Standing At The Crossroads
May 13, 2016
A recurring theme in criticism of the radio industry is "you should have seen it coming." Network radio should have seen TV coming. AM broadcasters should have seen FM dominance coming. Broadcasters in general should have seen the Internet coming. And so on, much of it accurate, some unfair, and the industry's reactions have been variable, but you get the idea.
So, something's coming at you, political talk radio. It's really already here, it requires some adjustment and hard choices, and right now is when you should be planning to deal with it. And it's exactly what's giving many of you a very nice ratings boost at the moment, but it raises questions about how you move forward in the future.
If you are programming political talk, you have had it easy. Since sometime in the late '80s or early '90s, you could just program based on conventional wisdom that you can pick a side -- mostly, conservative Republican -- hire a bunch of angry guys in suits railing against the other side, load up on syndication just like that, and that's all you needed to do. One ideology, one note, consistency, more-of-what-you-came-for... like I said, easy.
You may have noticed a change in the weather.
Now, speaking of seeing things coming, you probably saw the internecine battles in both political parties coming before most other people did. You saw the anger and disaffection starting with the Tea Party, the disconnection between the national party establishment and many of your core listeners. But it wasn't crystallized until the Trump and Sanders campaigns turned it into a bigger issue, and whatever either party does about "unity" between now and the election, it shows that what you thought was your audience's preferred mode of thought is now fractured. If you're a conservative talk station, you have the Trump fans wanting change at any cost versus the #NeverTrump folks who either have more establishment ties or are more conservative than Republican or just don't like the man. If you're one of the handful of liberal talk stations, you have the establishment Clinton supporters and those who put having a female president before the individual issues versus the Sanders fans wanting, again, change at any cost and the folks who think Clinton's too compromised to win or effectively govern. What was easy to define for talk radio -- conservative talk was one thing, liberal talk was one thing, you knew what it was when you heard it -- is now a bunch of philosophies, each thinking their former allies are crazy/repugnant/the enemy.
And this means you have some choices to make, because if you've relied on consistency, you may have noticed that you can't even rely on your syndicated lineup to be of one mind anymore. This turns out not to be a bad thing, though. I've often advocated variety in a station's hosts' positions, and I don't mean hiring liberals to "balance" conservatives or vice versa. I mean that most people aren't rigidly one ideology or another, and that hosts should be as unpredictable as the larger audience is. I've never understood why stations preferred to lock themselves into one set of talking points or another -- it's far more entertaining when you don't know in advance what a host is going to say on the day's issues. Political talk of all stripes had gotten boring, REALLY boring, in recent years, because you knew what you were going to get without having to listen. That's part of the excitement of the current circus, because the schisms in each party mean that hosts who used to be predictably party-line supporters are now having to choose a direction, and when callers preferring the other direction get involved, there's conflict and energy and, for the first time in years, unpredictability.
But the election's going to happen and the campaigns will be over and you'll be confronted with an uncertain future. Will your hosts fall back into the predictable line? Will you have to realign your station from, say, all-conservative talk to all-Trump-aligned talk, or establishment-liberal to Occupy Talk Radio? Are any of those positions going to be able to reach the size of audience that you could get when things were less fractured? The two major parties are now four distinct positions plus a whole bunch more disaffected folks who don't agree with any of that. Catering to just one of those pieces might restrict the size of your potential audience, and it's going to be interesting to see if, once the election's over, the part of your audience that bought into one of those positions will even want to listen to someone espousing another viewpoint.
I think the answer is in hosts who don't fall into any predictable ideological slot and have a healthy skepticism about all of the above, but whatever you decide will be the future of your format, I don't think there's any return to what you've had going for these last few decades. It's coming, it's here, it's going to redefine politics and your content going forward, and if political talk is what you're about, now is the time to start planning for where you're going to take this after the election.
No matter what your ideology, though, you can always find predictably unpredictable material to talk about at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes for any kind of show. 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 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.
A postscript: It should be noted that if push comes to shove, a vast majority of your potential audience would love to vote "none of the above." Talk radio could do a lot worse than to target those folks, whether with non-political talk or with political talk that rejects the labels and parties, too. But that's a topic for another column on another day....