By Bill Brady
Futures & Options, Inc.
News/talk isn’t just a different format, it’s a different business. News/talk stations used to be stand-alone operations managed by broadcasters who nurtured and cared for them. They were sold by dedicated sales teams who knew well the format’s ability to bring customers through their client’s doors.
With the dawn of consolidation, news/talk stations suddenly found themselves in big station clusters with managers who were preoccupied with their other stations. Often, these were music station GMs without news/talk backgrounds — and they weren’t at all prepared for the cranky, petulant, expense-laden news/talk AMs they were suddenly forced to deal with.
News/talk stations can be a handful. Their audiences are vocal, and they complain. A lot. Then, there are the hosts. They are often high-maintenance. There are pressure groups and PR crises which can’t be ignored. Then, there’s the expense. News/talk hosts make a lot of money. A lot more than FM jocks do. With news and support staffs, News/talk stations can cost a lot to operate.
To consolidation era GMs, News/talk stations were a pain and the expense reductions were irresistible. GMs cut the guts out of their News/talk stations. Gone, too, is the “time suck” of local hosts and their shenanigans. GMs no longer have to spend their days talking to complaining listeners, or newspaper reporters seeking comment on controversial local hosts.
All is now quiet on the western front. Too quiet. Your local heritage news/talk station is now much more user-friendly in a corporate sense. It also has a lot less sales and ratings appeal. Local hosts with strong followings, who did great endorsement spots and could command high rates, have left the building. The News/talk GMs and sales managers who knew how to make money with the format are also no longer part of the equation. They’ve been replaced by sales hacks that don’t understand news/talk and are trying to sell it on a cost-per-point basis like music formats. Something that is stupid on steroids considering the length of ad agency controversial programming “do not buy” lists. The more incompetent the sales effort gets, the more paid programming and infomercials talk stations gum up their programming with.
Talk radio is no longer a big tent with passionate debate involving diverse points of view on a wide range of topics. Today it is a non-stop conservative indoctrination with little appeal to anyone who isn’t a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society.
A few years ago, the Casey Anthony case dominated the news for months. Everywhere, that is, except news/talk radio where it was all Obama, all the time. Women were berserk about Casey Anthony. I was a TV ad sales manager in Miami at the time. Our research department put out a weekly ranker of the top 50 cable programs—some weeks virtually every one of the top 50 was a different hour of CNN Headline News which was carrying non-stop trial coverage and commentary. It was The Story—except in the alternate universe of talk radio.
In the calcified world of conservative talk radio, the only way they’d do this story is if they found out Casey Anthony was a closet socialist. Never mind all the great angles women found to the story; lousy mother, lying daughter, bar-hopping party girl. They couldn’t get enough of it. And Nancy Grace and her HLN colleagues were only too happy to feed their appetite…with a fire-hose.
If you’re under fifty, you might be surprised to find that talk radio was once a female format. Yep. People like Barry Gray/WMCA, Jerry Williams/WRKO, Ronn Owens/KGO and Michael Jackson/KABC were babe magnets. Talknet with Bruce Williams, Sally Jessy Raphael and Bernard Meltzer was built for females.
Sometime after Rush got big, some corporate programmer started espousing the theory that news/talk radio shared audience with classic rock stations and the destructive re-direction to a male 35-54 target was set in motion.
Now news/talk programming appeals mostly to older white guys. Nobody else listens. You can see it in the diminished weekly cume audiences.
ABC Radio did a talk radio study somewhere around 2007. It found women didn’t like talk radio. It wasn’t just the subject matter; it was the hosts and the know-it-all approach. Women said it reminded them of their gas-bag husbands.
Did anybody pay attention? No, the ongoing firing of local talk hosts has continued unabated. And the conservative band plays on—all day.
It is sucking the life out of the format. Just how low does the weekly cume and average quarter hour share have to go? How bad do the revenues have to get?
The narrower the appeal of talk radio gets, the narrower the AM audience gets. But, it’s not AM that defines talk, its talk that defines AM. FM couldn’t save the Premiere Networks conservative talk lineup in Pittsburg.
Talk can save AM radio. Again. But it is time to reinvent talk radio. It is time to invest in talk. The format and the life of the AM band are at stake.
Bill Brady is President/CEO of Futures & Options, Inc., a media investment, ownership and consulting firm based in South Florida. His background includes management positions with Clear Channel, Citadel, Comcast and the Miami Herald. He can be reached at 561-529-2598 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.