January 24, 2014
Say you could start over. Let's try it this way: Radio as we know it is gone, but the technology is as it exists now. You have Internet streaming, towers and transmitters, all that is as it stands now, but the programming is an empty set. They hand you the keys and tell you that you can do anything you want with it.
What would you do?
Would you rebuild everything the way radio is today? Would it have long stop sets, More Music Less Talk, thunderous production, voice tracking (you still, after all, have to save and make money), the Best Variety of the '80s, '90s and Today, Guys in Ties bloviating about politics, allegedly wacky morning shows? Or would you do something else?
It's an interesting exercise. We've gotten to the present state of radio through a combination of trial-and-error, experience, financial exigency, dumb luck, brilliant strategy, research, and evolution. But is it the best way we can do the medium, or is it something now fossilized and hidebound because "we've always done it this way"?
I think it's a mix of the two, but if anyone asks me (hint: nobody asks me), I'd say that we're way, way overdue for someone to come in and shake things up. And we can get to that point by imagining an empty lot and building something from the ground up.
If I had to do that, I think the first thing I'd do is look at it from the listeners' standpoint. Our experience tells us that they'll say they want one thing -- more variety, not the same old songs, more varied viewpoints -- and then behave the opposite way -- smaller playlists and tighter rotations win. But that's minor. There are things that they say and back up with measured behavior, yet we don't listen. Take stop sets. Listeners say they don't like too many commercials, and the meters show them bailing when the commercials come on. That does the listeners and the clients a disservice. But it's always been done this way -- clusters of units at certain times in the clock. Changing that is a huge project that includes advertisers, rep firms, agencies, salespeople, managers... but, ultimately, it has to happen. If competing media limit commercial breaks or find other ways to monetize, radio can't keep serving up those interminable stop sets. So, step one, sponsored hours, very limited commercial interruption, live spots (especially for talk radio) integrated into the flow of the content.
The role of personality would also come into play. Competitors have zero personality? They're just jukeboxes? Okay, there's an audience for that, but there's plenty of audience for shows with real people and interesting content beyond ten-in-a-row. As I've pointed out too many times in this column, it's one of radio's chief strategic advantages. Broadcast radio is driving that talent away and not replenishing the pool, and as a result the people to whom your audience would listen are ending up elsewhere -- podcasts, streaming, satellite, video, or entirely out of the media. I'd hire people with something to say and give them all the coaching, support, and leeway they need to make big, entertaining programming. (Coaching and support are what you can provide that podcasters and streamers would kill to get. It's fun to be without a boss or station or restrictions... to a point. Then, you need guidance.)
For talk, hey, here's an opportunity. Clear the decks and start hiring based on entertainment value first, ideology second. Sure, there'll be room for all-conservative or all-liberal talk in the New World of Radio, but most people aren't in those narrow (and rapidly aging) cores. I'd start over with hosts who aren't predictable.
And so on. Local vs. national/syndicated, different target audiences for talk, music formats that land outside the present definitions, whatever. Sometimes, the best way to proceed isn't defined by where you've been, it's defined by where you want to go.
And if you want to go the route of compelling talk radio, where better to find stuff about which to wax creative than All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics? I've prepared hundreds of items that might stir some ideas for segments on your show, and kicker stories beyond what the usual sites have. Find it here. The Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. It's all free. And there's "10 Questions With..." SuperTalk Mississippi's WFMM-WLAU/Laurel-Hattiesburg OM and host Michael Mergens, who talks about his unusual path through music radio to talk, as well as fronting a band at the same time.
And 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. And pmsimon.com, too, back to intermittent updates with a new design.
Last week, I mentioned technical difficulties that caused email trouble here; this week, I had some more email trouble, because Apple Mail. (Anyone who uses it will understand.) Anyway, if you sent something and I didn't respond or it bounced back, try, try again. Seriously, I might switch to regular mail if this continues. Or telegrams. They don't still have telegrams, do they?