Jeff Jarvis is talking about the proposal to sell the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway to private companies and let them run the toll roads, and he's properly skeptical:
They should be doing just the opposite: Tear down the toll booths and fire the bureaucracies fed by them. I�ve long marveled how the Interstates by me operate with much less visible infrastructure � staff, facilities, equipment, expense � than the toll roads. Tolls roads cause tremendous inconvenience. And they tempt government � and now private enterprise � to try � though often unsuccessfully � to turn the public infrastructure into a profit center.
Sure. And that's what we were talking about back in about 1992 at New Jersey 101.5 radio, when at Walter Sabo's suggestion- he dimly recalled such a thing- I pored through state documents and news accounts and discovered that, yes, the original charter for the toll roads specified that when the initial bonds to build the roads were to be paid off, the toll booths would come down and the roads would be free. After only a few years, however, when nobody was looking, the state allowed the roads to float more bonds and borrow more money, and the original rules were mysteriously forgotten. We went hammer-and-tongs after the politicians and bureaucracies, and here's what we got:
Death threats. Angry toll collectors' unions. Intimidation. And, ultimately, no change. The roads kept the tolls, and each kept its bureaucracy (we took some pleasure in pointing out that nowhere else in the world did a state maintain two separate wasteful toll road bureaucracies with separate media relations offices- press flacks for a road!). We tried, but while our listeners were motivated, we couldn't get enough of the populace and the politicians to go with us.
But it was a great time, because we were addressing what mattered to our listeners, and they responded. Our ratings were great, and people felt that we were taking their side and doing something about the quality of life in our state. And when we did that, I expected other radio stations nationwide to "borrow" the campaign for their own areas. After all, they're quick to grab onto the latest "Jack" or "Jammin' Oldies" or other fad music format. Why wouldn't they want to do something that actually worked AND had something to do with the lives of their listeners?
Here's the list of stations that did their own "Trash the Tolls" campaign in our wake:
I'm reminded of that when I turn on talk radio today. I hear a lot of Cindy Sheehan talk, a lot of frankly boring national political talk, but precious little of the stuff that actually matters to listeners. Gas prices are passing three bucks a gallon and we're talking about Cindy Sheehan? Traffic is impossible all over and we're obsessing about illegal immigration? Cable companies are charging an arm and a leg if you have the temerity to buy a new HDTV- mine is charging about thirty bucks a month on top of the regular $41. just to add HD service, plus another $15. or $20. per additional set- and we're hearing talk about Karl Rove?
Talk radio shares are slipping badly over the first half of 2005. You wanna know why? Maybe it's because the Cindy Sheehan story isn't that big with the average person. Maybe people have had pretty much enough of the illegal immigration dance. Maybe you can take a tip from over a decade ago, when we were talking about what mattered to our listeners and tried to do something about it, and got big ratings as a result. New Jersey 101.5, incidentally, is still doing that, and still getting big ratings. Perhaps there's something to be learned from that for the rest of the radio industry.
Or maybe they'll all just change to "Jack-FM," because then the General Manager won't get any complaint calls from politicians. GMs hate those calls.