Free Trade Organic Craft Radio
February 19, 2016
Have you tried Caleb's Kola yet? It's cola with fair trade ingredients, made in batches with cane sugar by craftspeople who lovingly balance just the right amount of carbonation with....
Oh, come on, who are we kidding? It's Pepsi, or at least it's Pepsi's version of a "craft soda," and it comes with all sorts of marketing aimed squarely at Brooklyn hipsters who would not be caught dead drinking a Pepsi. Oh, sure, maybe they'd drink a house brand cola, but purely in a Pabst Blue Ribbon post-ironic way. Not because they LIKE it. Anyway, that's just one of Pepsi's plays to try to reach the elusive Millennials: "craft soda" in smaller bottles, sold in four packs, marketed with a lot of Instagram photos of SoHo and FiDi. The word "Pepsi" is very hard to find in there; in fact, unless you hover your cursor over the email link on the soda's website and see that the URL includes "pepsico," you wouldn't really notice that at all.
But it's really just soda, a Pepsi with maybe better ingredients in trendy bottles. I haven't tried it, and for all I know it might be really good, but, come on, it's cola. I can't imagine it's going to be radically different from the cane sugar version of Pepsi. Bet it tastes like RC. Or Kroger Big-K.
Just why am I talking about a faux-hipster soda? It's the idea of taking the same old thing, putting some new packaging around it, and hoping that These Kids Today buy into it. It reminds me of radio in general and talk radio in particular. Here's what I mean: Way, way back when I got started in talk radio, when we used tin cans and string to broadcast and news came to us on stone tablets with the text pecked into the surface by birds, we were already looking for ways to reach young audiences with spoken word content, and, well, we found it in two forms: One, the Howard Stern method of getting talented, funny people to just talk about life and pop culture and sex instead of politics, and two, aiming slightly older and having talented, funny people talk about life and pop culture and politics only as it directly related to the listeners' lives, like their pocketbooks and kids' schools and traffic. Talk radio mostly doesn't do that anymore, because the former required dealing with the FCC and squeamish advertisers (and hiring actually funny people instead of people who would imitate Howard without understanding what really made him special), and the latter required talent development and PDs and GMs who understood that the format wasn't "talk radio," it wasn't, well, anything that fit under a convenient term, it just... was. Needless to say, talk radio, with a few exceptions, reverted to angry old guys ranting about the President, even when the hosts were neither old nor guys.
That last part is where the soda thing applies. It goes back to when a bunch of AM talk stations began simulcasting or moving to FM, but kept the programming and imaging the same. I got into arguments with some talk radio bigwigs who insisted that just being on FM was enough, that it would instantly lower the demos to 25-54 and all would be fine. Most of those stations are back on AM only, or maybe on a translator. It didn't work, because it was the same old thing, and they didn't even make an attempt to mask that.
But equally futile is to take the same old thing and do what Pepsi's doing, try to make it into something it isn't. You can dress your old-guy hosts in leather and make them grow hipster facial hair, use Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels for bumpers, and edit all of it into podcasts, but if the host then launches into the same angry political ranting you've always aired, your audience will be the same it's always been, rapidly aging and shrinking, even on FM. It's what the faux craft sodas will find, and what some faux craft beers are finding: You can package it however you want, but people will ultimately know what's inside. You can only sell so much of it before it starts to dawn on people, hey, this doesn't taste much different than Pepsi/Bud/AM Talk. It might work in the short term, but it's not a long term solution.
The big reveal? Your imaging, your marketing, the thing you're trying to project to that target audience needs to match what's inside. If you want to sell your product -- if you want younger audiences to listen -- the content has to appeal to the target. The packaging is secondary. If your message is what they want to hear, if you're talking about stuff that matters to them, and you serve it up how they want it, whether on FM or in podcasts or streaming or social media, the packaging is less important than the message. Take a page from how podcasts are reaching young audiences with topics, guests, personalities, and production that appeal to them. They're still basically talk radio, but talk radio that works for young people, not the same old AM-style stuff repackaged.
Which is what we knew 25 years ago.
Speaking of craft soda and craft beer, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is your craft show prep column, handmade by artisans who... oh, okay, It Me. (No points for knowing that meme.) You'll find news items and kickers and bad jokes, all 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. Also, speaking of someone trying to offer something different, we have a cool "10 Questions With..." Radio America syndicated host Chad Benson, who's taking a different approach to political talk and picking up bigger affiliates and more attention along the way; read the interview to get his perspective on talk and find out how his eclectic background got him here.
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.
By the way, for all I know, Caleb's Kola really IS special. If I still drank soda, I'd try it and let you know, but I don't drink soda and I'm not a Millennial hipster in Brooklyn. So, I don't count.