The Talkers 2018 conference in New York City is over but a few things remain in my mind after attending the event. Michael Harrison and his team put together an excellent full day schedule which was well attended and supported by industry leaders. Altogether 71 people from a variety of backgrounds in the media business spoke, and finding an open seat in the Helen Mills Theater was not easy.
Having spent countless hours at conferences during my career, and especially over the past three years since launching BSM, I’ve viewed each of these events as a chance to expand my knowledge and grow my network. I realize some things we hear are repeated year after year but there’s also new information and opinions shared which can go a long way in helping you grow as an industry professional. I also think there are many similarities between sports and news/talk so if I can pick up a few tips to benefit my clients, I’m glad to make the trip to attend.
Before I dive into some of my takeaways, I want to address one item which came up last week. I learned that there were a number of people upset that Alex Jones was listed on the conference schedule. As it turns out, his appearance was cancelled. I’m not here to tell you that you should or shouldn’t attend an event based on your feelings towards someone who’s views you strongly reject, but I refuse to let my personal beliefs get in the way of an opportunity to learn and strengthen professional relationships. I’d rather walk out of the room, make a phone call or grab a bite to eat during a session which I’m opposed to, instead of punishing 70 other talented speakers. But hey, that’s just me.
As far as the sessions were concerned, there were 15 jammed into the 8-hour day. Some flowed smoothly and delivered tremendous information. Some were tougher due to an overcrowding of guest speakers and a short period of time to explore subjects. Overall though it was a productive and beneficial experience.
For starters, I thought Karen Hunter of SiriusXM did a nice job when accepting the Freedom of Speech Award. She reminded the audience that the microphone has an ability to destroy people if you’re not responsible with it. Her points on aiming to bring people together to create a coalition, and discuss issues and ideas in an honest manner was refreshing. I also loved her commentary on challenging hosts to find a way to add to people’s peaks rather than their pain.
Michael Harrison also provided a few gems, starting with a reminder that the only thing holding back the radio industry is the radio industry itself. He mentioned that we’ve got to be open and willing to share our experiences with others because it allows us to learn and build a better industry. This is something I’ve challenged sports radio people time and time again to do a better job of. If you don’t tell your brand’s story, you can’t bitch when it’s told poorly by someone else.
In his fireside chat with FOX News television and radio personality Brian Kilmeade, Harrison asked about the challenge of conducting real interviews with high profile people without kissing their ass. In Kilmeade’s case, he’s had a rapport with Donald Trump prior to his becoming President, so now when conversations take place, there’s an even bigger focus placed on whether the FOX News host is being fair or lobbing softballs.
Kilmeade said his approach to those situations is to lead with a fact, ask a question and avoid sensationalizing. He said President Trump isn’t unwilling to hear criticism but he expects to be treated fairly.
One great example shared by Kilmeade was when he interviewed WWE Chairman Vince McMahon during his steroids trial. Brian began by trying to boost him up before the discussion by pointing out how he enjoyed the product to which McMahon replied “I don’t need a fan. Just ask the questions. I have the answers.” It showed Kilmeade that if a person has the truth on their side, they’re less worried about facing the music.
After Kilmeade’s appearace, Beasley Radio CEO Caroline Beasley spoke with Harrison and shared how much she believes in the sports talk space, proclaiming 98.5 The Sports Hub to be the best sports radio brand in the nation. Beasley then offered some thoughts on the digital space, and pointed out that the company launched 63 of their stations on Alexa, and now receives 12% of their listening on the platform. Among her biggest concerns was the lack of real numbers due to on-air and online listening not receiving true measurement.
Following Beasley was Salem Media Group’s SVP of the Spoken Word format Phil Boyce. The former WABC programmer presented some outstanding data to show what NewsTalk listeners want most, and explained how that data should be applied when hosting shows. The reason why Sean Hannity mentions the words “Breaking News” within the first 30 seconds of his show is because data shows it to be the number one thing people take an interest in. He said it’s the understanding of an audience which has allowed FOX News to continue winning despite losing 3/4 of their stars.
Boyce labeled Donald Trump “the gift that keeps on giving” and talked about how his ascension to the highest office has been the biggest boom for NewsTalk since Monica Lewinsky’s infamous encounter with Bill Clinton. Boyce read a great quote from the Washington Examiner which said “The President is one of the wildest, most exciting things to ever happen to this industry, and if you think there’s a chance that the national media will dial back their 24-hour Trump coverage in 2020, willingly passing up the financial benefits that come with covering this circus, then you don’t know media.”
Insights were then shared by Boyce from Salem’s research which highlighted what people value most and least on talk radio. He pointed out how some hosts and stations have spent time talking about nonsense and how it’s come back to bite them in the ass. If time allows, I encourage you to log on to Talkers.com and watch the video presentation. It’s on the top right of the page and about an hour and fifteen minutes in. It’s well worth your time it if you’re a fan of research and how it shapes a programming strategy.
A Talkers conference wouldn’t be complete without a visit from WFAN afternoon host Mike Francesa. The New York sports radio icon mentioned that we are on a collision course between content and platforms. He offered a few thoughts on the demand for live play by play and why he expects sports to deliver more suitors and dollars in the future. One note which Francesa shared which won’t make programmers happy is when he pointed out that he does a self-sufficient show and receives minimal involvement from his PD. Given his length of time and success in the business, Mike doesn’t believe he needs to be regularly coached. He closed up by challenging on-air talent to take a stronger interest in learning the business, especially the ratings and revenue portion of their jobs, adding how Don Imus and Brent Musburger were influential on his development as an industry professional.
After hearing about the values of sports and news/talk radio, the conversation shifted to the podcasting space. Podcast One Chairman and CEO Norm Pattiz took the stage and touted the various ways brands can use metrics to satisfy advertisers. Pattiz pointed out how uniques are similar to cume and don’t often tell the whole story of a program/brand’s success. Among the biggest issues Pattiz notices is how podcasting has been sold as value added rather than programming with unique value. He believes the most important sale is a host read commercial, and it has increased value in podcasting due to limited commercial availability.
In closing, the Podcast One CEO cautioned that we haven’t reached the golden age of podcasting yet. In fact he feels we’re not even close to it yet. When exploring talent to add to his platform he said if someone can generate an audience, then they’re attractive, because anyone with an audience, has an ability to sell something to them. He shared that someone with 50K in social media followers won’t have the door shut on them but if they walk in with a few million that’s going to immediately get the company’s attention because podcasting recognizes and builds influencers.
One of my favorite sessions of the day was hearing Steven Goldstein of Amplifi Media present his findings on the growth of smart speakers. Goldestein, who is in business with Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media, noted that smart speakers are growing faster than smart phones did. He said we’re moving to a post-text world where voice becomes the number one way to communicate, and shared that by the year 2020 it’s expected that 50% of all searches will be done thru voice. Goldstein presented some great numbers to further illustrate the importance of the smart speaker space, mentioning that 20% of Americans now one one, Google AdWords revenue has soared to $95 billion, and Amazon has built a 5000 person staff to work on Alexa.
How that applies to radio is pretty simple according to Goldstein. He said smart speakers have put radio back in the home, but it’s critical for stations to develop skills so they can be easily found. He cautioned that the first time a listener searches for the brand and can’t find it, is the last time they search for it. Another valuable reminder was that when it involves the voice space, there is no AM/FM button. Currently there is an abundance of choice including 5 streaming services, one hundred thousand radio stations and five hundred fifty thousand podcasts. If ever there was a time to analyze your brand, people, and programming and consider the ways they can be received on smart speaker devices, this is the time.
The final session which I found interesting was The Big Picture discussion which featured Mike McVay of Cumulus Media, Justin Chase of Beasley, Chris Berry of iHeartMedia, Julie Talbott of Premiere Radio Networks, and EVP of the Weiss Agency, Heather Cohen. Over the course of thirty minutes the panel answered questions from ABC News Radio VP/GM Steve Jones on the present state of the business and expected changes. Chase specifically raised some valuable points on radio’s relationship with the auto industry and how it’s in a good place and important to the future of our business. McVay announced that Cumulus has begun reworking incentives for their people, taking into account digital impact, not just ratings. The sense among all involved was that podcasting is certainly important, and a big part of each group’s future plans, but the optimism for radio has not wavered.
Other notable speakers included Westwood One President Suzanne Grimes, AM 970 The Answer host and known comedian Joe Piscopo, WABC morning host Sid Rosenberg, and program directors Craig Schwalb, Scott Masteller, Grace Blazer and Mike Bendixen. Bendixen in particular won the day for most swear words used during a session. Before you judge him, let me point out that it was entertaining. It not only showcased Mike’s true passion for the business, but the reality is that many of us talk this way on a regular basis, so I appreciated the authenticity.
If there was one thing to point out that I found concerning it’s that these conferences continue to be supported and attended by an aging demographic. This isn’t just a Talkers issue, it’s an industry issue. To make it even more depressing, rarely do you find personalities in the room looking to learn.
That leaves me to wonder, are industry members in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s interested where we are and where we’re headed? With the world changing as rapidly as it is, and companies investing time and resources every day to get an edge, do we honestly believe the answers to progress are going to come by just doing the job in front of us inside our own hallways? I continue to see an issue with reaching younger professionals, and I question what these conferences will look like in 10-15 years. If we don’t take advantage of the opportunities to learn while they exist, we may not have that option in the future. I don’t think that helps any of us.