Get On My Lawn!
November 9, 2012
Okay, now, see, I have a point I want to make about talk radio, and it comes from my observations about the election. Yet, I don't want this to get entangled too deeply in the political part. Between the gloating of the winners and the whining of the losers, I've had enough of politics for a while. It's become worse than sports (and I say that as a Philadelphia Eagles fan who knows the depths to which we can sink). That's not, however, where I want to go at the moment.
What I want to focus on is a cultural shift that I think had an impact on the race. It's not purely the demographic numbers, either, although that's part of it. Politics has always been a game in which image plays a strong part, whether it was Ike the military leader contrasted with the more academic Stevenson, or young, cool JFK against sweaty, ill-at-ease Nixon, right up to now, when the president had a younger, hipper image than his non-drinking, non-swearing "old rich guy" opponent. It doesn't matter what the reality is, that's how they were positioned in people's minds. (Hold on, I'll relate this to talk radio in a second) And the campaigns reinforced this in ways that had nothing to do with issues and substance: the Obama campaign had Katy Perry and Jay-Z along with universally beloved icons like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder at appearances. The Romney campaign had the Marshall Tucker Band. Okay, they had some others (Kid Rock and some Country acts), but the lasting impression is that one side had current, relevant cultural connections and the other had, um, the Marshall Tucker Band, which hasn't been in the Top 40 for 35 years. (DISCLAIMER: "Can't You See" is still a great song)
Sure, that's a shallow measure, but let's think about where talk radio is right now. Its demographics continue to get older and older, and the FM effect of grabbing younger demos isn't necessarily a long-term one. That's because so many of the stations emigrating from AM stick to their old ways at their new home: same old hosts, same old imaging, same old topics, same old everything. Meanwhile, they're hoping to attract and hold a younger audience.
But that won't do it. Talk radio right now -- both conservative and liberal -- is the station playing the Marshall Tucker Band hoping to attract Katy Perry fans. That's not to say that there isn't a large audience for the classics, but it's an aging audience. The stars of talk radio are the kind of guys who make fun of the things younger audiences actually like. Seriously, how many hosts in talk radio have any knowledge or appreciation of currently popular music, or TV, or movies? If you hear any talk about pop culture on most talk shows, it's dismissive of the things younger listeners like. I'm not suggesting that you'll be able to convert teenage girls who love Lady Gaga or dudes who are really into MMA into talk radio listeners right now, but I'm suggesting that if you sound like someone who doesn't have anything in common, culturally, with a twenty-something or thirty-something person, it doesn't matter if what you're talking about (taxes, for example) would be relevant to them. Packaging is critical to selling substance, and talk radio, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs, can come across as Old Fart Jubilee to anyone under 50.
Politicians -- some of them, at least -- know this. Talk radio doesn't always seem to follow. It's not a matter of the age of the hosts, either: You can be chronologically young and still appear to be old (think about your embarrassingly out-of-it parents when you were a kid and realize that they were, at the time, maybe even younger than you are today). You can be older and still be relevant and culturally aware. It's all about relating to the audience you want to attract. Too much of talk radio seems to feature the cultural attitudes of your grandpa.
Thus, talk radio, on AM or FM, has that "get off my lawn" image. Meanwhile, younger listeners ARE listening to talk radio, but it's to things like podcasts and NPR. I don't think that's an ideological thing, I think it's just that the alternatives to traditional talk radio seem to them either cooler or less embarrassing to admit that you like. Generations are coming up being told by their peers that talk radio is uncool, and if that's what they believe, then that's what it is. Perception becomes reality. You can, however, change that, and it's as simple as being more relatable to someone in that age group, not by necessarily changing your politics -- turns out that there ARE conservative young people and liberal seniors -- but rather by including their perspective in your programming. It doesn't matter what age you are; If you hear a host and he or she seems to like the music or TV shows or other things you like, you're more likely to connect and listen to that host than someone who sounds like he or she is as disdainful of the things you like as your parents were.
Which is to say, it's time for talk radio to evolve, and I'm not talking about political position here. It's a stylistic thing, it's a topical thing, it's a relatability thing. It's almost 2013. If oldies stations can survive by updating their playlists and calling it "Classic Hits," perhaps talk stations should be updating their playlists, too.
Okay, the election's behind us, but there's still a lot to talk about. Avoid the post-election letdown by picking your topics from the hundreds available at Talk Topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports. And follow Talk Topics on Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item at Talk Topics. Also, don't miss "10 Questions With..." KSL/Salt Lake City News Director and APD Sheryl Worsley, who happens to run one of radio's most prominent newsrooms and has a lot to say about the state of radio news.
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.
Next week, I'll be at Talk Show Boot Camp in New Orleans, moderating a panel with top talk radio folks talking about how they recruit new talent. At least, they THINK that's what the panel's going to be about. (Insert sinister laugh here) (Oh, fine, I'll stick to the topic. But you never know what I'll pull, so register and come on out. And if you'll be there, we should hang out, right?