Playing Your Best Hand
September 28, 2012
There was yet another study of the news media the other day, and it contains some interesting material that I'm sure could tell you a thing or two about radio's role in consumers' news preferences. Reading it, however, my mind kept jumping to questions that weren't being asked in this study. Oh, they got people to open up about where they get their news (radio's down again, way, way behind TV and online but ahead of newspapers) and had some demographic information (talk radio: old; NPR: not as old), but my thoughts went at the issue from a different angle.
See, this is the home stretch of the presidential campaign, and while previous election years have been slam dunks for talk radio, this year, not so much. Oh, some talkers are doing very well, for sure, and most are okay, but conventional wisdom says that talk stations should have leaped to the top of the ratings by now, and it mostly hasn't happened that way. (And I am, as you know, neither conventional nor possessed with wisdom, so, naturally, I'm going to rebel) What's happening?
Some of the answers are in the study. The talk radio audience is aging, and younger demographic slices aren't coming in to hold the ratings. That's nothing new, but it's accelerating because there are other options to get news and information and even conversation, and, let's face it, most talk radio is on a band people under 40 don't use, ever, period. You don't need the Pew Research Center to ask 3,000 people about it to know that. Yet that's not the only thing that matters here.
More important, to me, is the part of the study that shows younger audiences not only getting news from other sources -- including social media -- but going "newsless." A growing portion of the young audience said they didn't get news from ANYPLACE the day before. No news, period. What's your business again? Talking about the news? Huh. You might want to develop another long-term business plan there.
Or tweak the one you have. I don't necessarily buy studies like this, in which a handful of respondents is asked about their recent behavior. People don't always perceive that they do certain things -- someone who really DID hear a radio news report or see news on Twitter may not remember that he or she did that, because it might have been a passive, incidental thing. Still, when you see a large and growing portion of the audience just not consuming what you're offering, you need to ask some questions.
The question is not "why aren't you listening?" or even "what do you want us to talk about?" Here's the question you need listeners in general and younger listeners in particular to answer: What makes them stop and listen to a conversation? What about an overheard discussion upon which they stumble will make them stick around for more? I suspect that the answer involves as much the people talking as it does the topic. And that dovetails with things we've discussed here before. We've seen how social media has taken over some of the traditional role of talk radio, namely the back-and-forth discussion of breaking news, which means that for those in the demos in which new media have taken root, talk radio is unnecessary... unless it offers something you can't get from Facebook or Twitter. And that something is the host, the personality. Talk radio's primary strategic advantage over every other medium has to be the talent, because you can replicate the conversation on Facebook, on a podcast, or in comments on a blog post or a Reddit thread. But if you have an entertaining host exclusively on your station, that's a big advantage.
The other part of the equation is the topic. For that, you have to ask what people really care about. And we go back to the presidential campaign, and if you're scratching your head looking at PPM numbers and wondering why you're not dominating with all-Obama-and-Romney, all the time, think about the election itself and something you've surely mentioned on the air: The battle is now over except for a fraction of the electorate who remain undecided, and only in a handful of battleground states at that. Everyone else made up their minds long ago. If you've made up your mind about something, how much are you going to want to hear about it? Is the horse race that compelling before the final weeks? Well, it CAN be, but not all the time. If every hour of every day of your show is all about the election, maybe you'll want to mix it up a bit.
That, at least, is what I'd be considering if I was trying to build and hold onto ratings not only for this season but for the long term. If talk radio is going to grow again, it can't just do what it's always done, because there's competition there now. It has to play the strongest hand it has. Just sticking any old host on there to bash the "other guy" isn't resonating with the public like it used to.
I've been plugging Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports here for over a decade. If you haven't been using it to find those topics to which your listeners relate, where have you been? Well, wherever you are, there's a convenient way to go through the topics and get right to the links: follow Talk Topics on Twitter at @talktopics. See? We make it easy for you.
Follow me on Twitter, too: @pmsimon. I'm on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon as well. And I also serve as Editor-in-Chief of Nerdist.com, where you'll find fun stuff about pop culture; watch the Nerdist Channel at YouTube, too.
I'm too tired to come up with a suitable closing joke. Maybe next week.