There are plenty of pundits who think so, but as we recently pointed out every mainstream radio format goes through repeated life cycles. At some point every format seems to be near extinction only to come roaring back, renewed and stronger than ever.
We’ll save a deeper discussion of format life cycles for a later day, but here’s the one aspect that we need to keep in mind as we debate the health of Talk Radio: As a format gains more momentum it attracts listeners of a certain demographic and psychographic.
These listeners become the core audience of the format, and continue to listen as they age. The core audience grows older, moves through the demo, and ultimately ages out of the demo.
The format’s momentum stalls because the format cannot replace its aging listeners with younger listeners.
Talk critics delight in pointing out Talk Radio’s aging audience as proof that Talk is on its last legs, but every format reaches this point in its life cycle.
At this very moment virtually every mainstream format is aging. CHR, AC, and Classic Rock as well as Talk are all getting older.
(Consolidation and radio’s current fixation with centralized programming is worsening the problem, and the major groups that operate cookie-cutter formats across markets are going to pay a price in wilting market shares. But we digress.)
The basic problem is this: People don’t listen to their parent’s radio stations.
Listeners who are aging into Talk Radio’s prime demos have parents who listened to Talk Radio. They may be as politically engaged as their parents, they may share many of the beliefs and viewpoints of their parents, but they still want their own radio station.
If you’re in a format that’s getting a little too old, you have a choice. You can stick with the old format and squeeze as much money out of the aging audience as possible, or you can bite the bullet and recreate the format for younger listeners growing into the target demo.
History shows that the first option makes more money in the short term, but only delays the inevitable. Worse, it opens the door for a new competitor to reinvent the format and hasten your station’s demise.
(There are rare heritage stations that manage to reinvent themselves every decade or so, but the odds of success are low, particularly if there are competitors ready to pounce.)
What does all this mean for Talk Radio?
As formats go, Talk Radio is long in the tooth.
The formula has worked well beyond any other format’s normal life cycle. But while Talk has proved it’s ability to outlive other formats, a format’s age span is no more elastic than a listener’s age span.
The title of Part 1 of this discussion, Talk Radio is Dead, Long Live Talk, is a reference to the 15th century phrase The King is Dead, Long Live the King, addressing the ephemeral status of a king. A king is the ruler of his empire, but upon his death, a new king becomes the ruler. Thus the notion of succession, that kings may die, but the throne is forever.
One day Talk Radio 1.0 will run its course, but that does not mean the end of Talk Radio. It will simply herald Talk Radio 2.0.
History and the cyclical nature of formats makes this a certainty. The only question is what form Talk 2.0 will take.
Pundits and self-proclaimed futurists speak confidently of the future as if they have some special gift for seeing the world over the horizon. However, study after study has shown that the only accurate futurists are the ones that admit we can’t predict the future.
CHR was pretty much written off as a tired out-of-fashion format when Saturday Night Fever reignited the format in 1977. Alternative came out of nowhere to reinvigorate a stumbling Rock format twenty years later.
Reborn formats rarely announce themselves before they take off, and rarely take the form that radio assumes. That’s why we suspect that Talk Radio 2.0 is not going to follow the arc that Talk pundits are predicting.
A lot of the punditry predicts that Talk Radio will become less tempestuous, more measured, less extreme. Nicer.
We don’t think so.
Stations will try it. We’ll have more intellectual hosts, more balanced discussions, less verbal bomb throwing.
But it will fail.
We talk with literally thousands of Talk Radio listeners every year, and our research has shown that the next generation of Talk listeners is different than this generation’s, but no less passionate.
They are not looking for a watered-down version of Talk Radio 1.0
We think Talk Radio 2.0 is going to sound considerably different from today’s Talk, but more from a structural standpoint, not an ideological standpoint.
Perhaps when Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity decide to retire there will be others capable of filling their shoes, but perhaps not.
In their absence, the format will begin to experiment with shorter faster paced shows, and there will be few three and four hour shows. Talk 2.0 will have more in common with the old radio networks than Talk 1.0.
So is Talk Radio dying? No. Talk 1.0 maybe, but there will be a 2.0. Long live Talk!