And The Skies ARE Cloudy All Day, It Turns Out
July 25, 2014
You wanna talk about discouraging? Not mild setback disappointing, or Ryan Howard disappointing, but soul-sucking discouragement that takes the wind out of you and makes you wonder about the point of everything? Try sitting through a radio company's post- earnings announcement conference call. I try to avoid those when I can, because they always just leave me feeling like my brain's been bulk-erased, but, on occasion, because, as it turns out, I report for a trade publication, I have to take my turn dialing in and taking notes. Sometimes you get the short straw.
So I did that recently, and as I listened to a CFO try to spin another losing quarter and field analysts' questions that mostly indicated that the analysts just aren't seeing those big, unmissable red flags, I thought, man, I've been here before. I've been through all of it before, actually. I've been through stuff like this, and through making "wake up calls" about content and format 25 years ago that others are now, finally, echoing (I'm grateful for the company out here on this limb). And I always snap back from the discouragement, but this time, the babble led me to think a little more about what happened not just to radio in general but talk radio in particular and how we reached this discouraging moment.
I am not going to give you a primer on how consolidation and the growth of the largest radio operators and full-house major market clusters happened, but they did. What I'm thinking about is what the moves should have been back in the early '90s, the moves I was advocating back then that either never happened or happened too late. It's a given that, due to demographic preferences and shifts, talk radio should have been moved to FM back then, and, as I noted here not long ago, the response was that they didn't want to lose a revenue stream with a simulcast and, besides, what would they do with the AM station? And I've also noted the folly of slapping the AM format, targeted at an older audience, on FM and thinking that would do the trick. But there's another part to it.
See, at some point in the consolidation process -- early, I'd say -- the goal ceased to be winning. Back in the days when you had an AM and an FM, you went to war with the competition. You counter-programmed, you marketed, you pranked the competition's jocks, you showed up at their events, you battled for every dollar. And then you ended up with, say, 5 FMs and 3 AMs, and suddenly the goal wasn't to beat an individual station but to try to maximize value for shareholders and grow enough revenue to pay off the debt service (and maybe make up for another market where they weren't pulling their weight). And that led in turn to the idea of either building a "wall" of demographics -- like five flavors of Top 40 and AC covering women from birth to 65 -- or using full-market FMs not to win but to slice off a chunk of a competing market leader's ratings and revenue, a "flanker." This, with so many signals, might be a sound strategy; maybe L.A. doesn't NEED identical Top 40s or Alternative stations, but you can see why they did that. The problem is that by doing so, it eliminated the ability to use those signals to rescue News-Talk stations from shriveling on the rapidly aging and shrinking AM band. The thought was, there'll always be time for that. Now, 25 years later, those flankers are entrenched and there's no room for the Talk stations. By preserving the separate revenue streams, they managed to end up endangering one of them anyway.
The Internet, you say? Sure, that isn't a bad idea on the surface; it surely eliminates signal limitations and the buzz of electrical interference, and the kids, they love the streaming, right? But why would they listen to what standard talk radio has to offer? I've written about the stodgy, old-fart nature of "regular" talk radio, but what the delay in acting has additionally done is to destroy the brands. Ask yourself what a person under 40 thinks of when they hear the call letters of the heritage talk stations across the country. I'll give you a hint: If they have any image of it at all, it's that it's Dad's Station. It's not for them. And they've been given no reason to change their minds. THEIR talk radio involves streaming and podcasting that's made for the medium and made for their interests, whether it's Marc Maron or "This Week in Tech" or "Welcome to Night Vale," which is, in fact, a serial, a radio drama (okay, it's comedy), a form that their elders think died in the late 1940s. It's not the format and it's not the form, it turns out. It's the content, and the delivery vehicle doesn't matter, as long as it's not technically deficient, like AM (and PLEASE don't go with the "back when they made GOOD receivers" argument, because they DON'T make good receivers now and there's WAY more electrical interference and YOU KNOW THAT).
But if you're an analyst or investor, that's neither here nor there. All you care about is a) current performance and b) potential growth. And that's how you end up on a conference call not challenging the company's spin. You know a) isn't very good, and you're skeptical (or should be) about b) but you're in so deep that you have to pray that by stretching things out with refinancing, someday those Grand Digital Plans will become Better Than Pandora and Bigger Than Facebook. Because the alternative is to realize that you should have known better two decades ago, and nobody wants to admit that.
It's okay, however, to admit that sometimes, you don't know what to talk about on your show. Happens to the best. So, what do you do? Simple: Go to All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics for hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. It's like having an extra producer feeding you ideas. Can't hurt. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
We're coming up on the slowest of slow periods of the year, and if it's hard to write a column about radio every week for about 15 years so far, this, when people are taking time off or their heads are at the beach even when their bodies are in the studio, is even tougher. So if you have any topics you'd like to see me handle here, send them along. It would help, seeing as how MY mind's on vacation, too.