By Phil Boyce
Salem Media Group
VP/Director, Spoken Word Format
Operations VP, New York Region
NEW YORK — Two years ago, after getting disgusted with talk radio haters predicting the death of this format, I wrote a column published here in TALKERS magazine called, “Why Talk Radio is NOT Dying.” I received more than 200 “likes” from people who thanked me for standing up for the format that we all have come to know and love. I recently found the column by accident and thought it’s time to re-visit it two years later.
To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, “The rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated.” Usually when you find people predicting the demise or death of this format it comes from two sources: a) people who don’t truly understand this format and, b) people who do understand it, and loathe it. When Jerry Del Colliano predicted the death of talk radio would come in 2014, I asked him what he thought about the format in general, and he admitted he hated it.
Lots of people make BOLD predictions with no clue if the prediction will really come true. Two years ago researcher Gordon Borrell boldly predicted that in 10 years (2024) half of all radio stations would be off the air. We are now two years into that prediction. There are still 10,000 radio stations on the air today and, while a few have gone off the air, there is nothing going on to think that prediction will really come true. But when people make these predictions, they do get noticed. They just hope people forget about it when it doesn’t happen. Hey Gordon, it’s not happening.
So where is the format today — two years later? Bigger, stronger, and more relevant than ever. Nielsen still lists news/talk as the #1 format on the radio with a 10 share. Just Google it if you don’t believe me. Sean Hannity and Mark Levin are still going strong. Hannity has become a major player in this presidential election. His ratings on both radio and TV have never been higher. In the all-important revenue category, my research shows both are having record-breaking years. Rush Limbaugh’s deal was recently extended and while he may not be making the huge dollars he made before, I have a feeling El Rushbo is not going to hit the poor house anytime soon. This is consistent with what I am seeing in my own company, where all my hosts on the Salem Radio Network are having big years, in some cases, record-breaking months.
I have been critical of Nielsen in the past for not providing an easy way to add the over-the-air numbers with the streaming numbers. Fortunately there is a way to do that today and I have developed my own system for the network and stations I look after. In every case, every station and every show is up dramatically in streaming numbers from two years ago. We have been growing at a clip of 80-90% a year on the digital side. If listeners ARE leaving terrestrial radio, they are finding us in bigger numbers on the stream, and listening via a mobile device has never been stronger.
Now, regarding the 800-pound gorilla — the 2016 president election. It’s been “bery bery good” for talk radio. Why they didn’t think of that two years ago when they predicted our demise is a mystery. Sometimes people refuse to learn from mistakes, but also from their past success. 2012 was a good year for us and 2016 has been even bigger.
When Salem partnered with CNN for four of the presidential debates, we asked Hugh Hewitt to be on the panel. He was the perfect choice. Think about this for a second: A talk radio host was asked to be on the panel to question what started out to be all 17 candidates running for president. Hugh performed in a magnificent way.
Finally, the mainstream media — always leery of talk radio — discovered that we are not all a bunch of wacky, looney tunes. Right about that time we moved Hugh to mornings, and the rest was history. Candidate Donald Trump, who eventually became the nominee, figured out that he can use talk radio to get the word out, and he has been on talk radio shows repeatedly. We have been a major player in this presidential campaign.
I can’t predict the future, and if Hillary wins this election it could have a negative impact on the format. This happened in early 2013 after Obama won his second term. But the good news for all of us: it never lasts. Let the haters keep predicting our demise. It only makes us stronger.
Some predict that Millennials will never grow into the talk radio format like their parents did. But I have a different view. They may not like us while they are living in their parents basement playing video games and watching “Ridiculousness” on MTV. But eventually they DO grow up. Much slower than we did, but still they do arrive. When they finally marry, have kids, own a house and two cars, and have to start thinking about the future of their own kids, it’s amazing how quickly they start to care about the things we talk about. It will come. They may be socialists now, but they will grow up and enough of them will be conservatives to fuel talk radio’s next generation.
But I always remind people about the 5-share rule. When I was programming WABC I used to tell people that if I ever hit a 5 share I would be in hero country. That would mean 95% were not listening. It’s OK if they don’t. I can take that 5 share to the bank, and as long as I super-serve those listeners, and stop chasing the 95% who refuse to grow up and listen, I will succeed. Now that we have splintered ratings into a thousand pieces, and there is more competition than ever, I may have to change that to a 3-share rule. We’ll see.
There has been a movement in some circles to move talk radio away from news, politics, and what matters more toward silly talk. Do that if you will. It only makes my stations stronger because I know the number-one reason listeners come to talk radio: for breaking news, big stories, and what to think about it. I have done research for three years showing the same thing every time, and stations who go “fluff talk” have not done so well. Those that stay true to what listeners love, want, and expect from this format will continue to survive and prosper.
Long live talk radio.
Phil Boyce is SVP, Spoken Word Format for Salem Media Group and the Salem Radio Network. He can be emailed at: Philip.Boyce@SalemMedia.com.