and other integrated ads that cater to the PPM by giving listeners no reason to tune away when commercials loom. Maybe it'll be something devised by someone more creative than I am. (Lord, I hope so.) But there are a million niches, there are different ways of doing things, and, whether by design or accident, someone's gonna get there. It might take new ownership -- people whose goal isn't to cash out in a year or two -- but it can happen. I have to believe that.
So, I'm not focusing on the stuff others focused on there -- the Limbaugh sales effect and all that. And I'm not going to over-celebrate the past like everyone else in this business seems to want to do -- the old days were fun, but, guys, it's 2013 and your listeners don't care how it used to be done, not when they have infinite new choices for their spoken-word audio entertainment. The future is what interests me. I want to believe we have one. And I want to believe that, at some point, the industry, realizing that, after all this angst, we're still here, will start to look not just at the present bottom line but towards the future. I know, crazy talk, but I can dream.
I'm still on the east coast, so it's a few more days for the hiatus at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind. I have added a few items while floating around my ancestral homeland of the Mid-Atlantic States and indulging in the Junk Food Trinities (cheesesteak, Tastykakes, soft pretzel), and, I might do more, but I'll be at full strength next Tuesday (June 11th). Until then, still drop by to see what's there by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. And there's a new "10 Questions With..." Spike Eskin, who doubles as a host at WIP-FM in Philadelphia and as the Sports Editor at CBS Philly, the combined website of WIP, KYW, WPHT, and KYW-TV. As someone who did music radio for years before moving to the spoken-word side, and who is very strong on social media, Spike's someone worth reading about and watching.
Thanks for indulging my semi-absence at the Topics page, and, again, I'll be back as usual on Tuesday. See you then.