More Than One Way
October 31, 2014
A long time ago, back before streaming was commonplace and when I still thought that lecturing the radio industry that it was imperative to move spoken word programming onto the FM dial might actually move someone to do just that, I included a warning: Just slapping the same talk programming as AM stations were then doing on the FM dial wouldn't attract younger listeners in the long run. I advocated that the programming match the available audience, gave examples, and watched those in charge roundly ignore me, just putting what had worked on AM on the FM dial, imaging and topics and hosts intact. Sure, there were "guy talk" stations and sports talk, but most of the FM converts in recent years just moved the AM lineup and sound onto FM. It was the path of least resistance. And, judging by the increasingly rapid pace by which companies are abandoning FM talk -- I had several reports this week alone of stations about to pull the plug or move the talk back to AM -- they're finding out that I was right. But instead of fixing it, it's cheaper, at least until radio gets hit with big performance royalty bills, to do music formats and voicetrack the hell out of them. So, back to AM it is, where the young folks aren't.
That's a shame, at least to those of us who are more interested in hearing spoken word radio than music, and those of us who know that what broadcast radio has that can't be duplicated by new media, besides ease of use and ubiquity, are the personalities (the ones under contract, that is). It's a missed opportunity to expand the definition of "talk radio" and keep it relevant for the future. And when I see and hear arguments, as I've heard lately, dismissing the very idea of "lifestyle talk" as doomed and flighty and too lightweight and "it never works,' I realize that those people didn't listen to what I was saying in the first place.
Let me review. First, please, stop making this a zero-sum, either-or argument. There is still a place for political talk, and other kinds of talk don't have to replace it so much as have their own avenues to the audience. You'll note in the October Nielsen ratings that political talk did fairly well this month, getting that election bump we knew was coming. It'll be after the holiday dip and when the numbers don't really recover by the Spring that the "political talk is dead" arguments will bubble up again, but that's not fair, either. There's still room for political talk, for angry old guy talk, for AM talk. It's just that the way it's done now is attractive to a rapidly aging audience, no matter what band it's on. You can't tell me that you can't do issues talk that appeals to Millenials; it's just not being done because the people running radio don't know how. Here's a hint: It's not the ideology, it's about relating to the audience and its attitudes and interests. A twenty-something just isn't going to stand to be hectored by some guy who sounds like Dad and plays classic rock bumpers. You want better ideas? "The Daily Show," John Oliver, "Red Eye." Irreverence, no matter what the ideology; skepticism towards authority, no matter who's wielding it. There, political talk for younger audiences. I don't hear much of it on your stations. (There's more of it on public radio, which, with podcasts and programming experiments, is clearly trying harder to do spoken word programming for the next generations.)
And then there's "lifestyle talk," and here, I don't think that means what people in the industry think it means. I've heard it belittled as "talk about nothing" or "watercooler talk" or "stupid talk," and that insults people who DO talk about non-political things, which includes EVERY HUMAN BEING ON EARTH. And it assumes that "lifestyle talk" -- can we get another name for it, please? -- is either "guy talk" (strippers in the studio! Beat on the stunt boy!) or TMZ. It's not. In fact, it's not one single thing. I could create multiple formats that would do spoken word, non-political, non-sports talk that would attract different demographics from each other, even when they talk about the same topics. You can appeal to young guys (the Real Radio stations and The Bone and other Florida examples), you can appeal to women (myTalk107.1 in the Twin Cities does that), you can appeal to a 25-54 suburban crowd (New Jersey 101.5!), you can appeal to any segment you want, AND you can do it all in the same market, because there are different ways to do topics, depending on the target. Morning shows do this; talk can, too.
Here are some examples. Take Thursday night's return of LeBron James to Cleveland and take the pure sports aspect out of it. You could talk about the way the telecast, game production, and commercials deified the man as some kind of savior of Cleveland rather than a guy who took an enormous amount of money to play basketball. You could talk about whether cities overemphasize sports as part of their civic identity, and whether that's healthy. You could talk about the way traditional pro sports have mutated into something closer to variety shows and pro wrestling than to what they used to be -- Imagine Dragons? Kevin Hart? 3D projection on the floor? Incessant "Turn Down For What"? You could talk about what it's like NOT to be a sports fan when your city goes all-in on the local team's fortunes. Or, if you're a sports station, you could talk about the loss to the Knicks and how long you'll give James-Love-Irving to mesh before deciding whether it'll work.
(By the way, that Beats commercial with LeBron using "Take Me to Church" -- do they know what that song's about? Does it matter anymore?)
But there are SO many other topics that won't be talked about on standard AM talk stations. In looking at the headlines right now, I'm seeing things that beg for smart, funny, interesting hosts to address, like Millenials not buying homes, boomers not moving from their homes to retirement communities, Taylor Swift's "fitness" to be an ambassador for New York (seriously, this is being hotly debated in social media)... none of these are strictly political, but they're interesting. See? We're not talking politics so much as stuff people will talk about and listen to when they're NOT in a partisan mood, or when they don't feel like listening to music, or when they just want the companionship of listening to other humans speak, without the stuff that causes trouble at the family dinner table. And how you approach the topics depends on who you're trying to attract -- Millenials have one set of references and concerns, thirty-something and forty-somethings have their own, and so on. They're NOT trivial (even Taylor Swift in New York raises questions about what we demand of our celebrities and the whole privilege issue). They're what real people talk about. And you can make them as serious or as funny or as entertaining as you want.
Again, that's not to say that doing what talk radio's been doing for decades doesn't have value, only that its available audience, residing on AM, is getting smaller and it's getting harder to get people to come, listen, and stick around -- those election bumps aren't indicative of a long-term strategy. On FM and online, with a younger audience carrying different expectations, you have to offer what appeals to them, and not what appeals to their parents. The good news is that with the right talent and a little patience, it can be done. The bad news is that nobody seems to have patience and it's not being done all that much. I haven't given up hope, but I'm really tired of waiting.
You want ideas for the kind of stuff you can talk about that's different from the usual DemoPublican bickering? You'll find it, AND DemoPublican bickering, all lined up for you at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, where you'll find hundreds of items and ideas, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Click here to find it all. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Also, check out "10 Questions With..." David Wilson, marketing guru and host of "Grape Expectations Radio," the syndicated wine show that's focusing on that growing (literally!) industry. You've noted the success of shows like this on cable TV, and, well, here's one shooting for the same response for radio.
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. I'll add this week, because I mentioned public radio, that one of our shows, "Lies with Sara Schaefer," is produced by WNYC/New York and distributed by Nerdist, so there's that.
Thanks for bearing with me while I was out last week, by the way. A guy's gotta get SOME time away from the computer, right? Well, I'm back... and that's your Halloween scare for today.