Leaving The Linear
November 21, 2014
What's the radio show with the most buzz right now? Okay, that's a trick question. "Buzz" defies quantification. It's sort of you-know-it-when-you-hear-it. And you could argue that the various and sundry "Jingle Balls" and "Almost Acoustic Christmas" and similar station shows around the country are pretty buzzy, but they're concerts, so, since this is arbitrary, they don't count, either. But if you've been paying attention, WBEZ/Chicago's "This American Life" spinoff "Serial" is getting an outsized amount of attention, spawning admiring profiles and the concept of "binge listening." There's no other radio show that's getting this kind of rapturous attention, and it's the one radio show about which your friends are most likely to tell you, "you gotta hear this."
Wait, did I say radio show? I suppose I did. Some people would say it isn't a radio show at all, that podcasts aren't radio because they don't go out over antennas mounted on towers all licensed by the FCC. But we've been through this before: To the listeners, podcasts ARE radio ARE streaming. The end result is the same, whether on demand or in pattern, online or broadcast. So, it's radio. But it's radio that wouldn't make it onto a "real" radio schedule, because it has several strikes against it: it's a finite number of episodes, it tells a single story over the course of several episodes (distributed weekly for several months), it requires you to listen from the very beginning to know what's going on, it demands total concentration because what seems like a minor detail could be a critical callback in a later episode, and once it's over, it'll start up with a new story and new characters and new "actors,': just like "True Detective." Yet, from all accounts, it's reaching over a million people. Interesting.
And it also illustrates something that I've been saying since this column started over (mumble) years ago (I've lost track, but it's somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago): New media offers radio an opportunity to try new and different things. While you can and should stream and podcast what you're already doing in the name of being where your audience wants you to be, you can do so much more, and "Serial" is an example of a radio broadcaster, WBEZ, trying something that doesn't fit the broadcast radio model and succeeding on its own terms. Of course, "Serial" has a few things going for it that others don't, like being a spinoff of (and promoted by) "This American Life," and having its debut episode fed to that show's listeners and subscribers under the time-honored "first one's free" model. (The rest are free, too, but the get-'em-hooked idea is the same.) But the idea of using a new media delivery system to do what you wouldn't do on the air is something I've been saying all along offers tremendous opportunity for radio, even if you don't have Ira Glass to help you launch.
So, care to experiment? If you still have a news department -- I know, I know -- maybe some long-form reports, "extras," can go out as podcasts or in the stop sets you have to cover up on your stream and can't sell. Your shows have sidekicks and hangers-on and interns that go on the air? Let 'em do a spinoff show for online or on HD Radio (I know, I know). You cover a large territory? Do hyperlocal or at least regional shows as podcasts that superserve underserved parts of the market (like a New York station doing Bergen-Passaic-Essex news, or an L.A. station doing a show for the South Bay or Orange County or the Valley). Got some creative local people, like theater or improv groups? Let them try scripted radio drama or comedy -- make your own "Welcome to Night Vale" or "Thrilling Adventure Hour." Got a sports station and don't want to commit any airtime to, oh, let's say, hockey? Hockey podcast. Some of the ideas you try will flop. Others might not. Either way, you're trying things and it shouldn't cost you much money, and who knows, you might hit the jackpot, or at least create some local buzz and attention.
Public radio is doing this already. Commercial radio can do it, too. Entercom does it with B.J. Shea's show at KISW/Seattle, with the "Geek Nation" podcast and shows hosted by cast members. I'm sure there are others, but this should be common for every talk station out there, and every morning show, not to immediately create a gusher of new money -- just breaking even is pretty much the initial goal -- but to engage your audience beyond the linear broadcast schedule and to offer on-demand options that are increasingly popular with your listeners. You may not create the next "Serial," but you might do pretty well for yourself, and you might develop something that CAN be on the air, too. Either way, maybe the success of "Serial" and other new media audio offerings will inspire the commercial radio business to take the part of its business plan that involves creating compelling and entertaining programming more seriously. Do it now before someone else does... oh, wait, they already are. I told you years ago, time's a-wastin'.
No matter how you deliver whatever it is you do, you'll get topics for it at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, the column with the overly literal name. There are 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. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
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.
Couple of housekeeping things: One, great to see everyone in Minnesota at the Conclave last week. Way too cold, but good people and good panels go a long way towards helping overcome the snow outside. And two, no column next week, due to U.S. Thanksgiving. So there's one left for the year. Will I make it a good one? I'll try, but no guarantees....