The Ticking of the Clock

| September 10, 2011

By Michael Harrison

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –– Here are 10 things broadcasters need to know about the enormous changes taking place in talk radio at this very moment, working our way from #10 to #1 in order of importance:

10) Industry conferences need to be downsized and regionalized.  Although there are still some good ones –– including TALKERS’ long-running New Media Seminar –– the day of the three-day, high-cost, national radio convention is clearly coming to an end –– at least for the foreseeable future.  The average broadcaster cannot afford the high cost of registration and travel to these events, nor the commitment of time that they demand.  Sadly, nor can most players in the sponsor pool.  Regional conferences that take place within a single day (eliminating the need for hotel lodging) and are affordable to the industry’s workforce –– exposed nationally by digital audio and video –– will and should be the wave of the future.  The forthcoming “Los Angeles Regional Talkers Forum” being presented by TALKERS in association with the Los Angeles Press Club set for October 20 is an example of this new kind of industry gathering.  We are putting our money where our mouth is.  This event is free.

 9) Intellectual property (IP) will dominate talk radio’s legal concerns.  Radio business legal issues have historically focused on FCC rules and regulations, licensee relations with Washington, DC, and standard talent/labor employment contracts.  These areas of law will remain important, but there is and will continue to be a substantial increase in the pertinence of intellectual property law.  Expect to see more independent contractor talent deals replacing traditional employer/employee relationships and a growing concern over who owns what in terms of program content and its application in a digital environment.  Intellectual property rights will increasingly serve as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table.  Broadcasters will also have to be extra vigilant about protecting their rights and not infringing on others’ in this sensitive environment.  The old model of the radio station as the center of programming emanation is on the way out ­­–– including for local talent.  More and more hosts will be working out of home and office studios via remote.  Look for companies such as Comrex Corporation to enjoy mega-growth as well as manufacturers of moderately priced broadcasting equipment.

8)  Radio station values will continue to be shaky.  Most will fall.  Set against an ongoing weak economic tide that lowers all ships and facing increased competition from unregulated, unlicensed media, FCC licenses will probably never again appreciate based on “stick value” alone.  The only stations that have a chance of holding their value, let alone appreciate in the years ahead, will be those that have track records in the black based on earnings versus debt.  This does not mean the death of radio.  It simply indicates the need for new business models with priorities and expectations based on reality.  Radio will start the slow but steady move back to being a mom and pop industry.  By “mom and pop” I mean manageable, privately-held groups owned and operated by smaller companies.

 7)  There are lessons to be learned from sports talk radio.  It is not only growing by leaps and bounds, but it has become and will continue to be a model for other commercial spoken-word formats to emulate.  Some of the best examples of personality, localism, targeting and marketing are happening on sports talk stations –– processes that can easily be emulated by other spoken-word formats.  They say sports are a microcosm of life.  Well, sports talk radio is a microcosm of all talk radio and its potential permutations.

6)  News/talk stationality is rapidly evolving beyond the extreme left and right options.  Don’t be left behind.  Unconditional partisanship is yesterday’s news –– America’s political middle is in a state of growing disgust and the extremes are disunited –– as independent, journalistic criticism is replacing blind loyalty to politicians and parties.  That doesn’t mean liberalism and conservatism are dead, they just need to be represented in a more flexible and mindful manner.  This is ultimately a very good thing for talk radio and its integrity that will create new opportunities for fresh (or freshened) talent.  Get rid of the talking points.  They are like playing Frankie Avalon records right after the Beatles invaded.  Do not hitch your wagon to bogus stars.  Credibility is a precious commodity in this business.  NOTE TO PROGRESSIVES:  Serve the poor, don’t just talk about them.  They are probably the fastest-growing “lifestyle” group in America.

5)  The invasion of FM will continue and intensify.  Speaking of invasions, what’s happening with talk radio is our industry’s version of D-Day.  Yes, after all these years of false starts, it is finally happening!  Music radio truly is in a perilous crisis and talk can save FM in the 20-teens the way it saved AM in the 1990s.  But it will require the open-mindedness and courage to launch new, unproven formats.

4)  The PPM is increasing the need for top notch weekend and part-time talent.  Stations and syndicators must view weekenders and fill-ins with the same respect and value that baseball places on designated hitters and relief pitchers.  “Best of” shows need to be original productions of the best used and great new material as opposed to repeats from the can.  Weekends, holidays and overnights must be re-evaluated.

3)  Now, more than ever, talk radio’s relationship with the automobile is vital and must be carefully protected.  The PPM is forcing radio to be programmed to precisely where people are, what people are doing, and how people are feeling during the potential listening process.  Group listening is out, solo listening is in.  Activity and mindset of the listeners are now all important considerations.  The automobile plays and will continue to play a growing role in determining talk radio’s future.  Here’s a thought:  If talk radio rises to its fullest potential during crises (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes), perhaps it should address crises every day.  I don’t mean to make them up.  People face real life crises every single day.  It is just a matter of recognizing what is important… what is urgent.

2)  The internet is rewiring the human brain and nervous system.  Recognize this process and learn all about it.  It is creating a sea change in humanity like none we’ve ever experienced since the harnessing of electricity.  And yes, contrary to the “rah-rah-radio-let’s-go-back-to-the-old-days” thinking that so many in this business cling to –– this phenomenon applies directly to the state and future of radio.

1)  The clock is ticking.  Faster and faster.  What we consider to be the “new” media is already old.  What we consider to be the old media is actually ancient.  Everything discussed in this column is happening much quicker than any of us think.  As a matter of fact, the clock is not ticking.  Clocks don’t tick anymore.

Michael Harrison is publisher of TALKERS magazine.  He can be e-mailed at michael@talkers.com.   

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Category: Michael Harrison