Open Season, or Debatably Yours
August 7, 2015
Okay, so, we're in the season now. Election season, that is, a whole year and three months before the fact. (We're talking U.S. presidential election, of course. I know, Canada's having an election and it'll take a whole three months and change to get there. Nobody said our process makes sense.) You -- and by "you," I'm talking about those of you who fancy yourselves political talkers -- surely watched the debate Thursday night -- and by "debate," I'm talking about whatever you want to call that shoutfest with the ten guys on a stage in Cleveland. You may have walked away from it with a lot of impressions about the candidates (or at least one of them, the shouty-est one). I walked away, naturally, with thoughts about talk radio, and by "talk radio," I mean any spoken-word program, whether it's actual radio or podcasting or streaming or accosting people at the Ralphs checkout yelling about the Iran deal while the "listeners" just want to get away from you with their bags of produce and Lean Cuisines.
The first impression came from the way I watched it, which is likely how a growing segment of your audience followed it: the debate streaming on an iPad while, on my computer, Twitter and Facebook offered running commentary from everyone I know and an array of self-appointed pundits of all stripes. The reactions were coming in real time. That, in turn, has an effect on what talk radio's role in these events has been in the past and what it will be in the future. And that's this: By the time you get around to discussing the debates the next day, they've already been hashed out and criticized and analyzed ad nauseam. That doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about it, but it does mean that you'll have to work extra hard to come up with discussion points that haven't been kicked around on social media already. Time was, you'd have people itching to talk about what they saw, and they'd have to wait until your show the next day to do it. Now, they've done it on Facebook and Twitter already, so you'll have to find points that haven't been made, or, better, look forward to where the campaign goes from here.
Another social media point: The tweets and News Feed posts proved to me that predictability is the worst thing you can offer, yet so many political talkers are predictable. For this debate, most of the comments I saw were utterly predictable: The liberals were going to rip everyone and make Fox News comments, the conservatives were going to pick favorites and rip others for not being conservative enough, and everyone was going to make fun of Donald Trump. The only surprises were the number of jokes about Rand Paul's hair and Ted Cruz' resemblance to a young Grandpa Munster. Otherwise, if you'd given me the name of a tweeter, I'd have been able to guess what they'd say about everything that happened.
That's trouble for talkers. If your position on everything is clearly defined before the fact, why should anyone listen to your show? This, WAY more than actual political leaning, is what I think has hurt talk radio in recent years. I can skip the political talk shows because I know what everyone thinks before they even say it, just as I glossed over countless tweets about the debates because I knew what they'd be saying without even having to read them (and when I'd occasionally check back in and read a few, sure enough, just what I expected). I don't have time to hear the same old thing, and your listeners don't, either. Give them real insight detached from talking points.
Oh, let me throw in a reminder of something I've mentioned before: You don't serve a candidate or political party. You serve your listeners. If you're doing your job right, you aren't representing one special interest or another, you're the voice of the people. You're the champion of your constituency, the listeners. You should be skeptical of ALL politicians, because most of the public is skeptical. You are not a campaign manager, you are not a cheerleader, and, ideally, you are not a Democrat or Republican or Whig or Monster Raving Loony Party member. You are an observer, an expert, someone who listeners can trust to tell the truth. That's how it SHOULD work. In too many cases, it doesn't. And that gets WAY too predictable.
And one more lesson: What do you remember from the debate? I bet it was Trump arguing with Megyn Kelly, Trump arguing with Chris Wallace, Trump arguing with everyone else, Christie arguing with Paul. I bet it wasn't any of the candidates who droned on about talking points. It was when there was drama, unpredictability, something other than a politician in a suit saying what politicians in suits say. It's not just civics and information, it's entertainment. And to break out of the pack, you have to put on a show. I learned that early, and I have to credit Walter Sabo, who, back in the earliest days of New Jersey 101.5, told me, "This is show business. Make it a SHOW," and for maximum effect, imagine that in Walter's distinct voice, accent on the "SHOW." When you're talking about the elections, or anything else, for that matter, remember, if you're not entertaining, people will not stick with you. You can be saying the most brilliant things, giving uncommon insight, yet if you sound boring, you're toast. You don't have to overdo it -- no laser light shows and 2 Unlimited and John Mason intoning "DEEEETROIT BASKETBALL!!!" necessary, although if you can pull that off, it might be fun -- but do not forget for a moment that your points will not get across if you don't do it with some color.
With that, let's do this election thing. You won't have trouble finding things to talk about for the next year and three months; Just do 'em right.
You'll find your election-related weird news items and plenty more stuff to talk about at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes, available now by clicking here. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Also, this week, read "10 Questions With..." WCNN (680 The Fan)/Atlanta "The Front Row" co-host Sandra Golden, who tells us about her career and working in sports talk and lots more.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Okay, that's enough about politics for now. Maybe next week I'll talk about why NOT to talk about politics. That would be fair.