January 23, 2015
This week, the feds finally caught up with Sheldon Silver, and when they did, I thought about talk radio, because I do that sometimes.
Let me backtrack a second. If you didn't see the story, Sheldon Silver is maybe the most powerful politician in New York state, Speaker of the State Assembly for over 20 years, arguably more powerful than the Governor, and, according to the indictment handed down this week, corrupt. I'll let you Google the stories about him, but the charges were less a surprise than a "what took so long?," since he'd been under investigation for a while and there was widespread criticism of his ethics and his concentration of power. But that's neither here nor there, and the details aren't what I'm talking about.
What AM I talking about? This: Guys like him are everywhere. They're in every city, every state. They're in it for power and money, they do things that would outrage the public if, that is, the public paid attention, and they're doing it because they know nobody IS paying attention.
And that's where you come in. When talk radio stations declare that they're "live and local," it triggers my skepticism. First, "live" is great for breaking news, but if you're not talking about what's happening right this very second, it's irrelevant (unless you tape a show talking about something happening that very minute and play it back hours later after the news has changed or moved on, in which case it's just stupid).
Second... well, let's define "local." Too many radio stations play up the "local" thing because they have locally-based hosts, but then don't follow through by talking about anything local. And that defeats the purpose of having local hosts. If your local hosts spend most of their time talking about President Obama and the 2016 elections and Deflategate and whatever other national and international topics are happening, and little or no time on local issues, that's not "local." I'm not suggesting you shouldn't talk about those things, but I AM suggesting that if that's most of what you do, or ALL you do, even casual listeners won't think of you as "local."
Not that they care. They want to hear something interesting, compelling (we need a better word than that; I'm tired of "compelling"), different. But if you're talking about the same stuff Rush and Hannity and all the other syndicated hosts are talking about, what are you doing that makes you "local"? Traffic and weather together and banter with the news guy? Not enough. Your REAL competitive advantage, if you're playing the "local" card, is being able to talk about local issues and personalities that the syndicated guys can't and won't. It's what "local" is about. It's not a guy in a local studio talking about Obama. It's a host talking about what's happening in your town that's going to affect YOU.
So, Sheldon Silver. A Sheldon Silver gets where Sheldon Silver got because there's no pressure for him NOT to seize power. I'm not saying that New York -- or Albany, or Buffalo, or Syracuse -- talk radio didn't focus on him, because I don't know. I assume some hosts did, and I hope so. Yet if there's really constant talk radio scrutiny and criticism, the ability to get away with it becomes more restricted. Shining a light on what's going on makes the roaches scatter. But the specifics aren't as important as the overall concept: There's a Sheldon Silver, or someone who should be held accountable, everywhere. There are too-powerful mayors and council presidents. There are Congresspersons who have forgotten the folks back home. There are highway authorities and state legislators and community leaders who deserve to be scrutinized. The syndicated guys don't do that. And if you claim to be local and you aren't doing that, you're missing out on your competitive advantage. Take a page from sports radio -- when there's a local show, they're talking about local teams. That's how it's done.
And that's my challenge to everyone who touts "live and local" as talk radio's benefit. If you're gonna talk that talk, the walk involves more than where you are. It's about really being local, in programming as well as location. I know that in these days of cutbacks and tight budgets, it's crazy to suggest that stations try adding some really local, really provocative programming into the mix, but I keep hearing the CEOs of radio companies tout the "live and local" thing, and I thought someone needs to point out what "local" really means, and what it can, and should, be.
Local, syndicated, whatever, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics has hundreds of items and ideas to make your show better, 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.
And now, 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. Hey, we had Bill Gates on the Nerdist Podcast this week! THE Bill Gates! Hear it here!
Another reminder: I'll be on a panel at Talk Show Boot Camp in Atlanta on February 6th and 7th, about "Talk Beyond Politics," and I forgot to call moderator Carolyn Fox, so I'm an idiot. (Sorry, Carolyn, we'll talk this weekend.) 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.