This is a public proclamation: Political Talk Radio is dead. Good riddance! Strangely for an industry that prides itself on being the absolute forefront of information, and whose personalities regularly eschew so-called low information voters, it couldn’t be convinced of that fact despite that it is literally beating them over the head. By the way, it is beating them over the head. And I don’t say this lightly.
As the manager of a small and new low power AM start up in Chicago, and a current and former host with a sublime gift of B.S. my driving inspiration is not only to entertain and inform, but cut through the clutter of everything else packing the airwaves. The key there is innovation, and I am astounded as we emerge more and more into the market at the fundamental disdain for innovation in this industry. More than that, I am stunned at the absolute disregard and ignorance by programmers of a rapidly changing radio audience. Strangely, this is exactly where the industry began.
And this is where I began with talk radio, decades ago. I grew up on “Super CFL” and John “Records” Landecker’s “Boogie Checks” on WLS. By the Late 1970s I was hooked on Steve Dahl with “Disco Demolition” on FM radio in Chicago, and followed him and sidekick Garry Meir over to WLS again. The hook was a mix of Dahl’s radio soap opera home life and an irreverent take on the news of the day. By the 1980s I discovered a ranting but even keeled Bob Lassiter(copied unabashedly to the hilt by Michael Savage). I even found amusement in newcomer Rush Limbaugh’s anti-establishment “America held hostage,” shtick after the election of Bill Clinton, not yet aware of the political and ideological manufacturing of his emerging brand. Despite his nakedly conservative slant there still seemed balance to talk radio with hosts like Jay Marvin. Balance was quickly forced from the radio lexicon, and even Rush Limbaugh could hardly escape the irony that it was his pretend radio nemesis, Bill Clinton, who was instrumental in turning nearly all of broadcast radio into a propaganda tool for corporate messaging paraded as political discourse.
And so radio devolved from a true public medium into something fundamentally antithetical to real public interest. Worse, it abandoned real entertainment. But this is more about format than content. Content will follow one of two paths; it will be driven in a propagandistic way by entities who wish to manipulate the audience or the audience will support and drive content in a truly empowered consumer market. In a nation that remains politically moderate, socially liberal and financially conservative we have seen an industry move to message decidedly to the Right, so obviously offering true balance and debate has not been an industry standard. The collapse of talk radio’s audience amid a rise of internet radio and social media indicates that traditional grid-like formats is a thing of the past. That programmers and advertisers demand breaks at the :20 and :40 with a yammering talk host filling the entire content is chasing away key demographics.
I had this conversation with my retired neighbor the other day, explaining how audiences are changing. She isn’t comfortable with listening to radio on her phone or computer and prefers the radio. All of my younger activist friends listen exclusively on their iphones, tablets and smartphones. AM radio? And they may listen live, or grab the file/podcast to list or share later. They want texture, energy and something that holds their shorter attention span. My neighbor, who will likely not rush out or await to purchase the newest phone or smartpad, represents the audience talk radio is currently locked to. The audience of tomorrow is tuning out, losing interest and going elsewhere.
A fair amount of that has to do with politics. People over 50 tend to vote in higher numbers. When it is all about the politics, this demographic produces results as in votes. They will sit through hours of Limbaugh or Hannity or Beck, younger audiences, the ones that advertisers covet, will not. I can already hear the shouts and disagreements, but those are the dying cries of an industry trapped by convention. Advertisers pay the bills, right? Especially those of you on the Right or corporate side, suddenly it isn’t about the marketplace? Hmm.
The new audience wants texture, music, movement, a 3 or 5 minute segment with a personality on an issue, and 15 or 20 minutes for a great interview. In short they want a show, which is not what they are getting from blah-blah-blah talk radio currently.
The radio audience of tomorrow is already here, though almost nobody in the industry is listening to them. I have already worked out a sketch of what that landscape will look like. We’ve already begun crafting and instituting it at que4 radio in Chicago. It will revolutionize the industry and remake stations that are willing to evolve to the realities of a marketplace that is changing fundamentally. For those who don’t, we’ll look for your bones in the natural history museum beside the other dinosaurs!
WC Turck is the author of 4 books, including the critically acclaimed Bosnian War Memoir “Everything for Love,” and Broken: One soldier’s unexpected journey home, at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com. Turck wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” The most dangerous voice on the Left, he can be heard Monday, Wednesday and Fridays from 9-11am in Chicago, and 1-3pm on the Revolution and Beer show with partner and cohost BL Murray on AM1680, www.que4.org.