Why aren’t there more?
By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
Continuing today (11/6), TALKERS presents the conclusion of a five-part feature story about the status of female talk show hosts in the radio business that has run throughout this week.
Part 5: Summing it up, what does it all really mean?
NEW YORK – It was established in the first four installments of this article about the state of women on talk radio – particularly “news/talk” radio – that although there are many successful female practitioners of the art (assuming that the performance of talk radio is an “art”) heard around the country, male hosts continue to outnumber females by a startling ratio of approximately seven-to-one. The question is why?
In the course of the dialogue sparked by the writing of this story, it became evident that the question of why there aren’t more women doing this has both a simple answer as well as a more complicated one.
The simple Zen-like answer is… because there aren’t. Certain aspects of art, public opinion and the human condition defy clear-cut analysis. They are steeped in an element of mystery and asymmetry. As pointed out in yesterday’s installment by WGN, Chicago programming head Todd Manley, “Look for magnetism before execution.”
TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison agrees stating, “The trends go where the talent lies.”
He contends that the corporate world has the habit of trying to duplicate a successful artistic product – whether it is movies, television shows, books, or, in this case, radio programming – by approaching it formulaically… a mindset that totally misses the point. Political correctness has a way of flying in the face of human nature… not to mention, nature itself.
Harrison says, “When Rush Limbaugh became a phenomenon by talking conservative politics, corporate radio focused on the conservative aspect of his stunning success as the magic formula and a whole slew of talent-challenged Rush wannabes spewing conservative talking points just for the sake of ‘being conservative’ were unleashed upon the airwaves. Only a relative handful of them who were truly ‘talented’ have withstood the test of time.”
Harrison adds, “When Howard Stern burned up the airwaves and gathered huge ratings by talking dirty, the same thing happened – corporate radio unleashed a crop of potty-mouthed, crude talent in the ill-thought-out belief that talking dirty was the magic answer to attracting younger demos. A vast majority of them failed. Limbaugh was not successful simply because he is ‘conservative’ and Stern has not become an icon simply because he is ‘dirty.’ I believe Rush would have been just as successful as a liberal and Howard would have made it if he were squeaky clean. This same concept applies to the ‘woman’ issue. With all due respect to the current crop of female political news/talkers who are on the radio today and who are doing a fine job – none have made the impact on the larger culture than Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. If suddenly one does come along, and it could happen at any moment, you can be sure we will be quickly hearing female hosts in lead positions all across the industry.”
Not so simple
The complicated answer is that the problem is not so much an equal opportunity ‘employment’ issue as it is the larger question of where “news/talk radio” is willing to go to increase its audience, broaden its demos and insure its viability to survive in the years ahead in what is clearly becoming a brave new world… while remaining an “issues-oriented” medium.
Perhaps, it is short-sighted and narrow-minded to assume that, when it comes to political news/talk radio, male audiences only want to hear men, females only want to hear women, and millennials only want to hear young people.
“To bring in younger demos, you need to hire younger hosts. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast,” says SVP/spoken word format, Salem Media Group, Phil Boyce. He tells TALKERS, “You need a younger host who has older sensibility. You don’t want to drive away the older demo to attract the younger. You don’t want to change the focus away from news and what matters to fluff talk. That’s what killed KABC. In their effort to chase younger listeners, they ran off their older base and the younger listeners never came. Result? They lost half their audience in two years.”
It is not a secret that one of the pressing concerns in news/talk these past few years has been the so-called “toxic” factor set in motion by the Sandra Fluke issue that has made the medium a harder sell to controversy-adverse agencies and sponsors. A well-respected medium market program director who asked to speak off the record admitted, “We don’t make any money” on the syndicated conservative talk show they air in the afternoon, adding, “We just can’t sell it,” but, “we have to carry it.”
Are female hosts the answer to “softening” the tone of news/talk radio without the format losing its “teeth” – one of the factors that makes it stand out in the era of hyper-political correctness?
Look at history
According to Harrison, “Anyone who thinks it’s that simple should go back and study the extraordinarily interesting career of multi-media phenomenon Dorothy Kilgallen back in the 50s and early 60s… before her memory is completely erased from our short-term, collective consciousness.”
The “gal reporter,” who became a powerful syndicated newspaper columnist and regular panelist on TV’s “What’s My Line,” blended a provocative and fearless mix of celebrity gossip with hard-hitting, controversial, political investigation that many to this day believe led to her mysterious death (assumed to be caused by a deadly combination of drug and alcohol abuse) to actually have been at the hands of government-dispatched assassins wanting to shut her up.
It is almost forgotten history that Kilgallen hosted a live, remote daily radio show from her living room on largely-talk WOR, New York for 18 consecutive years. It mixed gossip, show biz and very heavy political issues all in one package. By the way, her co-host (that’s right, she was the main attraction) during that remarkable run was her husband.
(It is also worth adding that during that same period, the brilliant media star Arlene Francis hosted a daily talk show on that goliath station for 24 consecutive years.) Dr. Joy Browne and Joan Hamburg, two more recent legends of WOR, followed in gigantic female footsteps.
And so the struggle of understanding the differences and similarities between the gender from Mars and its counterpart from Venus — for the sake of communication, marketing and packaging… and stereotyping — extends beyond just news/talk radio and will, no doubt, continue to be a challenge for this industry and others well beyond the fourth quarter of 2015.
Independently syndicated female talk show host/entrepreneur Danielle Lin of “The Art of Living & the Science of Life” contributes the following thought to this dangling conversation: “Five days a week live ranting about ‘angry stuff,’ for the most part, would burn any woman out that lives in the feminine-self… psychology of course being the exception… as it is closer to how we tick… not what we do. I am so glad my career and show have lasted for 32 years. The ‘glass ceiling’ always seems to provide light to me.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS and RadioInfo. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.