Upon landing a gig as a fill-in host at Boston's WTKK four years ago, the program director handed me a sheet containing a number of common-sense points about succeeding in talk radio. One of the items cautioned against an ambiguous, on-the-other-hand style of argumentation. Strong opinions, not milquetoast ones, win an audience on the dial. Unfortunately the programmers at Boston's 96.9 didn't heed their own advice.
WTKK, the station that allowed me to periodically converse with New Englanders over two years, signs off for good today. The news is sad but not surprising.
"You have to have what we call a 'stationality,' and WTKK never really established what it wanted to be," Scott Fybush, editor of a radio trade journal, told the Boston Globe. This is certainly true. Liberal talk in the morning, the mushy middle at midday, and a conservative in the afternoon encourages listeners, of whatever political inclination, to turn the dial at some point every day. How many commercial music stations play rap in the morning, country in p.m. drive time, and jazz during overnights?
This oft-made identity-crisis observation is correct but incomplete. WTKK's main problem didn't involve right-left but smart-stupid. The on-air conversation had grown increasingly idiotic. The pressure to talk about vaccuous TMZ-type concerns intensified during my brief tenure. One host spoke for an hour about breasts, a topic better seen than heard. It was radio for people who watch television. The ratings reflected this. The FM talker's race to the bottom reached--where else?--the bottom. The target audience was glued to E! and Lifetime. They weren't listening to the radio.
WTKK certainly lost my ear. Even before my guest hosting opportunities had dried up in the summer of 2010, I stopped listening. It was terribly boring and repetitive. Whenever I heard hosts carrying on about Tiger Woods' infidelity for hours after the previous hosts had done so, I wondered if they had come to work wanting to talk this to death or if someone had presented it to them as must-hear radio. Talk radio that fits in with the surrounding media culture surely won't stand out from it.
That said, WTKK, in an age of voice tracking and syndication, deserves praise for recognizing that talk radio is at its best when where it's at is local and when it's at is live. Just a few years ago, 96.9 generated fifteen or sixteen hours of original talk from its Dorchester studios every weekday. When Rush Limbaughs appear like sonic zombies with every turn of the knob, hearing a unique voice talking about issues salient to your community grabs your attention. It's a shame that an outfit so heterodox in this one respect disappeared into the crowd in every other respect.
The painfully ironic lesson management learns from this failure is that it's cheaper to replace the humans with automation. Leave it to the bumblers who put 96.9 in this spot to get wrong one of the only things it got right. A station with a diverse set of personalities, particularly behind the sounds, will now have no personality. Many good people will be replaced by a computer smaller than a dishwasher that plays bad music. A similar device in WTKK's control booth programmed the jockless WBOS. "That's WBOS," a producer once pointed out. Now it's WTKK, too. The rise of the machines, just like in Terminator, wasn't very good for the people--the listeners, the hosts, the producers, etc. But it's efficient.
To love radio means to hate it in its current state.
That's a key point as to why liberal talk radio doesn't work. One of the basic tenets of liberalism is that any position could end up being wrong, if the evidence changes or better arguments are offered. So every liberal position is held tentatively.
Conservatism is simplistic and benefits from the courage of conviction, which makes for more compelling, inspiring talk radio.
I was thinking about this the other day and you summed it up nicely.
A stationís format needs to have an identity. People tune in for various reasons but, like most things, they choose consistency. TKK had a bad start with boringly liberal Eagan and Braude then flipped to a very consistent and entertaining Conservative Michael Graham. Then completely screwed up the drive time going back and forth with a series of hosts, never really finding their way.
Meanwhile, the AM Conservative entry in Boston continues to be strong with no apologies. Jeff Kuhner is no shrinking violet, Rush, Carr and Levin, love them or hate them, you know what youíre going to get.