Embracing The Fluff
January 15, 2016
This week, amidst all the Powerball frenzy and the Rams' move back to L.A., a few brave souls stood athwart history yelling stop (and that's the last William F. Buckley allusion I'll make today), taking to social media and comment threads insisting that any news organization who led with coverage of either of these stories was a failure, covering frivolity when there are far more important things to address. Why, one sputtered on Wednesday, did you see the front page of the L.A. Times? The Rams took up the top two-thirds! The State of the Union was relegated to the lower left corner below the fold! WHAT HAS BECOME OF US? And the same reaction came from TV news outlets leading with the Powerball mania -- IT'S NOT NEWS, some claimed. Our society is doomed.
But that's a view of the media that assumes that every moment, every column inch must be dedicated to the "important" news, that anything else is wasting valuable time and resources and indicates that civilization is doomed because the great unwashed won't be getting its daily lecture. It's not just about news coverage, and it's not just journalism professors; some of you talk show hosts have the idea that if you're not talking politics, you're not doing your job. Never mind that a lot of political talk these days is the same as sports talk -- it's about whether your side is winning, not really about the issues -- and that it's not a zero-sum game, that you CAN make time for many topics in the course of your show. It's that attitude, bolstered by the reaction of certain core listeners when you stray from that reservation, that when you're not doing politics, you're not doing what talk radio is "supposed to do."
But talk radio, if it's "supposed to do" anything, is "supposed to" reflect what its listeners -- not just the handful of cranks who will call or post on social media, and I have a whole column to write on that one of these weeks -- are thinking about, and if you think that the vast majority of your listeners weren't thinking Powerball on Wednesday, you weren't doing your proper prep work, which is to say you weren't living your life and paying attention to what was going on around you. EVERYONE was talking Powerball, thinking about Powerball, fantasizing about Powerball, criticizing Powerball. The cranks contending that because, say, KTLA sent a reporter to that "lucky" liquor store in Inglewood and opened the news with that, it was somehow making Ed Murrow's remains spin? THEY were thinking about Powerball, too. (The cranks. Not the remains, as far as we know.) And in St. Louis and San Diego and Oakland, Tuesday and Wednesday were all about the NFL's L.A. relocation follies. (Los Angeles? Well, that depends on your station and whether you look at the Rams' return as welcome or portending horrific traffic on the 405 on game Sundays and worse games on local TV, too.)
The NFL and Powerball were, consecutively, what people were thinking about at that time, more than politics, more than the State of the Union address, more than Trump and gas and oil prices and anything else. Those other, more important topics would be back to being front-and-center soon enough. But as a talk host, it's your job to know where your audience's heads are. If they're focusing on what you think is fluff, you can't force them to take their castor oil and listen to you rant about a political issue, or at least you can't do that and exclude what they're thinking about; do that and they'll turn to another station. You don't have to treat something as stupid (and it IS stupid, let's agree on that) as Powerball as a grave, serious thing. The most compelling radio I heard this week was when KFI's John and Ken went down to that Inglewood liquor store and did their show live from the sidewalk, interviewing the loons and dreamers and regular folk waiting to gamble on the jackpot -- the hosts didn't hide their cynicism about the whole lottery thing, but it also gave a different perspective on the whole circus, that it wasn't just about the money, it was a shared experience that might have been the most positive communal event in ages. (And for a shared experience that was more sorrowful, the grief that welled up in the wake of David Bowie's passing was another thing that you needed to talk about this week.)
Bottom line: When something is that universal, that top-of-mind with that many people, it IS news. It IS your topic. You talk about it, you lead the news with it, you put aside the "that's beneath me!" attitude. And if that strikes you as unseemly and unpleasantly populist, you'd probably do better in a field that doesn't depend on the size of your audience. Perhaps botany.
Let's do an abrupt trainwreck segue into the plug for All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes for your show prep needs, available by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And there's the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts. You should do a podcast, then let me know about it so I can let everyone know. That's how things work.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, a division of Legendary Pictures and Legendary Digital Entertainment, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
I assume you didn't win the Powerball. Neither did I. (Actually, I won eight bucks, but that's not "winning the Powerball.") I was amused by how many people said that if they won, they'd buy radio stations. Is that what you'd have done? Did you fantasize about what you'd put on that station, what music you'd play, what great hosts from the past you'd hire? Woulda been fun to talk about that on the air. Hope you did.