Reading the Room
February 18, 2011
Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast hosted by some friends of mine. They're standup comics, and they were talking about a problem they've encountered in recent years. The problem is that they're both married guys with kids.
Let me reset that. The problem isn't just that they're married with kids, it's that some of their material is about being married with kids, and sometimes they're performing for audiences that just don't relate. It happens with college crowds, it happens with young, trendy twenty-something types, it happens when there are a lot of single people in the audience -- what kills with people over, say, 35 with small kids gets killed when the room is filled with people for whom domesticity is still theoretical. That's not to say that the material suddenly becomes unfunny, because it doesn't. What it does become is alien. It's like talking about football to a roomful of sports haters; what would work in, say, Green Bay wouldn't work in a roomful of people who spent Super Bowl Sunday at the movies.
Listening to them talk about dealing with that -- trying not to let it make them doubt their ability, trying to adjust their sets based on their observation of the room -- reminded me of radio, and of something I think will become more important as we move forward in time. Earlier this week, there were some reports that indicated talk radio's audience is beginning to age out of its target demographics, just as Adult Standards did before, just as Oldies did before it lurched forward to be "Classic Hits" and shifted back into the money. Granted, a lot of that could be laid at the feet of the AM dial, because it's pretty obvious that getting younger listeners to use AM stations is a futile effort. But it's not just AM. It's the material, too.
That's not to say that you should be suddenly talking about Justin Bieber if you're a political talker (although he DID manage to become a talk topic this week for a moment). And it's not to say that you shouldn't be talking politics -- and it is true that moving to FM will enable you to lower your demos pretty much right out of the box, because you'll suddenly be where the majority of the younger listeners are located, and you're bound to gain some of them. But it IS to say that in order to keep those gains for the long term, you need to make whatever you're talking about relatable and entertaining to the people you're trying to get to listen to you, and to stick around. If you're talking about taxes or immigration or any other hot-button political topic, don't just do the good/evil party-line thing. Talk about how it would affect the people you want to be listening to you. If they're 35-45 with kids, relate the topic to its effect on schools, jobs, mortgages, careers. Give them a reason to listen to what you're saying. Don't assume they're just like the older listeners; remember that for someone under 40, talk radio has been his or her parents' format, just like 60's Oldies. Yet for people in their 20's, spoken word podcasts are perfectly contemporary and acceptable. The difference is relevance to the intended audience.
We could get into the old discussions about building the farm system and developing talent here, but let's save them for another time. Besides, I don't think that the present crop of hosts is quite ready to be put out to pasture. It is, however, a matter of reading the room, of keeping in mind the people to whom you're talking. Know your audience.
Whether you take that to heart or think I'm way off base -- and that would be a reasonable reaction -- there's material for your show at Talk Topics, the show prep column at AllAccess.com. (It's here.) Right now, there are hundreds of topic ideas, conversation starters, and stupid kicker stories for all occasions waiting for your approval, including the serious -- what to do about the lack of broadband in rural America, the latest identity theft scam, the debate over whether expensive medical tests are necessary, how companies may be refusing to hire the unemployed for new openings -- and the very silly, like the top 100 toys of all time, a man found guilty of not wearing a helmet while NOT riding a skateboard, a high-tech way to kill shoe odor, and more than one poop story. There's celebrity news, like about Rod Stewart's new kid and the Grammys, and sports, and things like the ten lowest-rated cable networks (with a couple of surprises and some that aren't). Once you've gotten your show together, read "10 Questions With..." KSTP (1500 ESPN)/Twin Cities PD Brad Lane, and don't forget the rest of All Access with all the news and features and ratings and job listings you can handle, updated all day every day, and all free.
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I'll now practice as I preach and be relatable to someone I know will be reading this column: Happy Birthday, Fran! (Yeah, my wife's birthday is a week after Valentine's Day. February's a good month for her)
Perry Michael Simon
All Access News-Talk-Sports