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There's only one unique thing about American Idol, and aside from that one thing, Idol is the spitting image of just about every show that came before it.
The hosts are, for the most part, real people.
For years, TV fell into the same trap radio fell into: the trap of smooth talking slogan sayers. People who were all shine and no substance. The radio DJ talked about how great every record was as he nailed the post of a stiff. And TV had people like Dick Clark and Ed McMahon.
Remember how every performance on Starsearch was amazing? That's what Ed would tell us as each singer left the stage, anyway... but here's the thing. A lot of them sucked.
And here's the thing about Idol: they've got their share of performances that suck too. Plenty of them sucked last year and plenty more will suck this year.
Never forget: it was American Idol that brought us William Hung. And Sanjaya, who is currently trying to stretch his 15 minutes of whatever it was into a book deal.
But on Idol, the hosts do what real people do. If a performance was great, they say so, and if one sucked, they say so... and if they can't agree, they sometimes fight about it.
...and so do the viewers.
I'm blown away by how little radio has learned from the success of reality TV. Radio learned how to slash budgets (we all know how cheap reality TV is to produce in comparison to a typical hour of prime time TV), but the lesson radio really needs to learn is drama and showmanship. Radio needs to relearn how to take the same old same old and flip it on its head.
If you'd told me ten years ago that the finale of a Starsearch ripoff show would generate Superbowl like ratings, I'd have never believed you.
What greatness is radio creating today that we'll be talking about ten years from now?
The vast majority of people who would bother to read this are programming geeks, and I mean that in the best sense. We love radio and geek out over great things heard on the air. We grew up listening to night jocks battling it out on the air. We grew up hearing (and often being exposed to) so much great music on the air. We grew up with great entertainers and great entertainment. And we turned that love of radio into a career similar to how a great cook turns a love of food into a career in the restaurant biz - maybe first as a short order cook, and then climbing the ranks until either working as a chef at a fine restaurant or maybe owning his or her own restaurant.
But in radio, the economics of scale took over through deregulation, and the best of the medium was pushed off the air. I'm not just talking about people. I'm talking about the very essence of radio itself. The local stations are now corporate pawns. In their quest to grow in size, they destroyed the very thing that made the business worth owning in the first place.
American Idol is back on TV for another season and it's better than ever. Radio, on the other hand, is becoming a fallen Idol. But it doesn't have to be that way. All we need to do is allow ourselves to learn the lessons that are all too obvious.