What Happened, And Where We're Going
April 25, 2014
You're missing the point.
By "you," I'm talking about the people who got lathered up this week over talk radio ratings and billing and Rush Limbaugh and "Stop Rush" and all that. You know what that was? Irrelevant, really. Some of it was wishful thinking by liberal hosts and consultants -- yes, the Rush situation sure did ruin everything for hosts who couldn't even get ratings BEFORE that, huh? -- and some of it was true insofar as some advertisers did pull out and not return, but that was ultimately happening whether or not Rush ever said anything about Sandra Fluke. And it didn't kill conservative talk radio, or liberal talk radio, or Rush or anything else, because none of that is what's truly ailing the format, not really.
Your smoking gun isn't any boycott or political philosophy or tone of discourse. It's demographics. That's the heart of it. Despite several voices -- including my own, as loud as I could make it -- calling for the industry to pay heed to the danger of aging along with the target audience, radio did it anyway. It stuck with the political talk, the guys-in-suits, the idea that the politics and not the entertainment value was what drove listenership, the idea that any other kind of talk "won't work because (failed format experiment 10 years earlier) didn't work," and, especially, the AM band.
And here we are.
You're better off, talk radio people, if you take stock of what's happened in a more constructive way. It's less about schadenfreude and more about what should have been done and what you can do now. Here are a few thoughts in that regard:
1. You have to be where the people are. And by "the people," I mean the audience that will lead to little things like advertising sales and growth. That's not the 65+ demographic. So, you have to at least be on FM, and online, too.
2. You have to give the people what they want. That means that when you DO go on FM, or online, you can't just slap the same old-guy programming on an FM signal and declare victory. That will lower your demos in the initial stage, but, long term, you have to reach the available audience, and if those people are younger, AM-style talk will not get those younger ears. You'll just have a clearer, better signal for those old-folks demos. You need to find out what people in their, say, 30s and 40s (or younger) are into, and give that to them. (I was gratified, by the way, to note that KFI showed up to last weekend's WonderCon in Anaheim for live broadcasts. Showing up where the next generations of listeners are congregating is a very good move.)
3. You can't assign this to politics. It wasn't really about politics, it was about entertainment. It still is. The people who thought all you had to do was plug any old conservative in and you win, or those who decried conservatism and thought lining up a bunch of liberals would be good counterprogramming, all missed the point. Be entertaining, fun, infuriating, colorful, whatever. It doesn't matter what political pundits and Capitol Hill papers think.
4. Speaking of labels, what IS talk radio anyway? Now, it means old angry conservative guys. But that's because that's how YOU defined it. I'll go back to an old Walter Sabo trick that we did in New Jersey 24 years ago: We didn't call what we were doing "talk radio." Our format wasn't talk radio. Our format definition never mattered to the listeners because we didn't tell them what it was. We were just New Jersey 101.5, and let people define us themselves. I was reminded of that this week when LA Weekly posted an article sort of decrying KROQ for playing songs that "aren't alternative to anything," assuming that listeners, like people in the trade, care. But if KROQ plays it, it's KROQ music. Simple as that. Any other label is for those in the industry. Same for talk radio. Is Tampa's The Bone "talk radio," same as WFLA? No. The very name "talk radio" is loaded, so let's drop it. It's spoken-word radio, but we don't have to call it that, or anything. Just do what you do and forget labels.
5. And what IS radio, anyway? We've been through this before, but I'll say it again: Unless you own the license and transmitter, radio is no longer defined by the transmission medium. It's broadcast, it's satellite, it's podcasting and streaming. It's audio of any kind. As we all gravitate towards buttons on a dashboard screen or on a smartphone, HOW you get to a listener will be less important, and the quality of your content will be paramount. We're moving in that direction, and if the money's still mostly on the broadcast side, things change.
There's more, which is why this column's weekly. But for now, it's important to focus on the fact that while some folks are still arguing about the old paradigm, there are huge opportunities right in front of you. What's happened to the old guard is less important than what you can do moving forward.
Want ideas for stuff to talk about on your show? All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is here with hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Oh, yeah, there's also "10 Questions With..." Steve Gorman, who has two jobs, one as a very successful rocker -- drummer for the Black Crowes -- and the other as host of his own "Steve Gorman SPORTS!" on Fox Sports Radio, and you really can't find a cooler combination of careers, can you?
And another reminder: My wife Fran and I are once again walking in the Revlon Run/Walk for Women, a cancer research/treatment fundraiser in Los Angeles, on May 10th. Time's a-wastin' and if you're interested in donating to support research and treatment of breast cancer and other women's cancers, it's time. Please go to http://do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon2014 and support the cause. To those of you who have contributed in the past, and those who have done so this year or are planning to do so, thank you.