The Election Bump And Other Distractions
September 30, 2016
Are you happy with what you're achieving?
No, this isn't a self-help column. It's more of another wake-up call, but... okay, let me see if I can make this simple. It's an election year, and we're in the middle of the most bizarre, remarkably out-of-control campaign season ever. There's a stack of things you can talk about on any given day, there's a huge range of topics from important things like the economy to ridiculous things like, um, just go to Twitter and marvel at it. Election, insanity, breaking news on a constant cycle: what more could talk radio need? Sure enough, at least in July and August, talk radio stations saw, for the most part, some ratings increases. You're happy, right?
Happy shouldn't be the reaction. Concerned, yes. I've been railing here for years about the danger of sticking with the tried-and-somewhat-true formula of political talk, and telling you how the days when that was enough are ending. Go take a look at your latest ratings again, and, especially, check out your target demos. I'll ask you again, are you happy with that?
I can remember -- we ALL can remember -- when talk radio stations routinely were at the very top of the ratings. You'd see dominance in 35-64 and good numbers overall, usually top-3 in major markets. The PPMs took a chunk out of that, but the truth is that talk radio was beginning to falter before that, aging out of the sales demos and falling into a deep rut of predictability. But just when some folks would pull out their shovels and start to cover talk radio with dirt, the corpse would reanimate with election talk, and the numbers would be great for a year and then we'd go back to fretting. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, the need to plan for what comes after the election. That's still true, but now I'm wondering about right now.
By all rights, talk radio should be dominating the ratings; the daily conversation in all demographics is so animated and focused on Trump and Clinton that a good talk radio station should be reeling audiences in from every corner of the population. Yet, it's not really happening; the boosts are more modest, the demos still painfully old. Why is that? I haven't focus-grouped the question, but let's see if any of these make sense:
1. Too Many Other Places To Talk About It. This is the social media thing, and it's possible that after being bombarded with election talk on Twitter and Facebook, people want an escape, meaning no election talk and lots of music. But I would think that, based on how animated people have been commenting about the election in social media, there are plenty more potential talk radio listeners you're just not getting.
2. The Great Divide. There's a big article in the New York Times coming up this weekend on how the conservative pundits in talk radio and elsewhere are sniping at each other, a war between the #NeverTrump people and the Trump supporters that has positioned former allies as mortal enemies. I wonder if the division between pro- and anti-Trump voters plays into that; in the past, you could count on people listening even if they disagreed with the host, because of the entertainment value, but the division seems to be wider and the entertainment value less than ever, and if you don't like Trump, the pro-Trump hosts come off as shills, while if you're a pro-Trump person, you might be thinking of anyone who disagrees as a traitor or a Clinton endorser, and you won't listen. Which leads to...
3. Taking Sides. I keep warning, and you keep ignoring. You are not a campaign adviser. You are not a campaign worker. If you are, you should take a leave of absence until the election is over. Your job is not to get someone elected or not. Your job is to entertain, and inform while entertaining. And the best way to do that, the best way to attract and retain an audience under the age of 65, is to take the position of being not an advocate for a party or candidate but an advocate for your listeners. No candidate is perfect, and unless you're on the campaign staff, you don't need to pretend. Identify what's in the best interests of your audience and what matters to them, and hammer away at the candidates about that. The easiest way to blow off a large portion of your audience is to harangue them about the "other" candidate and praise "your" candidate as if he or she can do no wrong. You represent ALL of your audience, and the only side you should be on is theirs. If you think you're doing that and your show ends up sounding like a campaign rally for one side or the other, you're doing it wrong. Not saying you can't have a preference or you can't be partisan at all, but if you overdo it in one direction or the other, you've lost sight of what your job really is. In that case, reread this paragraph until it makes sense to you. (That might take several passes.)
4. You're on AM. We can blame some of it on the technical side, if you're on AM, that is. You just aren't on the radar with young (like, under 45) people if you're on AM. You might as well be on shortwave, or sending out Morse code.
Back to the central question, though: Are you happy with what you're achieving? Are you looking at the increases for the last couple of months and thinking you're on the right track? Let's be realistic: The numbers even some heritage AM talkers are doing today would have gotten the entire staff fired even a decade ago. It may not be a dead cat bounce, but these numbers are nowhere near what you SHOULD be doing with a spectacularly talkable election going on. And they REALLY don't bode well for what you'll do once the election's over. I know, no money, corporate stuff, debt service, pressure, whatever. I still have a hard time identifying with programmers and talent not wanting to win, not wanting to crush the competition (meaning everyone else on the dial, the entire Internet, and anyone else that gives you a funny look). Talk radio for years has sunk to the equivalent of the team that year after year just barely squeaks into the playoffs and makes a hasty exit in the first or second round. Lately, it's been more like a lottery team. Maybe I'm hypercompetitive, but I don't think "just happy to be here" cuts it. You should be winning this game by a comfortable margin right now. That you're not should be more concerning to you than I'm sensing.
But talk radio cannot live by election alone, which is why you can consult All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes 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. I've been doing both political and aggressively non-political items there, so there'll be plenty for you to talk about whether you're sticking with the election or want to talk about anything else. And there's the Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts. Also, don't miss "10 Questions With..." Randy Kerdoon, sportscaster at KNX/Los Angeles and host of "Talking About Cars with Randy Kerdoon," a very good podcast; he's had a fascinating career, not the least part of which was being the play-by-play guy for the Salt Lake Trappers minor league baseball squad during The Streak, and you should Google that if you're unfamiliar with one of the more remarkable baseball stories ever.
Oh, let's add another point to the above reasons for talk radio not exploding this election year: 5. I Don't Want To Hear About It. Some of us wish this would all be over, because it's exhausting. If that's you, join the club and thank the Lord for sports and music.