By Holland Cooke
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow scored the biggest ratings in the history of her show as she displayed a copy of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return, anonymously mailed to a reporter. Although many radio talkers – and some radio gurus – were quick to shrug it off as unsustainable, new news since is that Maddow has now beat rival Fox News Channel for a second straight week 25-54.
Admittedly, radio folk tend to do cartwheels when WE spike, and to diss other guys when THEY do. Still, the social media backlash – from media people — was discouraging. The unison damned Maddow for sustaining viewers’ attention for two whole quarter hours…as though that’s not how we too get paid. “Big hype! Big letdown! Only two pages!”
Point missed: The two page document reveal (2nd quarter hour) wasn’t the story. The set-up (1st) was.
The mercifully-short version:
- 9 seconds into her script, Maddow explained that she held “a PORTION of Donald Trump’s tax returns.” At that point, those who later professed betrayal could have retreated to Fox News in time for Tucker Carlson’s first gaping scowl.
- At 1:05: “We’re going to show you exactly what we’ve got.” Still time to flee. Apparently few did.
- She promised viewers who would tough-it-out that “context” was ahead, and “explanation and discussion of what further avenues of reporting this may open.” Yes, Maddow TOLD viewers that the-questions-outnumber-the-answers.
- And, she stressed, “maybe THE most important part of this story discussion is that, for some reason we cannot discern, this has been made available…it has been handed to a reporter.”
- That context? President Nixon’s “I am not a crook” utterance, during Watergate, was not actually about Watergate. Nixon was fined for taking improper deductions on a backdated donation of Vice Presidential papers. “And,” Maddow explained, “presidents and presidential candidates have released their taxes ever since,” often simply the first two summary pages that Maddow brandished that night. During the 2016 campaign, Mrs. Clinton “released every year of her returns back to 1977.” Trump’s stated reluctance: He’s under audit; although “since Watergate,” Maddow pointed out, “every single president and every single vice president has been audited by the IRS every year they were in office.” So Trump’s reluctance is conspicuous, making even this two page disclosure what those who do news call “news.”
Accordingly, Maddow suggested, “when you get an excuse that doesn’t make sense, you have to look for another reason.” Whereupon she delivered what too few radio talkers bother preparing: a scripted segment intro.
- Item: Palm Beach mansion, purchased by Trump for $40+ million in 2004, sold four years later to “a Russian oligarch who paid him almost $100 million” (then razed it!). “Could Trump tax returns shed light on whether any reasonable outlay of expenses on Trump’s part might explain why someone would want to pay Donald Trump more than double what he paid for that property after only a few years at a time when housing prices in that area were dropping and not rising?” “At a time,” she noted, “when Trump owed tens of millions of dollars to Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Bank was breathing down his neck to get it.”
- Item: That Russian buyer is a big shareholder in The Bank of Cyprus, a notorious money launderer. The bank’s Chairman is Deutsche Bank’s former CEO. The Bank of Cyprus’ Vice Chairman “until recently was our new Secretary of Commerce, longtime Trump friend Wilbur Ross. Couldn’t the tax returns sort this out for us?”
- Item: During the presidential campaign, that same enigmatic Russian’s private plane “was spotted at least twice, at local airports, when Donald Trump campaign events were happening nearby. At least once, his private plane was spotted on the tarmac right alongside Donald Trump’s private plane.” Apparently not intriguing to those who hollered about Bubba Clinton plane-hopping to chat-up the Attorney General. Since Trump became president, The Palm Beach Post reports that the Russian’s massive yacht — upon which his helicopter lands — was docked alongside the yacht owned by “the single largest financial backer of the Trump For President effort and single largest financial backer of Breitbart and the person who basically installed Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon at the top of the Trump campaign after Paul Manafort was fired for his ties to Russia and Ukraine.”
- Item: That U.S. Attorney Trump abruptly fired – after previous assurances that he’d stay on – “was pursuing a federal case against Deutsche Bank.”
Cue theme from “The Americans” on FX. Anyone NOT intrigued by “inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the president’s coffers that cannot be explained in normal business terms” still could have escaped to Fox News after only 7 minutes and 17 seconds. Seems like few morning-after social media soreheads did.
If you haven’t seen it yet, search Stephen Colbert’s side-splitting Maddow impersonation. But seriously…
This is NOT about politics.
In cable TV, ratings are a sprint, not a marathon. In radio, PPM markets suffer dysfunctionally low sample size, so every…single…Quarter Hour…counts…A LOT. Smaller markets’ two-book rolling averages can reward a spike for 6 months.
Quick quiz: Which matters more: Results? Or our inside-the-box surmise, an aesthetic very different from how indifferent consumers consume media (as you quickly discover behind that one-way mirror observing a focus group).
As if Maddow’s new ratings high that night wasn’t measurably successful enough, both websites where she told viewers they could read Trump’s return immediately crashed, overwhelmed by traffic. What radio station wouldn’t crow about that?
Donald Trump is the best thing that ever happened to talk radio, a self-refreshing daily story about-which NO minds are being changed… a Time Spent Listening bonanza for those whose technique isn’t compromised by personal filters. Yet many talkers are. Lots who boasted that they refused to watch the Academy Awards spent the next day blasting Oscar winners. One radio talker whom I otherwise respect assured his listeners that he would NOT be watching President Obama’s final State of the Union Address, which he disparaged the following day.
I never learned Selector. Unlike music radio gurus who used social media to pronounce Maddow’s win a loss, I specialize in news/talk radio. Over a decade, I managed two big Washington newsrooms, one at WTOP the other at USA Today. Separating facts from point-of-view was the price of admission. Who, What, When, Where, Why. Many who scorned Maddow’s coup seem to let Who she is pre-empt What she said. I’ll bet they don’t even remember her saying what I’ve transcribed above. Find the clip.
If you’re a radio talker, and can prep-and-deliver as conscientiously – and can sustain attention as artfully — as Rachel Maddow did that night, send me an aircheck.
Holland Cooke (HollandCooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @HollandCooke; and meet HC at TalkersNY2017 June 2.