August 15, 2014
There was something mentioned in passing on Larry Gifford's fine Radio Stuff podcast this week that struck me as interesting. Larry mentioned a show that told him that they didn't want to touch the Robin Williams story because they're a sports show and it wasn't what they normally talk about. It's similar to things I've encountered with other hosts, and a problem that I think talk radio has with enough frequency to indicate that it's more than just a small problem. Simply, it's what happens when you have hosts who either don't have or don't trust their instincts as to what their audience wants to hear.
The Robin Williams story was a glaring, obvious example. EVERYONE had a reaction to the horrible news. I happened to be in the office at my other job when the news broke, and the pall that came over everyone was remarkable. Nobody wanted to believe it, and everyone was in shock. It was the only news that anyone cared about at that moment. It transcended entertainment news, it transcended formats, it was the lead story in life as well as in the news. And that a host in ANY format would think that it was untouchable, that it wasn't something that his or her audience wanted to hear on that station at that time, is a strong indication that someone needs to work on knowing what that audience really cares about.
That comes with experience, in radio and in life. It's one reason one of my main instructions to talent when I was programming and producing was that the best show prep was to go out, live your life, and then bring THAT into the studio. That meant doing what the audience does, seeing life the way they do, and being able to gauge what's meaningful in that context. If the barista at Starbucks and the people in line are talking about Robin Williams -- and they were, no doubt -- you talk about that. If the people at the next table at Subway are discussing Ferguson -- and they were -- you talk about that, too.
The Ferguson shooting was, in fact, another defining moment for the media, one of the prime "The Whole World Is Watching" moments. It was most jarring on Twitter, where, at the height of tensions, with tear gas being lobbed at both protestors and TV crews, with a militarized police force in a standoff with the citizenry, with reporters being roughed up and arrested, any tweets NOT about what was going on there seemed totally out of place. You could excuse the occasional Ice Bucket Challenge post, I guess, but the news out of Missouri was being debated internationally, and it was hard NOT to talk about it.
And most radio talk shows did ultimately talk about Ferguson and about Robin Williams, some quite well, some not so well (hint: Robin Williams' suicide was not a political story). But I heard some shows avoid one or the other or both topics, for whatever reason. Perhaps it "didn't fit the format." Perhaps a programmer or consultant advised them not to go there. Perhaps the General Manager said to steer clear of controversy. Whatever the reason, if someone's instinct is not to talk about what EVERYONE ELSE is talking about, you have to wonder what they're doing in talk radio.
Which is why it's even more important now than ever that the radio industry hire the kind of talent that doesn't have to be told that a particular news story is pervasive enough to be talked about regardless of format. I see a lot of stuff about hiring young talent, but that misses the point -- a young host whose instincts aren't great is as useless as an old one, and an older host can have exactly the right nose for what the audience wants. It's more about knowing what the -- clichÃ© alert! -- water cooler talk is that day. It's about knowing what's melting down Twitter and Facebook without needing to look at the Trending rankings. It's about being in the minds of the listeners. It's about having a mind that's in tune with the listeners. If you don't have that, you don't have a show, at least one that matters.
One way to stay on top of what's going on is to check All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, where you'll find 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. In addition, you should check "10 Questions With..." Darrin Wright, News Director at KZRG in Joplin, MO, who's heading a local news team that's made a difference in its market at a time of cutbacks in news everywhere else. He's also a podcaster, which is cool, too. Check the interview out.
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.
Next week: Whatever it is, it has to be a better week than this one. Between the news and other stuff less momentous but also annoying, Friday couldn't come fast enough....