Restoring the Magic
June 14, 2013
There's a great anecdote about radio from, of all people, Rick Moranis on the Nerdist Podcast this week. (Listen to the whole show here; there are a lot of "SCTV" and "Ghostbusters" stories, as well as why he walked away from acting while still getting steady work, and that will be worth a column on its own) Anyway, Moranis started in Toronto radio, and he told a story about being a jock at CHUM-FM in the '70s. Unsurprisingly, one of the top-testing songs on the station was "Stairway to Heaven," and the station played it incessantly. It was while playing it yet again that Rick took a call from a listener who requested... yep. Rick told him that the song was playing that very minute and the guy said he knew that and wanted to hear it again. Puzzled, Rick asked him if he owned a copy of the album, and the guy said he did. Why, then, wouldn't he just play the record for himself?
"I want to hear it on the radio."
And that, in a nutshell, has been the romance and allure of radio. It's undefinable, but it's been that way since Marconi. Something you can hear elsewhere just gives you a different feeling when it's on the radio. Things are changing, though. I don't know if that thrill of hearing something on the AM or FM dial exists for anyone under 30. But I bet that it does, just a little, maybe diminishing but still there.
This goes to both attracting new people to the business and to drawing and keeping new listeners as well. The challenge radio faces is to keep the flame burning, to keep people coming back and listening to music, talk, and news that they can get elsewhere via podcasts and MP3s and streaming and customized services, just because they "want to hear it on the radio."
Can that happen? I mean, anyone -- ANYONE -- can do a talk show now using what's already built into their computers. You just talk into the mic and upload it. Same for video; some of the biggest hits on YouTube are vlogs with people just talking in front of their webcams. I know that the people who own the sticks and transmitters and licenses aren't thinking about this at all and probably don't care, but they should, because if their true end game is to preserve and increase the value of what they own so they can ultimately get out with an adequate return (and, in the meantime, make their debt service), they need to keep radio a viable competitor. Telling everyone "look at the ratings! It's all okay!" isn't enough; ad sales are moving towards different metrics and media. Trying to pass off radio as an "integrated multimedia sales platform" won't fool anyone, either, not when radio station websites are, to put it mildly, mostly massive piles of fail, sporadically updated and looking closer to a GeoCities design than something from 2013. It's about the product you're selling, which is, ultimately, radio. And if it's going to be viable in the long run, if there's going to be more than de minimis growth, if the value of stations is going to be in their worth as a communications medium rather than the value to speculators of the bandwidth they use, the magic of "I heard it on the radio" has to come back.
How do you do that? For one thing, you stress personality, whether it's talk or, especially, on music stations, where, as the old WIBG jingle went, it's what's between the music that counts. You make your stations and your shows seem like fun, interesting, exciting places to be. You bring back the show, because this IS, it turns out, show business. You know, maybe this is a question best addressed to new people coming in from outside, fresh ears, who can tell you what "real people" want to hear that they're not getting now. But that means attracting new people to the business, and that brings us back to making radio alluring again, which is the point of the whole exercise, and I have a headache. And maybe this is a futile exercise and we can't bring back the magic. Yet, if you ask people on the street if they'd want to be on the radio, I bet they'd all say, sure, I'd do it. They CAN do it right now on their computers, but they'd still love to do it on old, creaky, antique radio. Why? Because there's still a little flicker of a flame there. They can't tell you why, but they want to hear it on the radio. And as long as that feeling is still there, there's hope.
I'm back from my semi-hiatus and All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, is back in full operation. 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.
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. (Oh, yeah, disclaimer about that Nerdist Podcast reference in the beginning of the column: I work for Nerdist, too. You knew that, but, you know, for the record....)
And before I go, here's a shout to everyone I got to see on my east coast trip -- it's always nice to see my radio friends and acquaintances in person when I can. I really should get out of the house more. If I missed you, sorry -- the schedule was packed -- but there's always next time.....