September 26, 2014
When I was a kid, my favorite toys were Legos and Erector sets. At the time, I didn't think about why I liked them better. I just did. In retrospect, though, I'm pretty sure I know what attracted me to piles of plastic blocks and metal pieces and fasteners.
Legos make what you want them to make. I built skyscrapers and stadiums and homes, and while someone might look at that and think I was best suited to being an architect, I didn't turn out that way, because the real lesson was that I took the tools presented to me and made what I wanted to make with them. It wasn't the specific result that was important; In real life, my designs would have collapsed upon occupancy. It was that I didn't want to be constrained by what I was supposed to do.
Life has a way of beating that out of you, and I learned to dutifully color within the lines when it would make my progress a little easier. In fact, I was good enough at it to get a reputation as someone good at implementing other people's plans, which always drove me crazy. Only after I left the day-to-day radio programming grind was I able to exercise my creative abilities for a paycheck. But the instinct to try something different was always there, occasionally broke through even in radio, and left an indelible impression on me.
Which brings me to today. I thought about what technology hath wrought while pondering whether to go for the big iPhone 6 Plus or the smaller iPhone 6, something I have yet to decide. I was in the Apple Store, holding the two phones and marveling at how thin and fast and sharp they are, and I thought for a moment about where we were back when I started writing this column. I remember writing about figuring out how to stream audio from the Internet through my Treo (approximate weight: hippopotamus) to my car stereo with the cassette adaptor, and getting messages from readers asking how to do that for themselves. Now, we're looking at apps on the dash, phones that stream and play podcasts and music with zero effort, high definition video on phones, close to ubiquitous Internet audio, and it hasn't quite been 20 years since RealAudio proved the supposition that streaming audio was either impossible or very far off to be untrue. It's truly amazing.
And then I thought about what radio is doing with this gift. I thought about the industry's fixation with grafting its old technology onto the new, with perpetuating the linear, in-pattern model of broadcast radio, with making new technology conform to old expectations. It brought me back to Legos.
It turns out that you don't have to do with new technology exactly as you did with the old. You can try new things, play with convention, test new ideas. I was further reminded of that in advance of the L.A. Podfest this weekend, with columns elsewhere applying radio formatics knowledge to podcasts. There's value in that -- in my other job, I do some of that -- but especially in this early, yet-to-be-fully-monetized stage, there's also great value, I think, in taking the moment to see what else might work.
What's "else"? Anything. Shows about topics you'd never put on your broadcast signal. Talent that might not fit what you do on the air. Shows of varying length, shows that -- gasp! -- break all format rules. Features, in-depth news commentary, shows with kids, shows aimed at special interests, comedy. Local stuff, national stuff, international stuff. Stuff I can't invent but you can. Experiment.
Radio happens to have an advantage over television in using new media in an experimental form: not only is the cost of doing online audio (sans music licensing fees, of course, but this is, after all, a talk radio column) negligible, but you can and should also do low-budget video production, because consumers like it and because, um, you can. (Anyone warning against video is missing the point: Your audience consumes a LOT of video, and the issue is not whether to do it but how to do it right.) Doesn't matter what you do, though. My main concern is that the radio industry stop looking at streaming and podcasting as additional methods to distribute the same content it produces for broadcast and start trying new ideas to see what works, what will make money in the digital realm, and what can be adapted back to broadcast radio. This isn't a farm system, it's a blank slate. Instead of filling it with more of the same, fill it with the stuff you can't do on the air. Think different, as that smartphone maker would say.
Or you could look at it the same way I looked at my toys a long time ago. The best toys, the best tools, the best media come with no instructions. You can do whatever you want with them. It would be a shame to use them just to keep doing the same old thing.
A good place to find material for talk programming on any medium -- how's that for an awkward segue? -- is 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. Click here for that. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Also, read "10 Questions With..." BizTalkRadio syndicated "Business Talk" host Jim Campbell, who's bringing his real-world business experience to radio (he's also Assistant News Director at WGCH in Greenwich, CT).
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.
And now I want to play with Legos. Unfortunately, I'm an adult. Chronologically, at least.