Yet Another What-Comes-Next Column
April 29, 2016
What will the next generation of talk radio be like?
Hmm. Well, it might not be radio. It might not even be "talk," in the traditional sense. Some of it may be happening now. Little of it is happening on actual broadcast radio... unless it is.
How's that for a convoluted answer?
It would be easy to shut down the conversation by saying "nobody knows the future" and be done with it, but the fact remains that the talk radio business, even as it enjoys a little more attention than it's gotten in recent years courtesy of the election circus, is looking at long-term trends that are not favorable to business as usual. And sitting through conventions in the last few weeks at which radio executives repeatedly insisted that radio is still relevant while paying little attention to the content they claim is "king," it struck me that I'm having a hard time finding that much on broadcast radio that indicates a true understanding of the direction in which the format needs to go.
Not that there's one answer. And not that any of the experts really knows what those elusive Millennials want from their spoken word programming. But we do have clues from podcasting, so it's not like talk radio -- or, more precisely, audio shows without music -- doesn't have any templates.
What's working? Let's put aside the fact that podcasts are, for the most part, narrowcasting -- the sheer reach of individual shows pales against a big talk radio station -- but, then again, are reaching a far younger audience. There are a few separate tracks of shows that seem to hit the mark.
One is the heavily produced and reported public radio-style explanatory show, presented in a storytelling manner, the progeny of "This American Life" and "Radiolab," and, yes, that's "Serial" as well as other shows. Another is the interview show, heavily dependent on the host's ability to keep things entertaining (which is why so many are hosted by comedians) and the quality of the guests (the value of A-listers can't be stressed enough). It's really the successor to the late (in most markets), lamented wave of "guy talk" that followed Howard Stern; Carolla and Leykis are still doing it, and Maron and Hardwick and Rogan and many others have taken it in different directions, and it's all reaching listeners who were disenfranchised by broadcast radio.
A third is the deep dive into a particular topic by engaging hosts. A fourth is featuring diverse voices you don't hear on regular radio, whether by gender or ethnicity or whatever -- people who have been systematically blocked from being on the radio by programmers who would prefer to rely on the angry middle-aged white males who have dominated the format because that's what everyone else has. (Have you checked out the immediate success of "Two Dope Queens" yet? You should.) And the fifth might surprise you: radio drama and scripted comedy. No, it's not 1937; no, it's not for old folks; no, it's not Old-Time Radio. It's "Welcome to Night Vale" and "Thrilling Adventure Hour" and several others that have impressively big followings.
You doing any of that yet? Probably not. If you're still in talk radio 10 years from now, you might be. Or talk radio will continue to follow Adult Standards and Oldies down the Trail of Unsaleable Demographics while podcasts become that "next generation of talk radio."
But what about the kind of conversation commercial talk radio's been all about for decades -- political debate, instant reaction, conflict? Oh, that'll continue to exist and there's an appeal to it that reaches younger audiences, too. Talk radio's problem is that the same debates are taking place on social media, even more democratically (small "d"), more immediate, a wide range of topics on the table all at once, and no call screener. The last part could be disastrous, but if you use Twitter or Facebook, the debate's filtered through your choice of who to follow or friend; you can mute voices you don't like, or you can load up on people who outrage you. (That goes for sports radio, too. I didn't listen to any radio coverage of the NFL Draft; I did follow it on TV and Twitter, and got all the argument and color I would have expected to get from radio.) Social media have become customizable talk radio. Can you compete with that?
Yeah, you can, but you have to pay attention less to the standard talk radio we've produced for ages and more to what's happening in less traditional media. The presidential campaign won't last forever. What comes next will increasingly need to matter to the people who are increasingly using alternative media to get the kind of "talk radio" they prefer. The time to try new things was yesterday. I don't know if it's too late, but it would make sense for broadcast talk radio to start experimenting now.
'Course, you'll need stuff to talk about whether you change or not, whether you're on a broadcast signal or a podcast or streaming or social. And All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is here with news items and kickers and bad jokes for any kind of show, and you can get it 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.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, a division of Legendary Pictures and Legendary Digital Networks, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Work note: I've been handling some personal stuff in recent weeks, so if you notice any delays or gaps in postings, that's my insufficiently specific excuse. This is one of those times when I'd love to freeze everyone with a remote like in that terrible Adam Sandler movie that I never saw, just so I could have time to catch up and... ah, who am I kidding? I'd just use the time to play games and watch stupid YouTube videos and Netflix. Maybe that's why they haven't invented a universal pause button yet: for people like me, it wouldn't make a difference.