July 1, 2016
In case you didn't notice, a podcast led to a murder conviction being vacated and a new trial ordered. There's a lesson in that for talk radio.
I'm not suggesting that what "Serial" did is something you can easily replicate. That would diminish the accomplishment, and not every station or organization has the wherewithal to launch full-scale, in-depth investigations of a single story for long periods of time (that would be nice, but it's not gonna happen). The lesson is more about what attracts and motivates active listening, and it's something that you can do and some stations have successfully done for years... and most don't do.
Talk radio is, as it is primarily executed, simple: You stick some opinionated person behind a mic and he or she spouts political opinions, maybe interviews people of like mind, takes calls, that's it. Especially in an election year, most programmers are comfortable with just opening the mic and letting the rhetoric fly. But that'll get you what you have now: an increasingly elderly audience, the choir to whom you're preaching. There's no long-term growth there. It's old thinking, literally so. But it's easy and it's how it's always been done.
"Serial" wasn't old thinking, and if the second season didn't have the same impact as the first one did, you can still take something away that's different from standard talk radio. That first season, the Adnan Syed case, wasn't political, but it did present a story that was serious (you don't get more serious than murder), touched on important issues (the judicial system, fairness), and, ultimately, mattered to a large audience. You are not going to find a convenient murder case to investigate, but you can use your power -- yes, we're talking about something talk radio can proactively accomplish -- in ways that reach and motivate a wide range of listeners beyond the simple "Hillary/Trump bad/good" you're doing now.
It's at this point that I routinely point to my old station New Jersey 101.5 as an example of what I'm talking about, and, conveniently, just this week, I happened upon coverage of what the station is up to now in the Philadelphia Daily News. The article noted that the station was airing a lot of citizen anger with a proposed gas tax -- the locals were stunned by the sudden emergence of proposals to drastically jack up state taxes on gas -- and how the station had become where citizens were airing their displeasure. It reminded me of how New Jersey 101.5 got started, and by that I don't mean how the format was created so much as how it took off: We started with "what's the best pizza in New Jersey" but the station took off with a tax protest. It kept growing with a campaign that focused on trying (and failing, but at least we tried) to eliminate tolls on the Parkway and Turnpike that were supposed to have been eliminated 40 years earlier. And so on, a series of high-profile campaigns that addressed not the general political or election issues but stuff that impacted listeners every day, stuff for which they had to dig deeper into their wallets. Each time, the topic was simple, it related to the listeners' interests, and it worked on an emotional and practical level.
That's actually easier to get into than "Serial." "Serial" had to prove to listeners in the very opening moments that Adnan Syed's case was worth devoting time and emotion to follow. (The second season, on the Bowe Bergdahl case, was less successful in doing that.) It's far easier to grab someone's attention by pointing out that someone else is trying to take more of their money. Or that someone is doing something that will impact their children's education. Or that someone's proposing something that'll cost taxpayers a fortune and is unnecessary. We're talking about things that have a direct, easily understood impact on listeners' daily lives. Taxes. Traffic. Education. Quality of life.
And it takes work. You need to do your research and know your facts. Sarah Koenig spent an enormous amount of time digging into the Syed case and that's what "Serial" was about (her awkward and sometimes confused research was a major character in the show, giving it the plot of a real-life, unglamorous crime drama). When we went after the tolls, I personally spent many hours in the New Jersey State Library poring over the bills that enabled the Parkway and Turnpike, finding the language that was supposed to end the tolls when the initial bonds were paid off, tracking how the legislature slipped extensions by the public and noting where those extensions created legal questions. You have to do some work. It's more than just reading an article and reacting.
But that's how "Serial" drew an audience and had an impact far greater than most talk radio will ever have. (I don't think that touting one candidate over another really does have much of an impact on an election, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that talk radio hosts are power brokers; minds were made up before the radio was switched on. The effect is more about intensifying existing beliefs.) And it's how talk radio can still have an impact and draw more than the True Believers on either side of the election aisle. I'll make it simple: Find a topic that matters to everyone (or about which you can prove they should care). Take a strong position. Back it up with research and knowledge. Pound on it until there's change. People will respond, whether you're talk radio, a morning show on music radio, public radio, streaming, or a podcast.
Or you can preach to the choir. I'd like to think you're more ambitious than that.
Whatever you decide to do, you're going to have to come up with other stuff to talk about, because there has to be some variety, of course, and you'll find that variety at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes in bulk, 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 Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts. And if you haven't checked out "10 Questions With..." Len Weiner, PD at WAXY (790 The Ticket)/Miami and a guy who was present at the inception of all-Sports radio and has done it all, now would be a good time to do so. You'll like it.
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. "Serial" isn't one of ours, but we have lots of good and popular ones, too, if I do say so myself.
Next week, I'll be at Podcast Movement in Chicago, and the following week, I'll be at The Conclave Learning Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul (okay, Bloomington), so I hope to see you there. In the meantime, if you're in America, have a great extended weekend and a happy 4th of July. If you're anywhere else, my birthday's on the 5th, so you can celebrate that in lieu of the other holiday. Hey, a day off's a day off, whatever it's for.