Craving Something Different
August 22, 2014
When I picked the Sunday Los Angeles Times off the driveway last Sunday, an advertising circular fell out of the plastic wrap, fluttering back to the ground, calling attention to itself. It was for the fourth annual Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival, and as I retrieved it from the asphalt, it reminded me of a book I'd recently read, a book about the history of the Food Network called "From Scratch." The book chronicles how the cable network went from a way for a newspaper company to stake out channels on cable systems to a bargaining chip for television stations to claim retransmission consent concessions from cable, to a fairly dodgy collection of cooking shows with vermin running around the studio, to a household name and major player, and it explains how the latter jump occurred. A lot of it was the recognition that food had become entertainment, chefs were the new rock stars, and the days when you could just point a camera at Jacques Pepin shoveling a pan into the oven were over.
The festival in L.A. is nothing new. This one's only four years old, but in the book, it's noted that the packaging of celebrity chefs for live events started back in the '90s when the present cult of the kitchen was just getting started. You'll see some major Hollywood figures showing up for this thing, but the stars are the chefs and the food and wine. You may have never heard of Richard Blais or Nancy Silverton or Joachim Splichal, but enough people have to draw a big crowd.
And I could go on here about the way these people became celebrities beyond the geographic limitations of where their restaurants are located, and how radio needs to concentrate more on helping its talent become celebrated beyond the limitations of their three or four hour daily shows, but it wouldn't be my first time hammering on that issue and, besides, Walter Sabo did a good job of that this week in an article you can read by clicking here. No, I took another lesson from observing the rise of the Food Network along with the ascendancy of the celebrity chef and the recognition of food as entertainment.
Now, there's an element of luck in what happened with Food Network. Short hand: The original idea was to film cooking shows at a college in Providence, cheap programming to fill a day. Then it was to be a "CNN for food" with a nightly news show, plus restaurant review shows and more cooking lessons. Then Emeril Lagasse came along, they eventually tried putting a live audience and a band in the studio, and the rest is history. But none of that would have happened had someone not thought, you know, why NOT try a channel about food? And it wouldn't have happened had the investors decided to pull the plug at any of the early capital calls. There were many moments where it probably seemed pointless to continue. It took years to get critical mass in cable system affiliations and subscriber numbers. Now, look at it. But, again, someone decided to roll the dice on a channel others thought was a stupid idea. You can't do a whole channel on food, they said (and I remember them saying it). Saturday afternoons on PBS, sure, but a whole channel? Who'd watch THAT?
Radio has always been managed, mostly, by the naysayers. Now, I'm not suggesting a food format for radio... or am I? Well, why not? Why not ANY specialty format? Cable was in the position in the '80s and '90s of having a lot of slots to fill, and that's how you got channels devoted to food, home improvement, fishing, comedy, travel, animals, and other specialties. When people said "you can't do that," someone else along the line said, you know, we gotta come up with SOMETHING to fill the time, might as well try this. Radio, on the other hand, with a limited number of terrestrial broadcast slots to fill, has been loath to try anything radical in spoken-word programming, because there's been too much to lose. The sole exception that's been adopted industry-wide in the last 30 years? Sports. And I remember when WFAN launched and the refrain was "who's gonna listen to that?" and "they have too much time to fill." When it hit, the clones came fast and furious.
But now we have a bunch of AM dogs out there, and some FM stations that are hurting, too. If we're in agreement that the old-guys-complaining style of political talk has a limited future, it's surely time to try out new things. Why not look for specialty talk that isn't being done as a format yet? Why not take a hint from cable and from the web, where sites concentrating on categories and audiences previously underserved are taking a bite out of the ad market, and take one of those underperforming major market AMs and see if you can develop something while the ratings and revenue pressure aren't as great -- hey, they're not making money as it is, so might as well use them to experiment. IT COULD WORK. And if it doesn't, you're in the same place you are now, no listeners and looking for answers. Niche talk programming could be an answer. They could be the answer for inventing national brands like the ones radio's corporate overlords desperately want to create. Like the people in Providence in 1993 eventually discovered, what might seem like a really stupid idea for a format might just be the start of something big. First, though, you have to get past that impulse to say "you can't do that." Sure you can. Wait too long and you may not have too many other options.
Whatever you decide to talk about, your best source for ideas for topics is All Access News-Talk-Sports' accurately-if-boringly-named 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. Click here for that. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And speaking of trying something different, you should read "10 Questions With..." Jon Grayson, host of Westwood One's "Overnight America," back for another round of questions. Jon's been doing a different brand of talk for years, focusing on both the big stories of the day and the kind of pop culture and lifestyle topics that you don't hear on other shows, so he's someone to whom you should be paying attention. Start by reading what he has to say this week.
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: the last full week of Summer, unless you're one of those sticklers who measures the seasons by the equinoxes and solstices and stuff. Go get some quality beach time in before it's too late.