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Why Nothing Changes in Talk Radio

Today, I’m taking a back seat to the inimitable Darryl Parks, a legend in the world of commercial radio spoken word. Darryl has an extraordinarily blunt and insightful perspective on what ails Talk Radio, and you can read it here. A few highlights:

I guess I hit close to home with my prior blog post on the Ratings Disaster that is today’s talk radio. The June PPM’s suck for talk radio. Hell. The diary markets coming in are bringing little joy. And many in the talk radio industry just sit back and continue on autopilot with the same hard line conservative narrative hour after hour, ignoring the cultural disconnect that’s happened between the format and society as the once unsinkable Titanic of radio formats begins to slip below water.

So who’s married to left- or right-wing Talk Radio? Why is that the limit of our spoken word imagination? Is it the fault of PD’s or GM’s?

Candidly, the program director of today has no say in programming decisions and the corporations don’t want a market PD with thoughts, ideas or any clue on how to correct talk radio’s problems. They don’t get a vote. Many of today’s talk radio PD’s are glorified board ops, never being taught and mentored in programming, coaching talent or strategic planning. Many have no on-air experience. They are facilitators and are rewarded for nodding along with the status quo and punished for speaking out. They know it’s best to keep their mouths shut in order to live another day and survive the next round of RIF’s. Many GM’s are facilitators as well. The ones that dare defend a talk station’s unique place and heritage in their market are viewed as troublemakers. They are given unreasonable budget demands from corporate owners which handcuff them. They have no control to increase staffs even when it makes good business sense due to competitive situations and improving economies. They also have no control in decreasing staffs. They are told to RIF associates even when it may damage the operations they are ultimately held responsible for. “We make the decisions, you’re responsible.” Doesn’t seem right, does it?

Are the radio corporations themselves at fault?

Corporate radio is a vertically integrated model. One company owns the distribution platforms, the syndicator, the rep firm and the chosen talent. Clear Channel, for example, owns stations and the syndicator Premiere Networks. They signed Rush Limbaugh to a reported multiyear, $400 million contract. The media has reported on Limbaugh’s contract for years. For a company to have any chance of making that type of investment back, the show must be broadcast on hundreds of stations. Conveniently, a company like Clear Channel owns many of these radio stations in most cities. Even if the show gets poor ratings the local station has no say in continuing or canceling the show.

It’s worth noting that Talk Radio as a category is needlessly narrow. And the longer radio exists, the more narrowly we – the industry – seem to define the category, in part for the reasons Darryl mentions.

Consider the fact that many music station morning shows are most or even ALL Talk, yet we don’t consider those to be in the same category as “Talk Radio.” Why the heck not?

Consider that there’s a parallel world of Public Radio where “Talk” seems to know no boundaries, and listeners are responding by the millions.

Consider the realm of podcasting, which is populated almost exclusively by “Talk” content, where even the most popular shows never ever ever seem to cross over into the world of radio (by the way, radio broadcasters, the surest way to doom “Talk Radio” is to ignore the up-and-coming “Talk” shows on the platforms listeners prefer).

Consider that Sports Radio is Talk Radio, but nobody ever seems to define it that way.

Consider a world where innumerable online radio platforms can spit out a more personalized version of whatever music you want than even the finest radio station, and ask yourself where your advantage in the future will come from: The songs or what’s between them?

The size of the radio industry and its investments in its star assets are surely obstacles to the novelty which will invariably drive its future, but having a big stake in the past is never an adequate excuse not to invent the future.

What if Columbia Records still leaned on its record club? Remember the LP for a penny?

What if Netflix had only DVD’s by mail (in the not too distant future, they will likely get out of the DVD business altogether)?

What if NBC was still running Cheers?

What if George Lucas was still directing Star Wars?

What if Howard Stern was still airing his shows from 1989? Whoops, it turns out he is.

A successful business model does not preclude wise investments in the future – it only makes them more urgent.

The goose doesn’t lay golden eggs forever.

Eventually you need a new goose.

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