Opinion: Talk radio still has a place in modern media landscape

5/11/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: May

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to a great presentation at the Jewish Community Center about a medium I love: radio.

“Radio?” a Millennial might ask. Yes, it’s like a podcast only it’s broadcast in a different fashion.

I attended a talk presented by two great radio professionals – Michael Harrison and Bernadette Duncan Harrison – speak about their years of experience in broadcasting. Bernadette’s recent book “Yappy Days,” on which she recounts her years as a producer for such broadcasters such as Larry King and Sally Jesse Raphael, was the springboard for the discussion.

It’s a fun read, by the way, for anyone, who like me, enjoys the spoken word format.

As I recently wrote in Prime Magazine, I was a radio kid. I was the kind of teen who during the summer would see at night what far-way station could I tune into when AM signals were bouncing across the country.

No, I didn’t date much.

The medium played a key role in my life and I longed for years to work in it. Eventually I was successful in doing so for five years for the late and lamented – as I usually say – WREB in Holyoke, one of the market’s few talk stations.

I was the afternoon guy and the house liberal – there’s a surprise – while Jonathan Evans was the mid-day host and Ron Chimelis, yes the columnist for The Republican, was the morning man.

What I liked about radio was the ability to develop a relationship with your audience. They thought you were part of their lives, even if they hated you and as the house liberal during the Reagan Administration I know all about how much I was disliked by some of my loyal listeners. I received some very creative hate mail.

Although this opportunity to speak directly to listeners is certainly part of the talk radio experience, it was also a key element of the appeal of disc jockeys.

“Disc jockey” seems an almost out-moded term today as music radio has been greatly threatened by the advances of digital technology. At a time when one can easily program their own playlist, music radio stations and their established formats seem a bit antiquated.

Talk radio does not.

There are two basic appeals to the format: the element of surprise provided by phone calls and the presentation of interviews with interesting people.

What has helped blunt talks radio’s appeal is the strict ideological format way too many shows employ. I get it: being a strict liberal or conservative means you supposedly have a built-in audience. You preach to a choir who wants their own opinions reinforced.

I’ve always appreciated that Thom Hartmann regularly invites conservatives on his radio program for conversations. Although Hartmann is a liberal, he understands a conversation such as the ones he presents make for compelling radio.

Shaking up a format is essential in my view to keep a show interesting.

Also what hasn’t helped the format is the cult of personality that too many broadcasters have adopted. What has attracted me to the format isn’t a show in which callers are lining up to compliment a host. It’s the topics the host introduces and the guests he or she presents that make for a great show.

What I’ve seen happening is the interesting conversation element of talk radio has been embraced by podcasts. Whether the younger generation understands they are listening to talk radio when they tune into a podcast is simply a matter of semantics.

On a daily basis I listen to both traditional spoken word radio – a lot of the programs presented on NEPR’s news station – and podcasts, such as “This American Life,” “The Nerdist” and an amazingly entertaining one presented by comedian Gilbert Gottfried.

And while I don’t still try to tune into AM stations at night, I still keep a big toe in the medium through my own radio-on-demand program on Pioneer Valley Radio (http://pioneervalleyradio.com) and through appearances on NEPR “The Short List.”

The delivery system for radio may have changed, but the allure of listening to spoken word programming has not.

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