A Gritty Reboot For Radio
April 3, 2015
Hollywood is often criticized for running out of ideas. When studios aren't making the fifth or sixth edition of a franchise, they're remaking movies that seem to have come out just a few years ago. You go to the multiplex and all you get is "Furious 7." Originality gets its budget on Kickstarter.
Television is going down that path now, too. They brought back "Arrested Development," and it was... okay. So we're getting "The X-Files" twenty years on, and it's cause for celebration, but then we find out that they're bringing back "Coach," and it confuses us, and then it's "Full House," and WHO ASKED FOR THAT? Doesn't matter, because it fits the pattern: familiar idea, familiar brand, vague goodwill.
The TV remakes got me thinking about radio. No, actually, it got me thinking about what other lame sitcoms they might threaten to reboot, because who doesn't want a new version of "Small Wonder" or "We Got It Made"? But this column has to be about radio, so play along. If other media play the reboot game, is there anything in talk radio's past that can serve it, in revamped form, in the future?
You betcha. Or, at least, I think so. And what it is will shock and amaze you. (Or not. And I really have to stop putting clickbait headlines in the middle of columns. They belong up top.)
First, allow me to get all nostalgic on you for a moment. I grew up in a talk radio listening household. While my dad always had the political talkers on -- Bob Grant, of course, and John Sterling (yes, THAT John Sterling) and Barry Gray and Barry Farber and guys not named Barry -- my mother favored the other kind of talk they did back then, the kind you don't get anymore. She listened to WOR in New York, advice and health and interview shows, polite and, to my young ears, intensely boring, and on the weekends, it was WCAU in Philly for "Dr." Bernard Meltzer "with advice and counsel." Mom, I thought, how can you listen to this and stay awake?
But by the time I was in college, I found myself listening to specialty talk shows, too, learning about how to deal with real estate issues from Gene Lamont and finances from Harry Gross. Again, it wasn't wildly entertaining and you wouldn't expect that to fly with the under-65 crowd today, but in the '70s and '80s, there was a lot of it.
As there is today, when, that is, the weekend schedule isn't full of infomercials. And I am not suggesting that what ails talk radio is a lack of Carlton Fredericks or Martha Deane. (Google 'em, kids.). What I'm suggesting is what cable television discovered a decade or two ago: package stuff like food topics and real estate advice and celebrity talk and practically anything else in the right way and you have a gold mine for yourself. A channel about people buying or renting homes? Yawn. HGTV? Oh, yeah, totally addictive. Restaurant reviews? Seriously? Wait, let's put a bro with frosted tips and sunglasses on the back of his head spouting catchphrases on the case. Suddenly, it's a hit. Radio had polite people doing recipes; TV has Kitchen Stadium and Gordon Ramsay yelling at people. Radio had talk; TV has drama and show biz. Which would you pick?
It's a version of Hollywood's "gritty reboot." You take an old, tired, worn concept (like a talk radio column) and bring it back with a more modern, darker sensibility (add more snark, and maybe explosions and a car chase). For radio, it's this: That old WOR range of interests, but in HGTV/Food Network/Bravo style. Hosts with knowledge AND attitude. Drama and show biz. In other words, a "gritty reboot" of specialty-interest talk radio for a new generation of listeners.
It's already happening, but in the podcast world. The old cooking and restaurant shows begat "Food Is the New Rock." Dr. Ruth, herself a revolution when she came along, led to "Loveline, which led to "Sex Nerd Sandra." Financial shows then, "Freakonomics Radio" now. "Mr. Movie" doing genial reviews and trivia in the '80s, "Doug Loves Movies" and "Comedy Film Nerds" and "How Did This Get Made?" now. You get the idea. I'm not suggesting that this replace political talk altogether and I'm not suggesting it'll save an AM station (I'm afraid that, for all the talk about "AM Revitalization" at radio conventions and the FCC, that ship sailed and sank long ago). But if WOR and WMCA could co-exist in 1970, it's a sign that a really contemporary, fun, youthful, current version of the specialty and lifestyle talk that thrived decades ago could co-exist with political talk and sports today.
Besides, you got any better ideas? (No, really, do you? Because, by the looks of things, there are several broadcasting companies that could use some ideas. Wait, did I just give away some ideas for free again? I should charge a subscription one of these days....)
No matter what kind of radio you do, you can find material to talk about at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes free for the taking. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Oh, and we have a great one for "10 Questions with..." this week, a chat with Molly Wood, a big name in tech reporting for her years with CNET and the New York Times who has just moved to radio full-time as Senior Tech Correspondent and host for American Public Media's Marketplace. Molly was a pioneer in podcasting with CNET's "Buzz Out Loud" and "Gadgettes," she was an early web video star, and she has some excellent insight into the media and tech reporting that you should not miss.
Follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, my Instagram account (same handle, @pmsimon), find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and after fixing some technical issues, pmsimon.com is alive again. Expect more frequent posts now that WordPress is behaving.
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. (One, "Sex Nerd Sandra," is mentioned above. The others mentioned here are not ours, but good ones anyway.)
I should mention here that the fact that WOR was doing non-political talk and hugely successful at it is something consultant Walter Sabo has been pointing out for decades; also, there are several individual shows locally and in syndication that are trying to revamp the idea of specialty radio and take out all the dry, boring elements (hello, KFI's "Fork Reporter"), and that a few stations are finding success with a format of lifestyle talk that in some ways might be representative of what I'm talking about, notably myTalk 107.1 in the Twin Cities. But I'd love to see radio do more of what what cable did and podcasts are doing, turning specialty talk into show biz. There's still time.