For a while now, I had a great idea for a radio show. Or at least I thought it was a great idea.
Here's my pitch: How about a successful radio take on The Daily Show? And by successful, I mean one that, while not equaling the high quality of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, can at least get down some of the humor and the timing, pace, banter, etc. And most importantly, do what many credit Comedy Central's shows for doing - creating a lighthearted way of doing the news, one that would be successful in attracting highly desirable younger listeners who tend to shun typical news outlets.
Granted, I am not proposing dumbing down the news. But suffice it to say, younger listeners are mostly tuning out. Through the 1970s, many Top 40 stations around the country had rather large news operations, even more so than many current talk radio stations, which either pipe in hourly network feeds or consolidate their news operations in centralized markets, ala Clear Channel. With the disappearance of news from music stations, save for Hollywood gossip and reality show updates, many have just tuned out what's really going on in the world. Ask many young people, and they probably don't have a clue about what's going on in Iraq. They probably think waterboarding is an extreme sport. The only presidential candidate they could probably name is Hillary Clinton. I'll bet some couldn't even name the current Vice President (It's still Dick Cheney, unfortunately).
Now, I'm not trying to be condescending. I'm just stating that news operations are mostly doing a crappy job of appealing to younger people. Things have gotten better with the advent of the internet, where blogs have risen in prominence. But how can old media, specifically radio, capitalize on this?
I'm also not suggesting that the media 'dumb-down' the news. They're already trying to do that, with all-day stalking marathons of Paris Hilton's jail stint this past summer and more information than we really care to know about Britney Spears' legal woes. But a light-hearted presentation of serious news is at least one way of informing the public. And this could likely attract consumes to more straightforward outlets. It's been working for Bill Maher, who does biting comedic riffing on the headlines on his HBO show. And the weekly satirical street sheet The Onion has seen their distribution and readership skyrocket in the past decade.
Comedy Central has done a spectacular job with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, in many cases doing the task better than the so-called news networks, which have grown to rely more on sensationalism and boring pundits screaming at each other. The two shows get ratings that rival FOX News, and slaughter them in much more desirable younger demographics. In addition, other shows such as Countdown with Keith Olbermann have done well incorporating Daily Show-style elements. And wouldn't you know it? People are being informed by watching comedy. A few surveys claim viewers of The Daily Show are more informed on national and world events than viewers of many traditional news outlets. Now you know what I'm getting at here.
Granted, pulling off something like this on the radio is not a task for the faint-hearted or impatient. Late night comedy shows on TV have the advantage of being brief and employing the best writers, along with some of the funniest personalities, in the business. What works in short-format television can't possibly be easy to pull off in the longer audio-only format of radio.
Take The Morning Fix. Now, this was an ambitious undertaking. The show was the brainchild of Emmis Communications' WKQX (Q101.1) in Chicago. A year and a half ago, Q101 parted ways with longtime morning presence Mancow Muller. Over time, Mancow shifted from Howard Stern-style shock jockery to right-wing FOX Noise-style punditry and AM talk radio influences. Eventually, the show became a poor fit with Q101's younger-skewing alternative rock format. In addition, station management felt that Mancow was paying more attention to building his syndicated network than serving his home base of Chicago. Q101 decided to "take control of the morning show" and gave up its position as Mancow's flagship station. A few months later, in September 2006, the station rolled out a replacement. Dubbed The Morning Fix, the concept of the show was sort of a radio knockoff of The Daily Show. To this end, the new program instituted a tight schedule, built on the "clock" of local all-news radio station WBBM. The show was heavy with satirical news, comedy bits, features, interviews, commentaries, gossip segments and occasionally music, all in a very tight television-style format. It was also a very crowded studio, with eight people contributing on-air to the proceedings.
Okay, it's not earth-shattering. But cut 'em some slack. I got a chuckle out of it. And the process of pulling off a Daily Show knockoff is not easy. Just ask FOX Noise. While the inspiration for The Morning Fix was obvious, and they made clear what they had in mind, making it work was something else entirely. It was likely that the endeavor could run the danger of more closely resembling Craig Kilborn than Jon Stewart.
The Morning Fix wasn't a bad show. Much better and more original than Mancow, anyway. After some early fumbling, the show started to to get on the right track. Sure, many of the jokes were groaners. Then again, even polished professionals like Stewart and David Letterman misfire quite often. Over time, it was evident that the personalities on the radio show were getting the timing down, a key component of comedy. Eventually, it actually became somewhat funny, much funnier that anyone really expected. Unfortunately, it was probably a bit too different a concept for typical radio listeners to wrap their heads around. This was a far cry from Morning Zoos, American Idol updates and "Battle of the Sexes" bits, and many radio listeners are used to predictable routines.
Given a lot of time and patience, and a bit of money, the whole idea could have worked. And with the current Writers Guild strike killing almost all topical humor on television, it could have filled a serious niche. But The Fix was not meant to be, particularly in the impatient 'results now' world of radio. Yesterday, WKQX killed the show, firing five of the show's staffers and adding a lot more music in the morning, while keeping only main host Alan Cox and the primary news/sports/traffic elements.
"The research we have recently completed clearly tells us that our music focus is in sync with audience demand, and that our listeners really want to listen to our alternative music in all day parts," wrote Tisa LaSorte, brand manager for Emmis' Chicago stations in a staff email yesterday.
All in all, could a concept like The Morning Fix work in the bland world of radio, where generic prep sheet bits, banal banter, reality show updates, lesbian strippers, contests and silly stunts rule the day? I still think it could, even with radio's impatient nature and lack of initiative to allow things to blossom. Irreverant, younger-skewing news programs are tough to pull off, and they do require commitment, which exists in short supply in radio.
And there have been other attempts and promises at Comedy Central-style news parody on the radio, and new concepts are pitched from time to time. Air America Radio had this in mind when they were gearing up to go on the air in 2004, going so far as to hire comedians such as Al Franken and even Lizz Winstead, one of the creators of The Daily Show. Over time, the on-air presentation of Air America became much more serious in tone, and the closest they got to it, Morning Sedition, was eventually gone. BBC Radio 4's The Now Show has also attempted this approach, but is on and off the air sporadically. The Stephanie Miller Show gets much closer to the concept than others.
More often than not, topical radio comedy shows tend to revert back to ordinary radio-style banter, such as Next!, a "Free FM"-style take on the idea. They promised to be similar to The Daily Show and Keith Olbermann but the show I listened to consisted mostly of gossip about syndicated shock jocks Opie and Anthony.
Most other variations of younger-skewing news programming rely less on humor, and are indeed more straightforward in the approach, which is perhaps a bit easier to pull off. The Bryant Park Project is a new offering from National Public Radio, aiming toward a slightly younger audience that likely finds the network's flagship offering, Morning Edition to be stuffy and boring. BPP is a mix of serious news, water cooler topics, movie and CD reviews, lifestyle interviews and relaxed banter between hosts Luke Burbank, Alison Stewart and Rachel Martin - stuff uncharacteristic of the network's typical talk fare. While not intended as a laugh-fest, it's a noble attempt at creating the next generation of news consumers, via the addition of breezy and tasteful morning radio elements. And it works. Affiliates of NPR have done well with weekly comedic takes on the news, including the witty quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! and Harry Shearer's Le Show.
But does radio in general have the patience to really make a Daily Show-style radio concept work? Unfortunately, no. Perhaps when they've grown tired of prickly primadonna talk show hosts with big salaries and big egos, or when they quit going through the motions of doing the same old morning show thing over and over again and decide to try something really unique, a show like The Morning Fix would have time to gather steam. As it stands, perhaps it was before its time.
Friday, November 09, 2007
For a while now, I had a great idea for a radio show. Or at least I thought it was a great idea.