While many of you were enjoying a pretty fall weekend, about 100 of us hardy souls made the trek to Atlanta for Don Anthony's first "Talk Show Boot Camp." This is sure to become an annual event, because despite the economic woes plaguing all of radio, Talk Radio is sure to experience growth over the next couple years.
In fact, that was a theme that ran throughout many of the sessions - what's the future of Talk Radio?
As something of an outside observer, it was interesting for me to be that fly on the wall for most of the day (I did do a presentation on the growth of mobile), watching and listening to panelists and speakers, as well as an antsy and inquisitive crowd. Most believe that music radio is imperiled, and that "talk" will continue to see growth, despite some of the fits and starts in PPM.
In fact, many of the speakers and talk bigwigs acknowledged that the renaissance of FM sports talk radio might be just the beginning of different strains/fragments of talk that are sure to pop up along the way. At the same time, many lamented why so many broadcasters have simply taken the easy way out, trying to find the next Rush. As many emphasized, the world already has too many conservative talkers.
Like a lot of these get-togethers, the panels were dominated by white men - many of whom were well north of 40 or 50. I recently saw a speech by "Late Night" head writer, Bill Scheft, plugging his new book, Everything Hurts. During the Q&A phase, he was asked why there aren't more women on the Letterman writing team. Schaft replied that of 100 submissions, perhaps two come from women. So it's a chicken and egg thing, right? I'm sure that many talk PDs would concur about that lopsided ratio when it comes to applications they receive for local talk gigs.
But isn't that part of the disconnect? So much of "Talk Radio" inevitably sounds the same, and targets that Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly crowd. And yet, as many noted, there would have to be "holes" for different forms of talk that appeal to women, people of color, and other segments not served by most stations in the format.
That's why it was refreshing to hear from some of the upstarts - people who have ended up in Talk, coming from non-traditional places. A case in point is Darla Jaye, who spent most of her career partnered with a guy on music stations, thus getting typecast, as the "rock chick sidekick." Fighting through the doubts and stereotypes, she has emerged as a bona fide, different voice in talk, and has ended up making a name for herself on KMBZ in Kansas City.
Then there was India DeClair. She does a show on Blog Talk Radio ("Real. Raw. Right Now.") and is desperately trying to break through. She showed up at "TSBC" on her own dime (there was a lot of that), and in the middle of a great panel that featured Phil Hendrie and Larry Wachs ("Regular Guys"), she stood up and asked some of those hard questions about why Talk Radio limits itself and the audiences it reaches. It was a moment, and it punctuated an already candid discussion. Hendrie and Wachs, and lunchtime keynoter Neal Boortz - all heatedly questioned management and ownership decisions throughout their time on stage, and did so in a heartfelt, humorous, and entertaining way.
Sam Milkman, now with Coleman Insights, had a solid presentation about PPM that continued to leave us with the feeling that while PPM changes everything, it changes nothing. Great radio finds a way to win, whether it's the diary or the meter. Kipper McGee was also on-hand to provide his insightful digital perspective, echoed by talker Doug Stephan and Envision's Danno Wolkoff, who made it a point to talk about the importance of podcasting and mobile.
The best panels were the ones that brought together strong hosts, great consultants (like Valerie Geller and David Bernstein), and just mixed it up. What makes a great talk show host? It's like that definition of "pornography" - hard to explain but we know it when we hear it.
That's why many speakers mentioned that while Limbaugh and Beck have built empires, it is less about ideology and more about showbiz, and many like the double-duty host, Todd Schnitt (MJ Kelli), credited their music radio background with helping them get through the transition of learning how to be entertaining without music.
As for why Talk Radio has gravitated toward men with its macho attitude and metal bumpers, panelists continued to grapple with Darla and India's comments about audiences left on the table. And then it was Radio-Info's Tom Taylor who reminded the room that public radio has filled that gap, attracting a huge audience of thoughtful women (and men) who prefer their issues discussed in a style that never shouts.
As someone who has worked with networks like NPR and PRI, as well as many public radio stations for most of the last decade, it is amazing to me how many commercial radio broadcasters are clueless about how these stations sound - and how strong their ratings are in market after market.
Al Peterson (another former "AOR" guy - and there were a number of them in attendance) told me that even Helen Keller could have seen Talk Radio coming. Well, perhaps. But it wasn't that long ago that "Free FM" crashed and burned in market after market. And the sports radio explosion of 2009 - energized by the visionary CBS programmer Tom Bigby - is still a very recent phenomenon.
After sitting through more than eight hours of sessions, it was another impressive display of passion mixed with frustration with an industry that continues to be so focused on debt that it has lost all sense of investment and content development.
And I couldn't help but wonder whether the format name - "Talk Radio" - was perhaps not the best choice. If they had to do it all over again, maybe "Personality Radio" would have been a better call. Because the stars of this format don't just talk - they listen, they debate, they moderate, they interview, and the great ones entertain.
It's about personalities. And it's about brands. Formats aside, companies that aren't investing in nurturing and maintaining their current talent - while growing their replacements - are either going to suffer or find their fortunes totally dependent on radio's syndication monoliths. But as more and more successful stations are proving, growing local talent is a key to long-term survival. That sure didn't happen much this year.