Plugging the Brain Drain
February 20, 2015
The other weekend, down in Atlanta at the Talk Show Boot Camp, I said something on a panel that I'd like to expand upon a little in this column. I mentioned some of the biggest names in podcasting and streaming and asked what they have in common. Here, you try it: Adam Carolla. My Nerdist boss Chris Hardwick. Marc Maron. Tom Leykis. I could add more, but let's say those four guys. What's the common thread (besides that they're all guys)?
They all used to work in radio.
They don't anymore.
What it says is that, whether by design or luck, radio had all of those guys signed up. Adam did KROQ and "Loveline" before he did his own morning show. Chris was on KROQ and then worked with me at Y107 in L.A. Maron was on Air America Radio. (Yeah, I know. Right?) Leykis was all over the place. And now look at what they've done, largely on their own. Carolla and Hardwick both have networks of podcasts under their umbrella, and Chris has the whole Nerdist video/website operation, too. Maron has a sitcom on IFC based on his "WTF" and has been profiled by the New York Times and everywhere else. Leykis has been pointing out to the entire industry that he made a profit for 2014, unlike some large radio broadcasting companies of note.
And they all used to work in radio. But they don't anymore. Radio attracted them, radio knew that there was enough talent there to put them on the air, but now they've moved on. Is that a reflection on radio's diminishing value? Speaking as someone on both sides of the issue, I don't think so. What I think -- bearing in mind that some of the podcasters who left radio don't have the kindest things to say about management for whom they worked -- is that the new media realm just offers them more freedom to do what they want. You can talk about anything. You can use any words you want, and you don't have to fear for your job and the station license if you slip and drop an F-bomb. You can go as short as you want or as long as you need. You can record a show and in minutes send it out to anyone in the world who wants to hear it. You are your own boss. The shackles of format and signal coverage and time are gone. No wonder they're doing what they're doing, and being successful at it. (Standard Note: See disclaimer below. I work in podcasts as well as radio. Duality FTW!)
But radio also let them go. Whatever anyone says, radio still has an attraction for creative people -- for one thing, broadcast stations pay a salary, and, one hopes, benefits. The station sells the ads, does the production, and (ideally) provides and pays for support staff. And there's still some thrill in the immediacy of live radio on a broadcast station, the idea that you're talking to thousands upon thousands of people right there in your town driving around hearing what you have to say. That's still cool.
Yet, you have to ask yourself if that will be enough to keep the most creative and successful talent on board when digital dollars become substantial enough for the "middle class" of talent to make moving online financially feasible. I'm not one who thinks that traditional radio will be wiped out by podcasts and streaming anytime soon, but I do think that there will be a sort of parity among podcasts, streaming, and FM, especially on the dashboard. The revenue doesn't have to be at parity, though -- lower costs mean podcasting needs less revenue to turn a nice profit. When that's true for more than just the top podcasters (and public radio's podcasts, which are dominating the space right now and are even more a replication of radio shows but with fewer restrictions; they've mastered the form as it stands today), the traditional radio industry is going to have some tough calls to make regarding talent.
There's time, but it's getting tight. Radio CAN offer talent some things others can't: It can allow hosts to do separate podcast-only shows, it can offer a ready-built sales effort for those podcasts, it can offer more creative freedom than presently in evidence (even if you still can't swear), it can even go so far as to hand over HD2 and HD3 channels to talent for experimentation. But keep doing business as usual, and people whose talents don't fit into the standard Official Talk Radio Format And Guidelines -- the ones who you SHOULD want to keep -- will continue to trickle out of broadcast radio and into other media. You don't want the brain drain to flow any faster than it already is. While you're doing whatever you need to do to protect the business end of things, you shouldn't forget the role talent plays in getting you where you need to go. And if you want to go big, you need big talent, and you need to KEEP them. If you're talent, there are going to be more options than ever. That's not a bad thing in the long run....
Wherever you ply your trade, 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. Also, this week, read a return-visit "10 Questions With..." KQTH/Tucson host Jon Justice, who has a lot more to say about life, career, and the state of talk 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. But I'm also a radio guy, so I got both sides covered.
Housekeeping note: Talk Topics is on hiatus this weekend as I go off and take care of other stuff. I'll be back Tuesday, but in the meantime, I have plenty of material waiting for you there. See you in a few days....