Existential Crisis, Radio Style, or Ennui Have A Problem
November 8, 2013
The Moment of Truth came while I was driving around town on my usual errands -- post office, grocery, bank, that sort of stuff. I had the radio on as usual, talk show on, host interviewing someone who'd written a book, when the thought hit me:
Why am I listening to this?
I ran down the possible answers in my mind. Entertaining? No, boring, really. Informative? Not about anything that was relevant to my existence. Essential? Oh, please. Final answer?
I changed the station.
And again, same result. I couldn't answer why I would listen to what I was hearing. The best I could muster was, well, it's background noise. It masks the engine rumble, the fan, the road noise. And when that's the best you can say, that's... not good.
I find myself thinking this about a lot of talk radio these days. If I don't think about it -- if I just let it drone on in the background and let it drift out of focus -- it stays on, but it's just there, hardly the "foreground medium" touted to advertisers. I'm not engaged at all. It's not speaking to me, or for me. And it's hardly like I'm one of those "younger listeners" I've been warning you that you're losing; maybe psychographically, I'm younger than my chronological age, but count the rings and I'm in that standard talk radio demo you've counted on for decades. I'm still bored with too many shows. Bored's better than turned off completely, but there's a good chunk of talk radio that does that, too -- shrill, predictable, angry without any hint of self-awareness or a sense of humor. It's enough to drive someone like me to music radio, or podcasts.
Yet there's the same problem in the new media, too. There are no programmers and precious little in the way of experienced, knowledgeable production help for podcasters, so you hear a lot of aimless self-indulgence. There's great material and there are entertaining shows out there, but when I hear the boring, the directionless, the bad, I wonder who's asleep at the switch and why nobody seems to notice.
I doubt the people responsible really care these days -- it seems so many shows and stations are being run on the basis of, well, as long as nobody complains, it's good enough -- but in case someone does, here's my unsolicited advice:
1. Ask yourself if your listeners will be interested in what you're talking about. Does it matter to them? Can you show them -- rapidly and constantly -- why they should care?
2. Ask yourself if YOU would listen. Is this entertaining to you, or is it just something that fills a segment?
3. Ask yourself if that interview is worth doing, Is the guest worth the time? Is he or she really an expert, or a big enough celebrity, or entertaining enough to carry a segment? Or, again, is this just a way to fill time and make your job easier?
4. Are you catering to your intended audience? By that, I mean: Is what you're doing appealing to the people you NEED to be listening, or are you taking the easy way out, as in a topic that will generate lots of phone calls from a small band of zealots but will turn off everyone else? You know the gun control/abortion rule -- never do those topics, because they get programmed, organized callers and nobody else will stay tuned. You know that you can stick a psychic on the air and get a ton of calls, but actual meter-carrying listeners will flee. You know that putting on a minor celebrity with nothing to say because they were made available by a publicist and they're promoting something is a mistake. But some hosts and stations can't resist.
This is the kind of stuff a strong producer will handle. Too many stations are without strong producers. For decades, they've stuck former interns and call screeners in the producer's slot by default. If you're one of those producers-by-chance, the best way to become a real, strong, professional producer is to help the host make the show better, and that includes recognizing when a topic or guest isn't going to do the job. It's really not hard if you grow to understand what the audience wants, and what the host's strengths are.
The bottom line, however, is still that I find myself increasingly wondering why, exactly, I'm listening to whatever's on the radio. If I'm thinking that about your show, you have mere seconds to convince me to stay. And there are millions of people thinking just the way I'm thinking, with plenty of alternatives, including your radio competition, streaming, podcasts, downloaded music, and blessed silence. If you're not constantly answering that question -- "Why am I listening to this?" -- for listeners, they'll answer for themselves with a push of a button. Be relevant, be entertaining, be interesting. There's the right answer.
And if you want to be entertaining, you have to find topics that work. That's what All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is all about. Go there for stuff you can use to make people WANT to listen. Get there by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where every story is individually linked to the appropriate item. For free. Which is good.
For once, I got this thing done on time. I think that deserves a little celebration. Can we move Thanksgiving up a couple of weeks?