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Smerconish: Canary in Talk Radio’s
Coal Mine?

| March 11, 2013

By Holland Cooke
Radio Consultant

BLOCK ISLAND — To local radio talkers, syndication is The Promised Land.  So when an accomplished, high-profile personality relinquishes his hard-won 80-affiliate roster to migrate to satellite radio, my phone rings.  I’m being asked:

  • Should I pitch his affiliates?  Should I pitch his network?
  • Should I try to get on SiriusXM?
  • IS it over?

Short answer to all three: Maybe.

  • If you want to hear a busy signal, call his syndicator.  Or his affiliates.  Everyone else is.  But don’t plan on lurching-into syndication, for reasons I recently outlined in TALKERS.  ICYMI: So You Want to be Syndicated
  • Satellite radio is opportune, if not lucrative.  More on that in a minute.
  • In characteristically reasonable terms, the exasperation Michael Smerconish articulated in his widely-covered announcement is a sobering surmise of the format’s business-as-usual business model.

“Too white, too male, too angry and too old.”

That same demographic wasn’t enough to win Mitt Romney the White House, the candidate himself admitted in his first post-election interview.  That same week, the only Republican talker who has interviewed President Obama announced his exit from a terrestrial radio arena he regards as doomed by its caricature:

“Having only ideologically-driven talk is a dead-end.  It doesn’t represent any opportunity to grow market share.  The demographics are not there long-term.”

Now re-registered as an Independent voter, Smerconish tells Politico he feels more mainstream than much of what he hears coming-out-the-speaker:

smerconishcoooke100“My views tend to be conservative on some issues (I own a gun, think harsh interrogation needs to be available in those rare cases where it can save lives, and believe in the death penalty); liberal on others (pro-choice, pro-gay, legalize pot and prostitution) and there are plenty more I just haven’t figured out. That makes me like many Americans. But you’d never know it from listening to what has become conventional talk.”

I think he’s being kind when he says “conventional talk.”  It’s more like “conventional listen” lately.  The kind of radio Smerconish is fleeing seems to presume that people are willing to be talked-at.  Meanwhile almost every other media choice consumers now make is an interactive experience.  Listeners expect to participate.  Smerconish has been a conspicuous outlier among the bullhorn crowd.  He makes eye contact with listeners.  Heck, if you’ve seen him on MSNBC, you’d think he won a staring contest.

“Enter the Promo Code ‘Rush.” It’s official: talk radio’s big caricature acts really are Too Big To Fail.  A year after Rush Limbaugh’s three-day “slut”/”prostitute”/”sex video” tirade against young Sandra Fluke, he’s still there, even after advertisers fled in droves. Listen to radio righties’ network spots.  They’re mostly direct response deals, peddling gold, computer back-ups, chocolate-covered strawberries, and help for tax delinquents.  Many national advertisers have blacked-out the talk format entirely, some moving to sports radio, which they regard as “safe.

Why satellite radio is a better deal for Smerconish:

  • 80 affiliates is nothing to sneeze at, but he never would’ve made AM/FM’s A-tier.  The big guys have tied-up the big stations, which seem content with the caricature.  “I don’t believe there’s been any effort to expand the tent,” Smerconish tells the trade press.  “Radio stations have been content to pay their bills by relying on the same small but very loyal constituency.”
  • It’s a coverage upgrade.  80 affiliates is a big (if scattered) footprint, but SiriusXM is sea-to-shining-sea.
  • It’s cooler than the arena he’s escaping.  “Talk radio” has become a punch line.  Satellite radio is a shinier object, newer-tech.  Being a subscription product, it implies premium content.
  • It’s “good exposure,” an age-old radio euphemism for “low pay.”  I have no idea what anyone but Howard Stern is making on SiriusXM.  Regardless of whether it’s more/less/same-as Smerconish’s terrestrial W-2, satellite’s 100+ channels are good surfing.  Lots of listeners who otherwise wouldn’t will discover his act.
  • It’s all the radio he needs.  Smerconish is a newspaper columnist and author, and a paid cable pundit.  Last year, I went to see his work at the movies, that handsomely-produced Chris Matthews JFK theater event he videoed.  Radio – which users now define as published audio – is a means, not just an end.  Rush Limbaugh uses his show to move affiliates’ listeners to his paid Dittocam feed and to sell mail order ice tea.  Sean Hannity promotes his TV show and gets six figure speaking gigs.  Glenn Beck is promoting do-it-himself TV that makes him multiples of his previous Fox News Channel payday.  And witness Tom Leykis’ success.  How much “radio” you need is a function of what you need radio to do.

The Smerconish migration is less an issue than a symptom, merely the latest in a series of events.  Neal Boortz’ exit was as timely as Herman Cain’s entrance.

If you’re among those grousing that radio-has-gone-straight-to-hell, you’re missing the point entirely.  As we say in Rhode Island, “it is what it is.”  What you make of it is up to you.

tbugkSee, hear, read more from consultant Holland Cooke at and follow him on Twitter @HollandCooke.  Meet Holland Cooke at Talkers New York 2013 on Thursday June 6.

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Category: Opinions