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Opinion: Getting Back to the Basics

| March 31, 2015

Talk Radio in 2015

By Bill Brady
Futures & Options, Inc.

bradybillwriterJUPITER, Fla. — Over the last year, the Nielsen Audio PPM ratings have shone a light on the struggles of the talk format.  It’s not a pretty picture.

Since 2008, same station ratings in a select group of top 50 markets have declined by 39%.  While some stations still earn respectable ratings, many have lost significant audience share and fallen dramatically in rank.  A drop of that magnitude is likely to have a significant impact on the revenue side and endanger a station’s pricing structure and advertiser demand levels.

This applies specifically to commercial talk stations, not the broader category of news/talk stations which would include all-news stations and non-commercial news/talk (many of which air NPR content).  Stations in those categories seem to be doing just fine.

This is the talk radio consumer telling us we have a content problem.

Before we get to the crux of the matter, it is necessary to dispel a couple of myths.

It is not a reflection of Ancient Modulation as some sarcastically call AM radio.  FM news/talk stations, in general, don’t fare any better over the long term with the same product mix as the predecessor AM.  Many FM news/talk converts of recent years have already dumped the format in favor of other options, proving FM is not a cure-all for the talk format.

It is also not a PPM issue.  Some of the comparison figures from ’08 are from markets where PPM implementation had already occurred.  Some of today’s poor performers were market leaders with the PPM in 2008.  There are very real issues with the PPM, but it alone is not the reason for the format’s current troubles.

The product problem comes down to one word: content.

For the most part, the talk format has devolved into a niche within a niche within a niche.  Today’s talk product is not mass appeal “topic A” stuff.  It’s not even mass appeal politics.  Just conservative politics which severely limit the format’s appeal.

The answer to the problem is very simple: play the hits.

I got a very vivid example of what’s wrong with the format last fall.  This was the week the NFL’s domestic violence controversy was all over CNN.  While in the car in the early evening, I decided to find out what talk radio was saying about it.  Except, I couldn’t.  The host of a nationally syndicated show was talking about the parallels between the 2014 mid-term elections and some election in…wait for it…the 19th century.

This was a big fat pitch down the middle of the plate.  (Sorry for the baseball analogy).  It had everything; marital conflict, corporate hypocrisy, celebrity, race and gender issues—it was a high octane morality play.  It was also a sports story women and non-fans could all understand without needing to know the x’s and o’s.  How much more lowest common denominator could you get?  All the talk format had to do was just talk about what real everyday people were talking about that day.  It’s that simple.

Talk radio’s current problems are also not an indictment of Rush Limbaugh as some would like to make it.  Rush is the cornerstone of the talk radio business.  Try and do a successful format launch without him.

Rush is still a great entertainer, but much has changed since he went into syndication in 1988.  There was no Fox News Channel on cable in 1988.  There were not a lot of places to find a conservative point of view on TV or radio in those days.  Today we are awash in them.

The most successful talk stations also usually have two other important sources of content in good local talk hosts and strong news departments.  Unless the local hosts are Rush-imitators, there are plenty of good local issues which can be exploited to attract a more diverse—and larger audience–and provide relief from the non-stop conservative political screed.

Local news is also critical to the success of a talk station.  A strong news effort actually makes a talk station a news/talk station.  The news audience doesn’t necessarily listen to your talk shows.  If you wonder where your weekly cume audience has gone over the last decade—and you’ve made a lot of budget cuts to your news department–you have your answer.  You can’t fool news listeners.  They know when you have a real news department, or a rip’n read operation.  If they think you’re the latter, you’ll have no credibility with them and they’ll stop wasting their time with your station.  A reliable news effort is a very important component to the success of a talk station.

The solution is remarkably simple.  What should you be programming every minute of the day to achieve the maximum ratings potential of your talk station?  Super-serve the full market, not just the political right, and the news/talk format can again be the dominant format it once was.


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 wjbrady1@aol.com.

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Category: Opinions