This week's All Access newsletter is a reaction to yet another organized campaign to try and tilt talk radio discussions in a particular political direction. Naturally, I use that to make another point:
Remember when talk radio shows talked about stuff like abortion and gun control, and how it was always a spirited but informative debate between reasonable minds on either side of the....
Okay, it was NEVER like that. One of the first things Baby Talk Show Hosts are taught before cracking the mic open for the first time is that some topics are off limits, not because they're not worth discussing but because you can't. And you can't because organized callers on either side of the issues are ready to fill up your lines and flood your show with an endless, and pointless, parade of talking points. Some would actually read off the stuff they were fed. And, at the end, not a single mind would be changed, nobody would budge, nothing got solved, and the entertainment value of the hour would be even lower than the information value.
Sadly, you're starting to see that with other topics, too, the latest example being the news that the Democratic National Committee has launched a website that instructs supporters of the president's health care plan how to call in to conservative talk shows, and provides, yes, talking points and "tips" on how to get past the screeners. Health care, whether you're for or against the current proposal, is one of the most important topics facing your listeners, and while the problem is pretty obvious to everyone, the solutions are divergent and contentious. But the topic deserves more than sloganeering and talking points, yet that's what both sides are serving up, now in handy organized-caller form.
What do you do with this? How do you do an entertaining and informative show about this topic if you have people queuing up to spout the party line, just like for those other Topics Which Shall Never Be Discussed? That's where your screener is a critical player in the success of your show. A radio show that takes calls needs a gatekeeper who can recognize the robo-callers, who can quickly get a caller to distill what he or she wants to say into a quick, effective comment, who can weed out the phonies and the talking points readers on either side. A caller-driven show is only as good as the calls that get on the air, so the screener may be the most important person in the building.
That's why most stations just stick some intern or newbie in there and treat him or her like a peon.
Oh, wait, that doesn't make sense, does it? Yet, that's how radio treats producers and screeners. There are notable exceptions, especially on the biggest syndicated and local shows, but too many stations economize in the support staff department. It's been like this for years; in my programming days, there just wasn't a budget for it. I ended up with some excellent screeners and producers, but I got lucky. And when you don't get lucky, the result is obvious, right there on the air.
It's not just management's fault. How many shows assign an allegedly "wacky" name to the screener and the producer and use them as punch lines? Morning shows have done it forever, and, of course, once there was "Baba Booey," every "edgy" show had to have their own. How many really sharp, smart, capable people who could have done those jobs very well never even applied for the positions because they just didn't want to be a joke? It doesn't matter how well you treat that screener off the air. Nobody with any ambition or, for that matter, self esteem aspires to be someone's punching bag, not even for comedy's sake. (Most shows shouldn't be talking to, or about, the screener anyway. It's a crutch. Leave some things behind the scenes)
And a producer shouldn't be there to get you coffee. Get your own coffee and let the producer develop material, book guests, and plan your show. In other media, "producer" is the top of the heap. A movie or TV producer is royalty. In radio, we don't offer that kind of respect to the position. We should.
I know that radio stations are strapped for cash like everyone else, but if they want to do talk radio, they need to start treating the screener and producer positions seriously, and the people doing those jobs as professionals. A good screener keeps those organized callers off the air and makes the callers that DO get through sound better (and keeps the prank calls from sneaking through, too). A good producer is invaluable to creating great radio, something you really learn when you don't have a great producer, or, in too many cases, any producer at all. Great shows have great staffs. It's not that hard to grasp.
Even with a great producer, though, you often need help coming up with material to talk about, don't you? Of course you do. And that's why there's Talk Topics, the show prep column at All Access News-Talk-Sports. Visit anytime for hundreds of topic ideas with moronic jokey commentary and links to the full stories; so far this week, for example, you'll find items like a discussion of "toys you used to love that look totally boring now," the lap dancing teachers, Susan Boyle's angst, California's anti-cussing bill, "settling" for a spouse, Octomom on "The View" (shudder), women's-only toilets on airplanes, the unnecessary nature of most emergency room visits, curling clubs, personal jet packs, the continuing demise of the video store, a radio that eliminates, well, YOU, how a curvy body is like a drug, how losing a job can lead to a heart attack, the all-new time limit on the Miranda warning, why some jobs cost more to "create" than others, how Wall Street bet on both sides in Greece's economic troubles, the growth of "work-share" programs, an 80 year old burglar, and why rich parents are hiring occupational therapists for their kids, plus much more, including the "real news" like, yes, the health care debate, the economy, the Olympics, and the continuing saga of Toyota's troubles. In addition, you should read "10 Questions With..." WGAU/Athens, GA and WXKT/Gainesville, GA PD Matt Caesar, who's in charge of both a heritage AM talker in a college town and a new FM talker covering a growing area of North Georgia, and then take a look at the rest of All Access with the industry's leading news coverage, ratings, job listings, forums, and all the resources you need to succeed in the radio business. It's all free. Get the free iPhone and iPod Touch app, too.
Oh, right, one more thing. It's that time of year again, by which I don't mean the start of Spring Training (although that's important, too) or the countdown to the elimination of the Sixers from playoff contention (although that's well underway). No, we're talking about the Revlon Run/Walk for Women 2010, which is set for May 8th in Los Angeles. As you may recall, my wife Fran and I do the walk every year to raise money to fight cancer, a cause that means a lot to us. And as I mentioned last year, I am fully aware that the economy is an issue and that many people are strapped, and that's perfectly okay. Like it was in 2009, this is going to be a low-key, unpressured pitch that will just appear here at the bottom of the column every week until you're willing to send money just to make it go away. But it won't go away, so let's look at it this way: If you can give, great, it'll be appreciated and it's going to a great cause. If you can't, no problem, either. But please give if you can. The link is right here: https://www.revlonrunwalk.com/la/secure/MyWebPage.cfm?pID=533458.
And thank you!