By Walter Sabo
NEW YORK — It is hard to overstate how much I love radio and believe in its future. This article suggests a necessary, urgent corrective action that must be taken to give AM talk radio a viable future.
First, my credentials for making this case: Starting in 1990, I launched a large number of major market FM talk stations such as “New Jersey 101.5,” KLSX-FM in Los Angeles and “Real Radio 104” in Orlando. Simultaneously I consulted WOR, WIOD, WRKO, WISN and many others. For eight years, from pre-launch, I was the on-site consultant that built out all Sirius Satellite radio channels, music and talk. Prior to that I was the VP/GM of the ABC Radio Networks. EVP in charge of the NBC FM stations where adult contemporary was created and perfected. History shows that most successful media companies are product-driven. The wrong product results in failure.
A tragic decision was made by some companies decades ago that AM talk radio should feature 24/7 of political debate talk shows.
Why that was done doesn’t matter, but for the record, I had no part in that. Never understood it.
Stations whose programming is based on political talk 24/7 either wallow in a 1 share or are rushing toward a 1 share. Or worse.
There is no reason for this phenomenon. It can be stopped and reversed.
Admission is the key. First, admit that it’s not working. It’s not working. I am puzzled by companies that would clean house if a music station hit a 1 share but fail to take action with talk stations that have a 1 share – or worse. I’ve heard many talk programmers bemoan the fact that they ask for audition material from hosts who don’t talk about politics. Then they hire hosts – who talk about politics. And… it doesn’t work. For 20 years, I have written dozens of articles here predicting the scope of the problem that all-politics radio would cause.
There are solid AM talk stations that often dominate their market such as WLW, Cincinnati; Ray Davis’ WTAM, Cleveland; KMOX, St. Louis; KFGO, Fargo; WGN, Chicago; WPHT, Philadelphia, and very few others. Those are general conversation topic stations. “Talk” is a thriving form of entertainment on TV. Ellen, Dr. Phil, Harry Connick Jr, Judge Judy and Maury. Daytime TV talk shows are a $4 billion industry. The topics they cover and the format of those shows came from – non-political, AM talk radio.
Is there room for at least one political show? Yes. If it is done by a world-class entertaining host. But most are not.
Well, if we don’t talk about politics all day, what do we talk about? What do you talk to your friends about?
Trouble with the kids. Trouble with the kid’s school. Romance. Sex. Love. Losing weight. Gaining weight. Why is the engine light on? How hot should the barbecue be? When will they pick up ALL the garbage? On TV last night. Getting the kids off the iPhones.
Best first date. Worst first date. “Dr. Who” is good this year. My neighbor drives on my lawn. Three bucks for gas? Three bucks for milk? Can’t afford a vacation. I hate my sister/brother in law. Bus schedules always lie. Worst boss ever. Guy at work who smells. The ice cream truck comes right before dinner. Sharing a vacation house – hell! Are we going to be sold? Cell phone companies suck. Cable? My doctor won’t take the insurance.
If it’s good enough to talk about with your friends, why wouldn’t you put it on the radio?
Advertisers (remember $4 billion to daytime TV talk revenue) love those subjects. It’s what they invest in in daytime TV, the Daily Mail, digital platforms, women’s oriented magazines and direct mail. Direct mail is the number one local advertising medium.
This is not an interesting idea or an academic article. All-political talk stations do not have time to evolve to other topics. It must be a hard stop, today. Now. Pivot, as the MBAs say. As a proven, successful media business driver, let me assure you if you don’t adjust the topics right now, apply for SNAP benefits.
Walter Sabo is CEO of New York City-based consultation firm Sabo Media. He can be phoned at 347-380-1581 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.