Finding a Pulse
August 9, 2013
Lately, the "radio is dead" chorus has been a little quiet, which has cleared the way for another chant to be heard: "TALK radio is dead." And in the last few weeks, there's been evidence presented to that effect, namely sharp declines in listening for some talk stations in the PPM numbers, the pending flip of IQ 106.9 in Philadelphia to Contemporary Christian, and the continuing soap opera between Premiere and Cumulus over Rush 'n' Sean. Some of the troubles are real, some of the overt joy some folks seem to have about this is politically motivated, and some of the discussion misses the point entirely. Let's go over some of it now, okay? Okay:
1. Talk radio isn't dead. It's not like everyone woke up one day and said, you know, I don't like talk radio anymore. Indeed, looking at the PPM numbers, you'd have to believe hundreds of thousands of people in a market decided to bail from talk radio and completely abandon radio, period, all at once, not only turning off the talk station but turning off all stations, because there's no obvious place they went. There are problems, and Lord knows I've bent your ear over and over about the need to reorient programming to address younger audiences and FM and all that, but absent information about the PPM sampling, changes in panels, and accounting for other variables, you can't be shoveling dirt on the format quite yet.
2. This might just be a Golden Age for talk. It doesn't matter if the big shows are in decline or not. It's an era when you can find people doing compelling talk shows on practically every topic and subcategory there is. Want to hear people talk about parenting? There are shows about parenting. Woodworking? Yep. Analysis of TV shows, or obsessive fantasy sports discussion, or deep-dive economics discussions? You can have it all, some on demand as podcasts, some streaming, some on -- gasp! -- "real" radio. The key is that it's not just broadcast commercial radio. It's not even just American radio. The Internet may have screwed up the terrestrial radio business plan, and we may not yet be at the point where the plan for online audio is profitable, but, content-wise, you can find plenty to listen to, from general to specific, politics to culture, science to comedy, and much of it is very, very good. On the other hand...
3. You can't keep cutting budgets and expect it not to affect what you do. Local talk stations sometimes forget the value of seizing on local and state issues and not letting go. That's the secret -- actually, not a secret, but too many stations don't seem to understand it -- behind some of the nation's top local shows and stations. It's not merely having a local host; a local guy talking about national issues might as well be replaced by syndication. It's about issues that affect listeners at home, from taxes to potholes to schools and transit. And the ultra-secret is one I'll whisper just to you, okay? Here: News. Having a strong local news department that doesn't just rip-and-read but actually goes out and covers stories and asks questions and gets sound from the Mayor and the cops and union leaders and regular people is critical. Why? Not just for the top of the hour, but doing that provides the hosts with compelling and exclusive material. Your local news department can dig for elements of stories that the local paper might miss and the wires won't have. You want a must-listen show that works for ratings and, critically, local advertisers? A strong host provided with strong and exclusive local news content leads to owning hot stories. And that makes a show, and station, must-listen, even in a fragmented radio landscape.
4. Take the other media's reports about the demise of talk radio with a grain of salt. There ARE significant problems for radio, but the reports in other media come from people who a) don't really understand the radio medium and b) are competing with radio. A lot of it is ideological wishful thinking, and they tend to quote the same "experts" over and over and over while everyone ignores the reality: One host's rising and falling, or even a dozen hosts' fluctuations, don't mean the format or even the political slant is dead. It just means that radio hasn't done a good job developing the next wave of shows. And THAT doesn't mean that it won't, only that it hasn't, and as a result, there's fear that if any of the Big Guys was to disappear, there'd be nothing left. Just remember -- it's not the political position, it's not the format, it's purely about whether you're entertaining people enough to attract and hold them. It's not delicate microsurgery. The Next Big Thing in talk radio may -- probably will -- hit out of nowhere. It's happened before.
5. Take the other media's -- and our own -- doom and gloom scenarios for radio in general with a grain of salt. Yes, I know, I'm among the critics. But let's be honest: It's not like every other medium isn't having a problem, either. Did you see the bath the New York Times took in selling the Boston Globe -- the Boston Globe!! -- and the pocket change Jeff Bezos spent for the Washington Post? Have you noticed consolidation in television, like Sinclair buying up Fisher and Allbritton? Did you notice that AOL is closing a third of its hyperlocal Patch.com sites? No medium is impervious to the changes in marketing theory. Everybody in the media -- you, me, the CEOs, the talent, the investors, everyone -- is still feeling their way through it. Anyone who professes to know the future is guessing, some more wildly than others. I'm certain that IP delivery, on demand media will be a part of the mix, but broadcast signals will, too. We just don't know exactly how.
So, cancel the funeral and look forward. There's a silver lining here. We still need to be open about confronting the format's problems, and the medium's shaky future, but buying into the messages of doom won't change things for the better, either.
Since talk radio is not yet dead (wait, lemme check the pulse... yep, still going), you have to do a show. And you can find all sorts of stuff to talk about on your show at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, your one-stop shop for talk and personality radio material, available by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. News items, kicker stories, trend reports, sports, science, it's all there, and free, too. And read "10 Questions With..." Ray Rossi, now the late-night host at New Jersey 101.5, who talks about his journey from Top 40 jock to Country to talkin' Jersey, with partners and now solo.
Okay, so, next week, back to the negative. Oh, come on, just kidding. I don't set out to be either positive or negative, just honest about what I'm thinking right now. Come to think of it, that would make a good credo for a talk radio host, wouldn't it?