Playing the Room
August 8, 2014
It's not like anyone was surprised by the Pittsburgh flip, the FM talker dumping the format for Country, the lineup moving to an AM station. I mean, I even alluded to it the other week -- when I wrote about using stations in a cluster to do the same format as a competitor's already doing, it was in reference to this move. I'm not claiming to have had special knowledge, though, because a lot of people seemed to know. "Hey," I'd hear from multiple people, out of the blue, for a while now, "so, 'PGB in Pittsburgh's going Country?" By the time it happened, it felt like it had flipped weeks ago. But, yeah, that was my inspiration, because I was thinking, sure, another Country station, why not? Because Florida-Georgia Line sounds WAY different on 104.7 then it does on 107.9. Of course, it could be a hit, they could see a vulnerability in the established competition, there could be room for another Country station, but it's still another Country station and a loss for Talk that, when it came, wasn't much of a shock.
Yet, the move wasn't a surprise for another reason. I thought that the station had been doomed for years, because it did something a lot of FM Talk converts did over the years: It slapped the old AM format, replete with AM syndicated hosts and AM imaging, on an FM facility and expected that it would do big numbers with younger demos. That's happened in very limited situations, but, mostly, that's not how things pan out. Instead, younger audiences don't listen, the 65-plus group looks for talk on another AM station, and, eventually, management declares the experiment a failure and you get Florida-Georgia Line on the FM.
But that comes from a failure not of the concept of talk on FM but from management and a lack of imagination and common sense. It comes down to a simple idea that seems to be lost on broadcasters sometimes: Your programming, marketing, and imaging need to be appealing to the audience you both want and can reach. If you want a 35 year old guy to listen, some old guy (or some young guy who sounds like your dad complaining about Congress at the dinner table) ranting about inside-the-Beltway issues isn't going to do the job. We've discussed that here before, haven't we? Like, a thousand times over however many columns I've written over 15 years?
Yet that's not how it went for the majority of FM Talk attempts. There are exceptions -- Bonneville's FM talkers, for example, or myTalk in the Twin Cities and a few others -- and the Sports format is pretty good at being more appealing to a younger target (and when it isn't, it opens a hole for someone else to come in and take advantage, like in Boston). But if the format is going to get a stay of execution on broadcast radio and even -- gasp! -- grow, it's going to have to change more than the band on which it broadcasts.
(Oh, a word about FM translators -- better than nothing when everyone in your market lives and works within, say, a 10 mile radius of the transmitter, but kind of useless in a geographically large market. And when you have the latter and promote "NOW ON FM!," all you do is tick people off when you do that and they can't get a decent signal.)
All right, so, you're putting the format on FM. Great. What do you do then, fire everyone over 40? No, because it's not the age of the host, it's the relevancy of the conversation. Howard Stern still works for young audiences. Some of the top podcast and streaming hosts are... not under 40, and let's leave it at that. It's not the age, it's what they're talking about. Hire people who are still able to relate to the things in which your target audience is interested, and give them the space and freedom to do it in a way that appeals to the target. If that means that the GM doesn't get it and his or her 50-something friends say that they don't like it, well, so be it. It's not for them. It's for the people you want to reach.
Which is obvious, but Pittsburgh and other FM Talkers that didn't ultimately last are testament to the fact that not everyone who needs to know that actually knows it. Same for imaging, same for marketing. And all of that is not easy and costs money and means that it's still easier to play Florida-Georgia Line and 10,000 commercial-free songs in a row (man, we really haven't learned our lessons -- remember The Apple?) and keep the chatter to a minimum because you can't get in trouble with voice-tracked liners about the on-sale date for the next Luke Bryan concert. And that's another roadblock for talk radio right there -- not getting in trouble, which opens the spoken word category up for competition from.... ah, well, that's another column right there....
Whatever you're putting on the air, you need topics. Lots of topics. And you will find lots of topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics. Hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. It's the extra producer you need. Wanna look? Click here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and at some point, I'll be updating pmsimon.com again.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures, and, no, I've never met Godzilla or Batman), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Blah blah blah next week's column blah. (It's August. That's the best I can do.)