What's New? Oh, Not Much. Nothing, Really
October 11, 2013
On Thursday, I delivered a version of the following as an introductory presentation for a panel at the Talkers Conference in Hollywood. Before I did it, I told friends that I expected about half boos and maybe a smattering of applause. They were too polite to boo, but I got pretty much the disdain from the audience that I expected; it wasn't what they wanted to hear. (And, in fairness, plenty of people told me they agreed and liked it, too. But the uncomfortable shifting in their seats of the audience, and the craning of necks from the adjacent lobby of people trying to figure out what the heck was going on, was, I'll admit, entertaining.) However, I thought they needed to hear it, because after decades of the same old thing... well, read it and you'll understand:
See, that's the problem.
Let's face it, the talk radio format hasn't had anything new and different since, oh, say...
Well, I have some dates for that.
Sports radio: WFAN, 1987.
FM Talk: WWDB, 1975; New Jersey 101.5, 1990.
"Guy Talk" as a format: The Loop AM, 1987. Real Radio 104.1, 1993.
Even talk geared towards a female audience: MyTalk 107.1, 2003.
Get the picture? There hasn't been anything new in talk radio for at least a decade, and since MyTalk hasn't been followed by any other stations in that genre, we're really talking about twenty years or more.
Even the imaging hasn't changed. The most modern, youngest-sounding traditional talk station imaging is KFI's, and that's based on a song that was a hit in 1984.
Think about that. The YOUNGEST imaging is based on a song that was out before more than half of the 18-34 demo was even born. It's a 29 year old song. A 35 year old was six years old when that song was a hit.
It seems to me that talk radio went flying right past being "your dad's radio." It went directly to being grandpa's radio.
And just hiring young hosts who still talk about the same political topics in the same way with the same style and same attitude that Rush was using in 1988 isn't going to change things. Neither is moving the same old AM stuff to FM and thinking that it'll instantly be a 25-54 juggernaut. You can't put a tired, played-out, old fart show on an FM frequency and think that a 35 year old will listen.
The problem isn't the age of the people in the format. The problem is the age of the programming. There's nothing new here.
Ah, but there IS new talk radio. It's just not happening on the radio. Or in this room. Last weekend, across town, there was a hotel full of people making the next generation of spoken word radio. It was the L.A. Podfest, and they had ballrooms packed with fans watching their favorite... well, podcasts, but, really, they're radio shows. And they've generated their own stars, including some people who used to work in radio, and a lot who haven't. There were shows for all kinds of audiences. There's even one that has a fan base of teenage girls. It's spoken word, and, no, it's not about Miley Cyrus or anything else stereotypical in pop culture. Believe it or not, it's a fictional newscast. I kid you not. And it's huge with the audience that loves the Twilight Saga. In short, at that hotel, with just a small sample of the countless spoken word podcasts in the market, I saw young adult listeners you can only dream of reaching.
How many talk radio people were there? Phil Hendrie, me, and a couple of others. That's it.
Where were you, talk radio programmers? Where were you, corporate programmers, syndicators, people looking for new talent? You needed to be there. And you weren't. And, meanwhile, talk radio's ratings are in freefall and the demographics are worse than ever.
This, then, is the challenge. You're sitting here talking about the same old stuff. Talk radio as it's practiced by the people in this room isn't dead yet, but its growth curve is, well, not pretty. But there's a huge appetite for spoken word entertainment among the younger demographics that aren't bothering with traditional talk radio.
So, then, what's the plan? I don't know about you, but I want to have hope for the future. Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, instead of wishing for the good old days, instead of deluding myself that today's thirty-somethings will suddenly turn into their parents just like we did and embrace old guys in ties talking about Obama and Boehner, I prefer to look forward. I know that there's compelling programming that will take talk radio into the next decade and beyond, whether it's on a broadcast signal or an Internet stream or a podcast. You can join me and look forward and embrace change, or you can stick with business as usual and wait for the 2016 election ratings bump. It's your choice. But whatever you do, try to come up with a new idea while you're at it. Twenty years of the same old thing just isn't cutting it anymore.
Well, there you go. And now, the plug for All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where I'm posting stuff that any show, old school or new wave, can talk about. Go take a look by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where every story is individually linked to the appropriate item. It's all free, too.
Next week: rainbows and unicorns and cotton candy clouds. Or the usual. Not sure yet.