Monday, February 23, 2015

Radio's Problems

It's amazing how bad much of talk radio is these days. Actually, it's shocking.

I finally decided to write about this because lately it's been bothering me so terribly.

A few months ago I had a conversation with the now deceased Kevin Metheny, former Program Director (PD) at KGO. Metheny and I did not get along very well, and much of it stemmed from our first conversation. I'll spare you most of the details, but the bottom line is he was under the impression that AM Talk Radio needed to become more a of "female and lifestyle" based medium.

When I asked Metheny if the plan was to do "hot talk like they tried on FM stations", he told me, "No. Not like that at all!" Only, exactly like that...

Kevin was always right, even when he was wrong.

The crux of our discussion was this: he believed, wrongly, that talk radio hosts needed to be "quick with stories", "in and out", "move on to the next thing", "no one cares about your stories", "keep the show moving", " don't go on and on all one cares", "people don't have the time anymore to listen for 2 or 3 hours", "it's a new day."

In other words, it was just some nonsense he conjured up, that was unproven, and had never worked. Mind you, all of his "ideas" seemed to be direct criticisms of things I did well. Call me old fashioned.

I said to Kevin, "So you think basically anyone can do this? Like anyone in the news room can do my show?"

We went back and forth.

He didn't like where this was going because as the conversation went on, I guess maybe he began to hear his own voice a little bit, and these "new ideas" maybe made less and less sense. At least, when he spoke that's how I felt.

There is no question by the end of our first and final meeting, which came 2 days before he passed away, he knew he was wrong. He hated me for having an opinion, and for being able to counter his beliefs. It was his complete nonsense against my inability to not speak the truth.

Which to be quite honest, I took pride in ramming heads with Kevin. The guy was so awful to me via phone and email, by the time we actually met I was willing to lose my job. This guy harassed me before we even met! Depictions of his image in the Howard Stern movie did not do him justice.

You have to stand for something in life, and I was not going to stand for his harassment, which was daily.

Furthermore, I wasn't going to sit there and listen to someone speak so wrongly about the future of radio. A future I realized he did not understand at all. It was as if he was trying to convince me of something we both knew was wholly untrue. He woke up to an idea one day and decided it was his new vision, and he spent all his time trying to convince people it was true.

It was nonsense. It is nonsense.

Like so many programmers, Kevin was merely guessing at the solution to this programming problem, when in truth, the answer was no different from what it has always been: you need engaging, intelligent talent, who can take some direction.

I once had a conversation with Jack Swanson (former PD), who was largely responsible for building up KGO into the powerhouse it was. He said to me, "Talent is talent. When I see it, I know it." His track record speaks for itself (he didn't think I had much, mind you, but it didn't bother me. He was honest about it).

Truth is though, there is no other answer: talent is talent. Any random news person isn't the necessary talent. The morning guy at POWER 93 isn't the talent on your FM Talker. Just because the person can read stories does not make them talent. Yeah, in Kevin's world ANYONE CAN BE THE TALENT, "if you just follow the format." That's a quote.

If you think the format is what creates the success, then yes, anyone can do it. But it doesn't.

You need real talent to carry a show. One topic, or one hundred topics. Does. Not. Matter. And this talent wasn't an actor before, a blogger now, or a part-time comedian. It's unique. It's dedicated. It captures a person's attention, and then holds it. It's passion and compassion, a relentless work ethic, a desire to win as well as succeed.

The problem is finding this talent, and developing this talent.

Radio used to pay quite a bit of money, and you could even live a decent life as a talk show host. These days it's much more difficult, which is why hosts need to take on more responsibilities at individual stations. That said, if you want it bad enough you do it. The game is the game, so you either play it, or you don't. What something "was" is not even worthy of a conversation. There's no time for "was."

The problem with finding the talent is there's a much smaller pool to pick from. When radio stations used to be more local, you had more people practicing the craft. There's this magazine called TALKERS, which follows the radio industry. They used to release their Top 100 hosts (somehow Stern wasn't #1, every year, forever). I was thinking to myself a couple of weeks ago, "Are there even 100 hosts?"

A lot of what exists now is a bunch of second rate programmers trying to find talent in a smaller pool, or people who never seem to get enough time or leeway to build a station. Many intelligent people who may even be willing to take a programming job have fled this industry because no other industry is seemingly less secure.

Individuals who would never have become PDs 5-10 years ago, are now getting "big jobs", even if what is now construed as big is really not big at all. A lot of the former PDs who succeeded weren't/aren't willing to work for a 50% pay cut, maybe more. I don't blame them. And even the talented, yet inexperienced PDs, live in fear. Most of them trying to keep their heads down, hopeful their first decisions pan out. Usually these people only get to make one big decision, early on. If that doesn't work out, there's the exit.

It's a recipe for failure, but that's the game. "Was" doesn't matter. If you take the job, do the job.

Yet someone has to find the talent, or at the very least, someone has to be able to coach the talent into becoming better talk hosts. A person who gets along with people, and can inspire them. Short of doing this, talk radio is dead.

I know 3 or 4 people who have these skills, and every time we speak I ask them the same thing, "Why are you doing this?" Their response is pretty similar to my question.


Anyway, here's the point of points...

There's one factual aspect of radio which to me proves just how wrong Metheny was, and to an even greater extent, the man who replaced him, Randall Bloomquist (talk about not having a clue). Bloomquist was attempting to carry out Metheny's "plan", even though Metheny was smart enough to recognize what talent looked like. Bloomquist, not so much.

Getting back to this idea they both believed in, that the audience is guided by twitter, Facebook, vine, Instagram, et al. THOSE mediums are simplistic and short, but that does not mean RADIO has to be the same thing! Nothing has ever seemed more simplistic and ridiculous to me that radio should try and emulate social media simply because those things are now popular. The mediums are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. One has NOTHING to do with the other.

Using social media as a promotional tool is a great idea. Tricking yourself into thinking it makes a talk show, bad idea.

Yet these guys weren't capable of figuring that out. Their ideas were sound bites.

Radio is entertaining, but also passive. You don't engage the same way you would with social media, at all. People want to tune into your show, and stay with you as long as they can. They want something they don't have to change every 10 seconds!

Have movies become shorter? Have sitcoms gone from :30 minutes to :10? Have TV dramas shortened?

No! No! No!

In fact, most people engage television programs for an even LONGER PERIOD OF TIME, binge watching programs for 5 or 6 hours on end. I have spoken to people who have watched the entirety of Breaking Bad in a week! Granted, they get what they want, when they want it, but this in no way means people are simplistic, lacking in attention, or short on time. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. Metheny did not want to hear this. "We're not television, Mr. Weintraub!"

"We're also NOT TWITTER!"

Further to this point, a few months ago an attractive 24 year old girl at my wife's job said to me, "I hear you work on the radio." I bring up her age and looks because it was so rare to get a question about radio from this type of person.

Surprised, I replied, "I do."

"Oh my god, I love radio!"

"You do?"

"Yes! Me and all my friends are addicted to SERIAL!"

At that moment I had no idea what Serial even was. I felt dated.

I've come to find out Serial is one of the most interesting radio programs to come out in years, and in many ways it models the same tendencies found in long form dramatic television shows. Celebrities are OBSESSED WITH SERIAL.

After looking into it myself I realized two things: 1) I know why people like SERIAL and 2) I don't like SERIAL.

But I understood why it worked.

From that point on I cannot even begin to tell you how many people under the age of 30 told me they were "hooked on the Serial Podcast." And it proved the point I always intrinsically understood: short and stupid isn't the answer. You can be short, you can be long, but you must engage. That's the bottom line. You must capture the minds of the listener so they need to hear what you have to say next.

The problem here gets back to certain PDs don't know what talent sounds like, and don't know how to craft it. People who are looking for simplistic ideas to solve complex problems. At least Metheny engaged the problem. Can't say much for those who followed him.


Radio has certainly been worked over by the internet, but so has everything else. Except it seems radio is the industry that can't seem to get itself up off the floor. Every other industry has found a way to adapt.

Why is that? Because so many of these programmers think their audience is simple and stupid, and attempt to copy the failed ideas someone else gave them. They've resorted to giving their audience simplistic garbage.

Meanwhile, every other industry that is capturing peoples' imaginations is being run by highly intellectual people, inspirational types, who believe the audience wants something great.

The audience is out there. Stop feeding them what they don't want, and blaming other mediums for your own problem(s). Find people who fix the problems.

Anyway, that's all I have for now...


P.S. If we're friends, I consider you one of the smart ones. :-) Otherwise, we wouldn't be that friendly.

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