August 26, 2016
One of the things I have to remind myself when writing this column is that, whatever I want to believe about the state of the radio industry, I still live in the real world. That manifests itself when I hear something I don't like and start to pontificate about what should have been done, the way things SHOULD be, whereupon I remember that, yeah, stations are short on budget and one person is doing the jobs five people used to hold and, ultimately, management doesn't care about the product as much as it does about making the numbers for the month. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a good idea quite like "yeah, we can't afford that anymore."
So I have to tamp down my expectations, which makes writing this thing an interesting exercise each week, and, no, I'm not going to whine once again about how difficult it is to come up with new material when you're only writing about radio for over a decade (although it is). This week, I'm focusing on something I think radio can do that's still a strategic advantage, budget be damned. After all, people still use radio, and even if I'm not buying that "Millennials LOVE their radio!" (oh, they hear it in their parents' car, but if you think they're not more into listening to YouTube and Spotify, good luck to you), there ARE things that radio can do better than other media, and there ARE things that could improve the medium, because when you think there's no more room for improvement, it's all over, and I'd like to believe that it ain't over.
This week, as the floods ravaged Baton Rouge and tornadoes touched down in Indiana, I got the requisite press releases from stations and industry organizations touting radio's role in relief efforts, and, indeed, they are valuable. But that got me thinking about covering the storms, and what radio can do when people have so many other ways of getting the news. Look, the days that radio was the primary source of news for most people went away a long time ago. Today, most news, traffic, and weather emergencies can be communicated faster and better in 140-character bursts. Do you need to wait for an announcer to tell you that a tornado just hit Kokomo when your Twitter feeds will have it faster and, really, the news is one sentence? "Tornado hit US 35/SR 22 in Kokomo- Starbucks damaged- take cover now." That'll do the trick. Radio is helpful when there's no other communication, but despite the radio industry's dire warnings, for the most part (Superstorm Sandy being the exception), cellular coverage has been reasonably resilient in these emergencies. Okay, then, what can radio do that the other media can't?
It turns out that what radio can do better than social media in an emergency is tell stories. We often stress the value of storytelling in doing talk or personality radio -- hello, Valerie Geller! -- and we point to podcasting as a hotbed of the new storytelling, engaging listeners and keeping them glued. Reading the news is not like that -- it's just the same bulletins you're seeing on Twitter or on websites. You don't need the radio to tell you that Fillmore Elementary has been established as a shelter in your area if that's also being communicated in tweets. But that's a fact, not a story. The story is on the scene, and you do not even need to have a news department to tell that story. Do you have a phone? Is it working? Then use it. Call the shelter and get someone on the line and ask all the questions that listeners would want to ask -- how many beds? What's there? Food? Is it safe? How many people have shown up so far? WHAT'S IT LIKE RIGHT NOW? That's the compelling story, that's the drama, that's what radio can uniquely communicate. Your traffic report says Highway 50 is jammed getting out of town on a summer weekend? Waze is telling listeners that already. What are people doing when they haven't budged a quarter mile in an hour past the bridge? Get people sitting in that quagmire to call and tell you what they see, what they're doing, what's happening. Call a business along the highway and see what you can find out to paint a richer picture of the scene. There's drama in practically everything if you look hard enough, and you don't need a staff or budget to find it and make it work. And podcasting, being decidedly not live and local, can't do that in a timely manner.
Live drama. Stories you aren't going to get in 140 characters. Colorful, immediate, compelling, free. You want a strategic advantage? There you go. If you're doing this already, you get it, and you're establishing a very strong position in the crowded new media marketplace. And it doesn't have to cost anything. Even the most revenue-conscious GM can get behind that.
There's not always an emergency, though, and when there isn't, you need material upon which to build those stories. And there's no better place to find those topic foundations than at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, where you'll find all the news items and kickers and bad jokes you need, all in one place, 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.
None of this week's column is meant, by the way, to minimize the efforts made by broadcasters in the areas affected by this week's emergencies. Many of you have a lot of which to be proud, and for every cluster caught napping when disaster strikes, there are others who rise to the occasion and do great work, and it's always good to remember that when we're tempted to focus on the ills that have been wrought upon the radio industry. Oh, and for those of you directly affected by the natural disasters, do check into the Broadcasters Foundation of America's Emergency Grants program at broadcastersfoundation.org or (212) 373-8250, and if you're not affected but want to help the people who help fellow broadcasters in need, that's the organization for you, too.
Don't worry, I'll probably be back to nagging and whining next week. I reserve the right to be positive now and then.