Replacing 'Nothing' With Something
January 16, 2015
It's been remarkable, uncanny, really. I'm not prepared to declare it a scientific survey -- the sample size is, of course, low, and the responses anecdotal -- but it's been so uniform that I have to make note of it. What I'm talking about is that I've asked the same question of several people in the talk radio business and gotten almost precisely the same answer.
The question: What talk radio are you listening to?
The answer: (shrug) Not really anything. There's nothing to listen to.
Besides all of us stranding prepositions at the end of sentences, there's a lot of "I don't listen to my own format anymore" going around. That's not to say, however, that they don't listen to spoken-word audio programs. Pretty much everyone said they'd heard "Serial," and they were all familiar with other podcasts. But traditional talk radio? The phrase I heard more than once is "there's nothing for me there." And these were people who DO THE FORMAT.
Which is why I suppose we should be heartened that there's been some more noise being made by stations and syndicators about talk programming that focuses on things besides politics, something I've advocated since I worked on exactly that 25 years ago. But I fear that it's going to lead to disappointment, because it seems like it's still a matter of sticking some of the same characters on the same AM stations with the same technical deficiencies and same 1980s imaging and sitting back and waiting for the 35 year olds to find it.
That's not going to happen. I know some people will disagree with me and say that if it's compelling enough (we need a new word to replace "compelling" in these discussions, by the way), even young people will find their way to the AM dial. Ain't happening. Sorry. You can use failing AM signals as a boot camp to develop talent and ideas, but you can't expect miracles, no matter how good the content turns out to be. You have to go where your desired audience is and serve them with what they want.
And that might not be a traditional radio station schedule in any form. Your target audience, as I mentioned, is increasingly checking out podcasts (insert disclaimer here -- okay, just refer to the disclaimer about my work at the Nerdist Podcast Network here and note that I'm encouraging competition). They want things on demand. The traditional model of live shows on a strict schedule still works for some stations and still has a place; When I get into the car to run up to the post office, it's way easier to pop the radio on than to connect the phone via Bluetooth and stream or play something. But it's more of an on-demand world than ever, and generations are growing up accustomed to what they want, when they want it -- the Netflix generations. They want shows that speak directly to their interests, narrow though they may be. They want A-list guests (at least, A-listers in their preferred sub-genres; a YouTube "star" might be a bigger draw than a famous actor for some. And never a boring pundit). They don't need to call in; they'll interact on their own time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They also like to share content using social media, for which short, provocative clips are the most sharable. Are you providing all of that? Because that's where the market's heading, even if the majority of revenue's still straggling behind in the traditional media (but not growing there, of course).
Meanwhile, there's "nothing to listen to" on regular radio, according to the people IN regular radio. That may not be precisely true, but if the people doing the format are that unenthusiastic about it, it's a problem. You might say that the solution is to get new, enthusiastic people in there, but that's not easy when the people who would have entered radio in the past aren't as interested now that they can make their own shows however they want, for free. Or you can say that the solution is to let the creative professionals who are in the business do what they want to do to shake things up, take the restraints away, try new things that they WOULD like to listen to. Maybe the new attention to non-political topics is a first step towards a more radical rethinking of how talk radio is defined and what it can be. I hope we'll see that happen in 2015.
Whatever kind of show you do, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is here with hundreds of items and ideas, 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. While you're here, read "10 Questions With..." WIP/Philadelphia Creative Director and host Brian Haddad, the artist sometimes known as "Sludge," who moved from being a music radio morning guy to imaging and hosting at an iconic Sports station. Read his story to find out how that came about and what made him the man for the job; it's a good one.
Oh, yeah, here's that Full Disclosure mentioned above: 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. Yes, we got podcasts, some of the big 'uns, including the Nerdist Podcast, the flagship, hosted by the Nerdist himself, that guy from "@midnight," Chris Hardwick. Come by, listen, enjoy.
Oh, one more thing: I'll be on a panel at Talk Show Boot Camp in Atlanta on February 6th and 7th. Apparently, it's a panel about "Talk Beyond Politics," so you know the general idea and why I'd be on that one. Anyway, if you're interested, it's at the W Hotel in Buckhead and you can get more information about registration and stuff at talkshowbootcamp.com, so do that and I'll see you there.