University of the Mall of America
November 14, 2014
As I write this in a hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota, the 2015 Conclave Learning Conference has yet to start, and while I've been waiting, I've been to the Mall of America a couple of times, because it's really the only place I can get to that doesn't require waiting in the cold for transportation. We're at a hotel by the airport this year, and the delay into November coupled with the Polar Whatever that swept into town last weekend means that venturing outside without a car is crazy talk, but the hotel has a shuttle to the mall, which is also where there's food. So I went there.
And it's... a mall. A very big mall, but a mall. I grew up in Mall Country, the suburbs, and there are nice expensive malls like Short Hills or South Coast Plaza, the something-for everyone shop-a-paloozas like King of Prussia or Cherry Hill, and there are Space Available malls where empty storefronts nestle against dollar stores. Mall of America is like all of these combined, with your Burberry store a short escalator ride away from a "gift shop" with the schlockiest Minnesota souvenirs available anywhere. Plus an amusement park for kids with a rollercoaster, because why not. The overall effect for people who hail from places where they have malls is, um, okay, it's a big mall. For people who come from places where there's still a single floor JC Penney on Main Street and a Walmart out by the interstate and that's it, it's the Eighth Wonder of the World.
So you get tourists and busloads of high school kids from Brainerd and travelers who found themselves with a few hours to kill during a layover on Delta at the nearby airport and, actually, a (very) few locals scattered here and there, and it's a cross-section of America. And as I ate lunch and wrote another column and watched the masses roam by, it struck me that the Conclave Learning Conference could have added the Mall of America to the curriculum. There's a lot to learn at the mall.
For one thing, anyone doubting that the smartphone is the single most ubiquitous device imaginable would note that everyone, myself included, walks around with a cell phone in their hand or at the ready. We know that, of course, but seeing it and counting them as they go is a lesson not only in what they use but how they use it. Most people are reading texts and Facebook. They don't have earbuds in their ears, they're not talking on the phone, they're just reading stuff and watching cat videos and texting their friends. Radio THINKS its competition on the phone is streaming audio, Pandora, Spotify. The real competition also includes texts and Facebook. (Do not undersell how huge Facebook is. Every time I see one of those "Facebook is dying out" articles, it reminds me to check the analytics, and... wow. Facebook, for engagement and delivering people to you, leaves everything else in the dust. It may seem like fluff to you and where soccer moms post vacation photos, but it really is the universal home page for the Internet. I lost count of how many people I spied looking at Facebook posts on their phones at the MOA and on the plane here, but it was a lot.)
It's also about the chatter you'll overhear. A table full of clerical workers next to mine were talking about the office but also about how nice it was to be AWAY from the office and maybe playing hooky to see a matinee at the theaters there; That was interesting to me in that it showed that work issues were top-of-mind for them but that they DIDN'T want to talk about them, and if you're looking for lifestyle talk topics, maybe talking about workplace frustrations is not what your listeners want to hear. A young couple was talking about day care for the infant in their stroller at the pizza place; What to do with the kids when you're a double-income couple is a major top-of-mind issue. On Thursday evening, I heard more than one young guy saying they had to get home fast to watch football -- Miami vs. Buffalo, a game not involving their local team -- and even the shuttle driver had the play-by-play on and said he was glad his shift was over so he could get home to see most of it. It's not like we don't know that guys like football, but we assume that we can only really talk about the local team, while television and fantasy football have combined to make fans interested in other teams and players, too. (Red Zone is, of course, mankind's greatest achievement. What comet?)
And it's the economy, too. A lot of people were there, and we're already in holiday buying mode, but the number of people laden with purchases was relatively low for both days. Waiting for Black Friday sales? Waiting for later? Buying online? That's always an issue, but seeing the largest mall in the country with eager shoppers and not seeing a lot of shopping bags (and nobody seeming to go into the really high-end stores) was an interesting look at how the season is shaping up and how the economy is REALLY faring. (Also, maybe those retailers should be advertising on radio.)
Throughout this, though, I thought of the doom-and-gloom articles about the demise of radio, both from people in the business and from people like Seth Godin, and I really wanted to stop people at the mall and ask THEM whether radio is out of the picture, whether they don't listen anymore. Maybe they don't. I'm sure talk radio, for anyone under 50 years old, is not in the picture. But while research can extrapolate a lot, you can learn a lot from just talking to real people in their natural habitat and seeing if the negativity is real or exaggerated, whether they say one thing and do another. The first thing we'll hear at the Conclave is another presentation about how great NextRadio is, but I'd rather go ask real people at the Sprint store (it's on the west side upstairs) whether it would, or did, make a difference in their cell phone choice. Theory's fine, and we'll surely hear a lot of useful tips at the Conclave itself, but the future depends on engaging and connecting with real people, and real people are over at the mall. At least for a few hours, we should be over there, learning from real experience.
What do real people want to hear? You'll find the stories that light their fires, press their buttons, and other vaguely appropriate euphemisms at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics. We have hundreds of items and ideas there, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else, as well as serious stuff. Find it by clicking here to find it all. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. This week, read "10 Questions With..." the very busy Jenna Kochenauer, who not only is an anchor/reporter for News Radio WORD in Greenville-Spartanburg but also anchors news remotely for clusters in San Angelo, TX and Klamath Falls, OR AND writes a fitness column AND is raising a family AND is going to broker world peace. Maybe not the last one, but she seems to multitask well, so why not.
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.
If you're reading this and the Conclave's still on, find me and say hello. I have nothing for you, but that's what everyone (including myself) always says to do at conventions, so do it.