Inside radio: A consultant's assessment of what went wrong with talk radio
I think it would be fair to say more than a few readers of this blog have more than a casual interest in politics, plus the media, given the media's impact on politics, and vice-versa. A few of you have been employed in radio or media generally.
So I offer you an insider's view of the state of A.M. radio - and particularly talk radio - today.
That insider indicts talk radio's swerve to nationally syndicated right-wing talk, which repelled most women; radio consolidation, which meant radio executives with absolutely no experience with the format were calling the shots; and frankly, the rigid straitjacket the format has created for itself in many markets.
Make no mistake: A.M. radio now operates at an inherent disadvantage, with its susceptibility to ever growing sources of interference / static; and a new generation which barely knows it exists.
Indeed, an utterly ominous development for A.M. broadcasters which underscores the problem: Auto manufacturer BMW announced it would NOT include A.M. on the car radios to be installed in the new all-electric BMW i3. BMW ostensibly decided this after interference from its electric drive system substantially degraded A.M. reception. Hmmm. General Motors, Toyota, Tesla, Nissan, etc., have managed to include A.M. on the radios installed in electric cars and/or hybrids. So do the engines on these new BMW models really produce that much more interference (in which case this might become an FCC issue if that interference affected OTHER cars on the road); is the shielding shoddy; or does BMW management just really think offering A.M. isn't that important anymore? (No matter that the older demographics more likely to still listen to A.M. are also more likely to AFFORD BMWs!) By the way, almost all modern cars produce SOME A.M. interference. To prove this, try tuning in a marginal A.M. station with your car running, then off - with the radio still 'on'.
But here's the irony: Many conservative talk-show hosts have decried the possible return of the Fairness Doctrine, which they believe would kill talk radio. But could it be that talk radio itself is killing talk radio?
(I post these questions as someone whose career has been much more tied to news than talk -- although my first post-college, on-the-air gig was as a talk-show host in Memphis in 1977 -- where I played devil's advocate with virtually all my callers.)
Let's also acknowledge a fundamental change of philosophy for talk radio: When ideology became a format for the ENTIRE station. Talk stations of yesteryear carried liberal hosts, conservative hosts, moderate hosts, and hosts of no apparent ideology. I frankly long believed that it was wise to offer some hosts who were somewhat contrarian to the market: You'd put more liberal hosts on-the-air in a more conservative market, and more conservative hosts in a more liberal / progressive market. Just to question the conventional wisdom. And you wouldn't do politics day after day because it becomes numbing after a while.
But by the 1990's, radio programmers decided ideology was like a MUSIC format: For example, a station playing music of the '70's wouldn't mix bubblegum / Top 40 with progressive rock. You wouldn't mix country with urban. And so on. And you certainly wouldn't put liberals and conservatives on the same station.
I have very conflicting emotions on this topic. I worked in AM radio from 1968 through election night 2000. Sometimes part-time, some years full-time. Music formats (Top 40, Beautiful Music, Oldies) and News/Talk. Being old, I still enjoy AM, and even today 90% of my listening is AM, though most often on the pc these days. I do not enjoy FM music formats. Even my sports radio listening is AM.
I know full well that music is dead on AM. Clear Channel is doing well with Smooth Jazz on AM in Philadelphia, but that is mostly from the on-line audience. Sports talk, with a large, dedicated audience, has in many cities moved from AM to FM. It has saved the format, as the younger audience would not listen to AM. Early this year, Rush and Hannity switched stations in markets large and small. The long-established stations lost audience share. However, in the markets I have researched, the new station did not noticeably increase share. This has been very noticeable in NYC where the old Rush/Hannity flagship station has an audience share below two percent for the first time since 1962! The new flagship shows only modest gains.
The extreme right-wing talk format is dying and it is taking the AM stations to the grave with it. Yet nothing new is taking off. Barring new hosts with the personalities of modern Don Imus’ or Howard Sterns’, I see nothing on the horizon to replace the current crop of talkers. What is worse, there is no farm system of smaller radio stations where would-be hosts could learn their craft. This will be fatal to both talk radio and the AM band. I hate to see that happen.
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 12:12pm
The only AM radio I listen to is WDEL, and only for the news. I have no interest in talk radio. I sure hope WDEL is looking for ways to get on FM, because otherwise I fear you guys won't be around much longer. And I know you've got that HD thing going on with WSTW, but seriously, is HD radio going anywhere? Is anyone actually listening via those new digital receivers?
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 1:11pm
AM can survive if it has something unique and something people feel they must have.
I get that now from WDEL because WDEL is not tied into the large corporate Clear Channel motif. I listen because their approach is unique, and I get real information out of them.
Whether on the Middle East, or the middle of Kent County, WDEL is the only place that provides solid information that is useful.
The same with the two talk shows. Of course, they present opinions, but they also present insight, primarily coming from the personal relationships the two radio personalities have spanning many years with the who's who in this area.
I can't get that anywhere else.
That said, I only listen in my car. Talk radio in a house one shares with many people is a no-go. Don't try it unless you live alone. If cars are not going to put AM access at arms length from a steering wheel, the industry is dead.
Finally there are times when traveling on Newark's Main Steet, and Elkton Road, that I have to shut down WDEL completely due to interference coming from their antiquated electrical wiring, which must be leaking power efficiency out the gazoo. During those moments, I wish the same format would be on FM.
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 1:13pm
But then, I too used to listen to shortwave radio... so what do I know...
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 1:39pm
kavips: Like you and Allan, I was a shortwave fan. Still have several shortwave radios around the house. But not much reason to listen anymore.
BTW: WDEL IS on FM. 93.7HD3. If you look at radio ratings, you'll see HD2 and HD3 stations showing up in the ratings. Like you, I cannot hear WDEL when I am anywhere near Main Street in Newark. I have thought about getting an HD radio for the 3 AM stations I listen to that are on an FM HD frequency.
Mike from Delaware
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 3:36pm
Interesting article. It is sad that AM radio has become mostly a propaganda machine for the G.O.P. Talk radio used to be an interesting format. I remember the old WCAU and WWDB-FM both doing talk. Not all conservative, not all liberal, not all political, but far more interesting.
I listen to WDEL the most: Mainly for traffic/weather/local news, sometimes to Al, noontime with Allan and his interviews, Phillies/Eagles/Westwood One games, CBS coverage of Presidential press conferences/debates, etc.
Mike from Delaware
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 3:41pm
Continuing: If not available on WDEL, then WHYY-FM for NPR coverage of those live news events.
Sometimes I'll put on Bloomberg Radio out of NYC --the old WNEW. Sometimes, Fox Sports Radio or CBS Sports Radio, which are locally available on AM.
The rest of my listening is NPR on FM or sports talk on FM, or on-line for old-time radio dramas, Lutheran Public Radio, etc., etc.
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 7:41pm
Hmmmmmmmmmm. Repelled most women? Funny I still hear plenty of women calling in to Rush and all the other shows I listen to.
Perhaps this is all about a lotta nothin'?
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 10:03pm
Drought in California... Kinda got bumped off the airwaves by Ferguson.
Mike from Delaware
Fri, Aug 22, 2014 9:14am
Mrpizza: Realize, while Limbaugh has the highest-rated radio show in the nation, it still is ONLY 5% of the radio audience, so 95% of the folks tuning in to radio are NOT listening to elRusbo's rantings.
The stats are correct. The info in the article isn't really new. Allan and I used to discuss this stuff back when I was doing a talk show, being a news anchor, and reporter at WILM. Allan ran the entire operation of WILM back then and was my supervisor. So yes generally, most women are turned off by male talk voices like Rush/Hannity/Beck with their very conservative political rantings. Those shows do skew towards old white guys. It is what it is.
The article is correct. Talk needs a new thing, because fewer folks are listening. You're a listener, surely you could write Limbaugh's script for him, any moron could, Obama is evil, he's trying to destroy America, he's from Kenya, Nancy Pelosi is evil, etc., etc., etc. So one would think that even die-hard TEA folks would tire of hearing the same ranting day after day, but as that demo is also dying off and the younger demos are not tuning in, those shows will eventually start to lose stations and markets as stations can no longer afford to pay the steep rates elRushbo charges a station to carry his show.
AM, like WDEL has broken away by going live and local, making themselves the place to go for Wilmington news/traffic/weather/sports. Both Al and Rick don't always talk politics... Al has his let's bash Christianity segment where I change stations and his Friday hollyweird gossip show with Gary Mullinex; Jensen has his "Thirsty Thursday" show, so already WDEL is trying to bring in other non-political topics to their two talk shows.
The point is right-wing political talk IS a dying format and AM radio will need to once again reinvent itself or end up being only used for religious dollar a hollar preachers, infomercials, and Hispanic and Korean programming.
Fri, Aug 22, 2014 9:52am
Is AM radio losing popularity due to the interference/static, "right-wing" radio or competition from internet-based outlets?
Most radio is available via the web and I would guess more and more people listen to radio on their phones, i-pads, laptops and satellite radios..AM will continue to be less popular.
There must be money and a market in Talk Radio since Beck formed his own internet-based TV channel (The Blaze) and his own Radio Network...
For local news, traffic and Allan Loudell...I tune in to WDEL (AM in the car/online at work)...for talk I go elsewhere on the "interweb".
EarlGrey: Sure Beck will make money from those who will pony up the money to receive his programs on his one station. But can individual stations around the nation make ends meet? Apparently it is becoming harder and harder.
With such a show like Beck or Rush there are two types of commercials aired [national and local]. So when WDEL airs the Phillies or Eagles or example, some of the spots you hear come from the Phillies/Eagle's radio network, then there are the local slots where WDEL gets to make its money. So the Phils/Eagles flagship station [the network] that sends the games to the affiliates makes its money from those "network" spots, and WDEL makes its money from the local spots. Now if WDEL wasn't able to find local sponsors they'd lose money airing those games. At some point, the management of WDEL would not renew their contract to carry the games.
Same with Rush/Beck/Hannity, etc. Some stations, that carry elRushbo for example can't seem to sell many local spots during his show as local advertisers in blue areas don't want their companies name associated with Limbaugh's or because of the older age of the listener the sponsor won't spend money to reach them, for a bunch of reasons, but the targeted ages is usually 6-49, preferibly female as they make most household purchases, etc, etc.
So that station loses money during those hours Rush is on, because during those local avails they end up airing PSA's [public service announcements} that are aired FREE to fill those slots. What has kept some of those stations airing Rush is many of these stations are OWNED by Clear Channel, and Rush's Show is distributed by their radio network Premiere. So even if they don't sell any local avails the corporation [CC] still makes money from the national spots. They keep the show on these underperforming station's because the rate they can charge for those national spots is based on how many markets the show is heard. So a CC station like WILM may not sell many local spots, but as WILM can be heard in Wilmington market #78 and in parts of Philly market #8, CC can claim both markets are being served even if a Philly station isn't airing Rush, which has happened from time to time. But even now Rush being heard in Wilmington allows them to charge more for that 600K+ potential audience that might be listening.
Allan or Chris Carl, etc, can offer a far better nuanced explanation, but that's a bare bones version of how it works.
So the station that isn't owned by CC that airs Rush, if they are not able to sell local spots during his show will lose money, because they pay a fee to air the show. Remember Radio, like any other business is just that a business. Everyone I've ever known in radio has dreams of what they'd do if they owned a station [radio fantasy land], but then the reality of paying salaries, the electric bill, etc, cause that bubble to burst and then you have to program your station so advertisers will pay you to run their ads. To do that you must have the listeners that advertiser wants to reach, thus Rush's show problem, he reaches plenty of ears, just they aren't the one's the advertisers want to reach. They're generally too old. It's the paradox of radio today, the young folks the advertisers want, they don't listen to radio as my generation did, yet we do listen, but the advertiser doesn't care. THAT is the real issue in a nut shell.
Again Allan or Chris Carl can far better explain, but this will give you an idea of the issue.
Fri, Aug 22, 2014 1:48pm
Interesting discussion here.
Let me respond to some of the points above.
Obviously, this company would love to acquire an F.M. station for WDEL if one became available. But that assumes an existing station owner in the market is in a position to sell (One such owner has been tied up in litigation), and the selling price would be reasonable, not exorbitant.
The fact that we are located in a greater metropolitan area limits the options, since many of those signals occupying the dial are Philly signals.
A FEW metropolitan areas are still great A.M. markets, relatively speaking. Chicago's 50,000-watt, clear-channel A.M. stations still make their mark, of course, with the advantage of high-powered signals which can slice through mechanical and electrical interference, plus wonderful dial poisitions. (Rich black Midwestern soil also provides superior ground conductivity for A.M. signals!) Interestingly, CBS all-news station WBBM now broadcasts on both A.M. (780) and F.M. (105.9), but most of the listeners have remained on A.M. (WBBM's slice of F.M. listeners may be somewhat younger; I haven't seen the breakdown). Of course, WBBM's signal is so potent that I've picked it up booming in at night until I'm somewhat underneath the I-95 Baltimore tunnel.
...which brings us to WDEL's signal. We are 5,000 watts day and night, but highly directional southeast (to protect stations in Pennsylvania and particularly Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.) At night, our signal pattern is even more tightly focused towards the southeast. That's why our signal suffers in Newark, and is often unlistenable (at night) west of Elkton and northwest of the DE/PA arc. A pity - if you think about it - because many current or potential listeners live in those areas!
That's the problem justifying a move to a higher power output (10,000 watts). Even if we were to do so - at substantial expense, and arguably wasteful if the future of radio is via the internet, phone apps, etc. - we wouldn't necessarily project that much better a signal in Newark, Kennett Square, etc. That's the rub.
(Once, while scanning the nighttime A.M. radio dial from North Carolina's Outer Banks, WDEL was booming in nearly as strongly as Philly's WPHT.)
What we have been trying to do is extend the WDEL brand -- right here, at wdel.com -- and through apps. WDEL.com continues to expand each year.
Of course, we also enjoy economies of scale. For example, our traffic team does the most reports on WDEL, but also services WSTW and some of our other stations. Delaware 105.9 now generates news content for us, and we do the same for them.
We also have our new partnership with Philly's NBC 10. In fact, we're refurbishing our newsroom so NBC 10 can utilize WDEL as its Wilmington bureau.
We still have loyal advertising clients who swear by the results they get from us. (I see them once or twice a year, at our advertising client parties.)
Unfortunately, HD radio has not lived up to some expectations. I happen to have an HD radio, and the higher fidelity for WDEL is dramatic, but I actually use that radio much more often to listen to our sister station, Graffiti Radio. But it is telling that most of Graffiti's listener base appears to listen on-line rather than via HD.
I always feared HD would not live up to its potential, as manufacturers would have little incentive to "mainstream" it, and average listeners - with so many other on-line options - wouldn't invest the time nor energy.
I put HD on a long list of radio's would-be elixirs, including quadraphonic broadcasting, stereo A.M., and the extension of the A.M. medium-wave broadcast band to 1700 kHz.
To the point about whether women ever call conservative-oriented talk shows, that's beside the point. The vast majority of listeners will NEVER call a telephone-talk show, so what you hear is not necessarily a measure of the breadth of the audience. Classic example: Psychics on the air draw tons of calls, yet produce anemic ratings.
The problem for the nationally-syndicated hosts that began charging fees - and bumped them up nearly every year - is that with the ratings decline, and growing advertiser resistance, stations should have negotiating power they didn't previously have. Contract deals are confidential, but one wonders if Rush's network has had to make any concessions.
By the way, JimH, some stations broadcasting in English remain on shortwave, notably Radio Romania International, Radio Exterior de Espana, Radio Australia, and Radio New Zealand International (the latter two, in the early morning). I can also pick up Deutsche Welle & Vatican Radio broadcasts for Africa. And as a radio hobbyist, I still try for more obscure domestic stations.
Among the stations which migrated solely to the internet, I'm most apt to go to Radio Prague, KBS World Radio (Korea), and now the successor to the Voice of Russia.
Mr. Grey... I haven't heard any "talker" talk about COMCAST/Time Warner (But I seldom hear talk show hosts other than ours or Delaware 105.9's.) I would imagine people's views would vary according to one's ideological prism.
Fri, Aug 22, 2014 6:09pm
I would be perfectly content if Steve Hare gobbled up all the AM stations and expanded the REACH radio network to include "prosperity gospel" teaching in addition to contemporary Christian music.
Mike from Delaware
Sat, Aug 23, 2014 12:15am
Mrpizza : Steve Hare owns AM 1550 in Elkton. It simulcast 89.1's programming for a short time, then became an ESPN radio affiliate. Not sure why Hare dropped his Reach FM programming & went Sports Talk radio.
Sat, Aug 23, 2014 1:43am
Update: The ESPN programming was dropped 2 or 3 years ago and has returned to simulcasting the FM feed. It seems to be mostly useless because the Middletown FM frequency works equally well in the Elkton/Newark area. If WDEL is 5000 watts then 1550 can't be more than 2000.
But AM has traditionally been useful for biblical teaching programs, as in WVCH 740, so maybe something like that would go over well if they could get authorization for some more juice.
Sat, Aug 23, 2014 8:56am
1550 was my first station. Weekends, then afternoon drive. 1 kilowatt with 3 towers. Local sunrise to sunset only. The night power is only 1 watt! I listened when Steve had ESPN. Since I detest that music, I only listen once every month or so, just to see if they are still on the air.
Mike from Delaware
Sat, Aug 23, 2014 9:27am
Mrpizza: you might find this of interest as might JimH.
This is a podcast from Lutheran Public Radio's talk/interview show "Issues,Etc."
The topic is what is driving CCM music and they do discuss the radio business [especially Christian radio]. Very interesting.
One thing that definitely changed from when I worked weekends at 101.7 WNNN-FM, today Urban station WJKS. Anyhow, when I was there the record labels for the CCM artists were Christian companies like Myrrh Records and Word Records. Later these were bought out by "secular" companies, so today's CCM records are being produced by the same companies that produce Madonna's and Rap "music".
This is an interesting inside radio program and the recording industry look at how today's CCM music is picked. You'll also learn how Becky is. Would enjoy hearing your thoughts Mrpizza after hearing this. Enjoy.
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