June 28, 2013
If you watched the NBA draft this week, you saw the team I follow pretty much blow itself up and start over. The way pro basketball teams do that is to go to the draft, trade away their remaining stars for draft picks, and resign themselves to a year or two of suckitude while they stockpile more picks and call it "rebuilding." Some fans won't put up with that, and it's always a massive gamble -- it might not work -- but if the team eventually does start to win again, those fans will be back and proclaiming that they were with the program all along.
But, again, it's a gamble. And it comes from the realization that you've gone as far as you can go with what you have. In this case, the new General Manager of the Sixers -- yes, despite it all, I'm still a Sixers fan -- looked at the prospect of the next few years if they kept their lone all-star and probably realized that, well, we can't build around him and get anywhere past maybe the first round of the playoffs. That would, if that's how it played out, doom the team to semi-permanent mediocrity. (Considering what they've been like for several years, that would also be known as "more of the same.") So off goes their most familiar name to New Orleans, in come a college star with a torn ACL and a rookie point guard because you have to actually play the games while you're rebuilding, and it's going to be a long season as they play their way into having potentially two lottery draft picks next year. The Celtics are playing the same game, only they're perennially a contender and they traded two superstars, so they're dropping from a greater height. But both teams are sacrificing the present for the promise of a much better future.
Talk radio doesn't do that. For one thing, there isn't a draft, and there's also no salary cap (not officially, anyway). But there are times I wish stations would blow things up, start over, rebuild. Of course, when stations do that, people in this industry decry it. Why, they say, look at that -- they're destroying everything! Heritage, gone in a flash! Veteran hosts, out! Listeners fleeing in droves! Disaster! They don't know what they're doing! You know the examples. And, invariably, there's panic, and either the station goes further in the tank from subsequent "repairs" or flees the format. And then radio folks go back to wishing that it was 1968.
Surely, some of the format blow-ups we've seen were ill-advised. But some stations need that treatment. Most people only see the 6+ ratings, but when you have a talk station and your 25-54 numbers are steadily declining and that 6+ number comes from growth in 65+, what are you supposed to do, wait until it's way too late? That's what most talk radio stations are doing right this very minute, holding onto fossilized lineups and old fart imaging and the old ways because, well, billing might be down but there's still a profit and we can't endanger that, can we? But I'd argue that waiting too long to address a problem DOES endanger profits, not this quarter (I know, that's all investors care about) but long-term. Waiting will ensure mediocrity. Or worse.
This, then, is, to me, a time when talk radio needs to shake things up. I don't mean politically, either -- I don't think political talk radio or conservative talk radio are dead by any means. But the demographics are inarguable, and the trends are right there in front of us. Not every station needs to jettison everything, but it's time for something new, isn't it? How many entertainment forms -- that IS what we are, right? -- stay the same for 30 or 40 years? Music changes. Movies change. Television changes. Even the Internet's changed in the last decade. Talk radio? Same people -- even when new people come in, they sound just like what's already there -- and same topics and same imaging and same everything. For the sake of the format, new stuff has to happen, and there has to be patience to let the new thing take hold. Even businesspeople who answer to Wall Street and try to recast their operations as "digital" have to recognize when it's time to develop something new.
So, as a fan of talk radio, I'm hoping that some brave PD will look at those numbers and realize that it's time to go into rebuilding mode. That's how we'll get the next superstars, not from just replacing parts but from, to use a cliche I really despise, thinking outside the box. New voices, new topics, new sounds... even new clocks (do we ALL have to break at the same time?). And as industry people and fans, we have to cut those who take that gamble some slack and support the effort. Otherwise, we're a perennial just-missed-the-playoffs mediocrity. I've had enough of that in basketball, and I don't want that for talk radio, too.
If you're a host and you're looking for something different to talk about, try All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments and stupid jokes and stuff right there for the taking. Find it all by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item.
No column next week -- I'll be off celebrating the big holiday, meaning, of course, my birthday. (I should have known the fireworks weren't for me -- they're always a day early.) Enjoy the week, and we'll reconvene in two weeks' time. See you then.