From New York to Los Angeles, in Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, and D.C. at big stations and small there is an alarming story unfolding in talk radio. Talk stations are tumbling in the ratings and no one knows why, though there are many theories.
It’s political fatigue.
It’s too repetitive.
It’s too depressing.
It’s too angry.
It’s too boring.
It’s not entertaining.
It’s all commercials.
The list of once great stations that have dropped out of the top ten reads like a radio station all-star line-up: KFI, WABC, WLS, WMAL, KABC, KIRO, WBAP. And it’s not a fluke (pardon the pun.) This is real. Arbitron is noticing it too.
“…for the first time since we began keeping our format records, it (news-talk) recorded two consecutive books below a 9 share, finishing at an 8.7 in July. Now summer is historically the lowest time of the year for News/Talk listening, and we will be keeping a close eye on the results as August and September approach, but it’s worth noting that the format’s summer shares have declined about 10% since 2011.”
– Tony Hereau, Arbitron Media Insights Manager
Down 10% in two years as a format in the 48 PPM markets?!
Editor’s note: I’m sure radio ownership groups understand and have lowered revenue projections accordingly.
“It was in 1994.”
Leykis was a guest on Episode 13 of the Radio Stuff podcast (listen). He recalled broadcasting from the NAB the year his show was launching into syndication and everyone kept talking about a panel featuring talk radio consultant Ed Shane. As Leykis recalls, this was Shane’s message:
“It’s important, for your talk radio station to be successful, that everyone have the same opinion as Rush.”
Leykis takes it a step further.
“So in other words, the secret to Rush Limbaugh’s success was not his years of experience or his time as a DJ or the fact that he had great timing or was a good comedian, that he made good use of sound, but no, no, no – the reason for his success was that he was a political conservative.”
From there after, every station Leykis approached to syndicate his show would ask what his politics were. It wasn’t always like that, “Previously, they only cared, ‘do I get ratings? Will I help the station make money? Will I make noise?’ Suddenly I was being asked, ‘Are you a conservative?’”
Leykis believes that was the moment talk radio went from being a mass appeal format to being a niche format. And the problems with talk radio today stem directly from a consultant misreading the tea leaves.
“Talk radio went from Rush Limbaugh’s bells, whistles, jingles and parody songs and everything to a line up of people reading bill numbers.” He went on, “It’s devoid of humor, entertainment value or mirth. These are not radio personalities.”
He wonders aloud if anyone in the radio business getting the message?
And he cautions up and coming talkers, “Don’t go to a radio station, because you’ll never be allowed to develop your talent. Develop a podcast, develop a streaming live show, develop your own product, and learn how to sell it and become an entrepreneur.”
OKAY, SO NOW WHAT?
Maybe it is political talk’s fault. I happen to believe it’s likely a perfect storm of new media, new listener expectations, new social and political attitudes, and a general fear in radio of taking risks and being wrong – in every department.
Here are a couple of steps I believe are necessary for talk radio to attract new listeners and remain relevant.
1. DEMAND SHOWMANSHIP
Talk radio needs more storytellers and fewer alarmists. Talent need to entertain, emote and put on a show, as much as they provide insight, deliver information and add context. Radio station leaders must support talent and encourage them to be amusing, insightful, emotional, apolitical, curious, experimental, and positive while giving them permission to fail. And fail hard sometimes — without fear of being fired.
2. FIND ANOTHER REVENUE STREAM
Radio stations need to stop abusing the listeners. The quality and quantity of radio’s commercials is appalling. I mean holy smokes gang have you tried to listen to an hour of radio recently? Effective immediately commercials that don’t meet your standards or match your brand should be rejected. Be the first guy in the room to say, “Hold up! That spot sucks. It’s not going on our air.” Be bold.
And – this will be even less popular – reduce spot loads. It’s time. Thanks to DVR, podcasts, Netflix, on-demand audio, and satellite radio spot loads seem to be worse than ever. Until recently people were accustomed to sitting through commercials or flipping back and forth between stations, because it was the penance you had to pay to watch your favorite TV show or listen to a kooky talk show host. Now radio is the last place on earth (with the exception of movie theaters) where consumers are forced to sit there while commercials are crammed down their throat.
No fast forward.
No more patience.
No more listening.
Just look at the growth of online radio, on-demand audio and NPR. So what’s that mean? Radio needs to figure out a dual revenue stream. The future of financing big radio is commercials and__________. You fill in the blank.
Editor’s note: If you say commercials and banner ads, I will scream.
Talk radio isn’t going to die, but it is definitely going through a mid-life crisis. The next 18-months the entire format will be redefined, programmers will be less focused on gaming PPM and more focused on listeners, commercials will sadly still suck, and Rush Limbaugh will be replaced by someone else as the face of the format.
I stumbled upon a display of Redhook Ale Brewery’s Audible Ale this past weekend. A beer brewed in conjunction with the Dan Patrick Show that invites you to “fill your passion bucket with the ultimate crushable ale.”
Here’s the description: “Redhook has teamed up with Dan Patrick to brew the ultimate craft beer for watching sports: plenty of flavor and aroma, and crushable enough to make you want another — without making you sloppy by halftime. Listen to your thirst. It’s Audible.”
I can’t tell… is this a radio promotion? A Dan Patrick promotion? A Redhook beer promotion? (For the record, I’ve reached out to Dan Patrick and Redhook for more details on how the partnership came about.)
It really doesn’t matter – it works for all three. For Redhook, it’s a great way to get a new, beer loving audience to try your beer. It’s a great way to get DP fans to think of (and consume) him and his brand when they aren’t listening to him. Beer and sports are natural partners and actually help to reinforce each other’s brands. And a nationwide promotion for a radio show or host of any size is good for branding and exposure.
It made my wife say, “is Dan Patrick even on in Seattle?” He must be, I said. Upon further investigation — no. Actually, he’s not. But, we do like good beer in Seattle, so…
Regardless, I still love the partnership and would encourage radio to use this as an inspiration to think big and find creative ways to leverage brands against each other.
(Yes, it tastes great too. Not as bitter as Dan Patrick, though – <insert rim shot>)
Listen to the inaugural “Radio Stuff” podcast with Deb Slater (@deb_slater and www.debslater.com) and me. This first podcast we listen to how different radio sources treated the Cleveland story about the three women found after years in captivity; WTAM, Fox News Radio, NPR, Rush Limbuagh, BBC, and Radio Australia. We also talk about Paula White who got drunk before her final Friday night shift at BBC Radio Stoke. We listen to News Talk 980 CJME (Regina, Canada) and host John Himpe’s thoughts on a would-be seriel killer allowed to watch Dexter. We listen to radio station imaging from 100.3 The Sound in LA and 99.3 The Vine in Wine Country. We talked to XL 1010 Jacksonville’s Chad Scott about a new sports radio chat on twitter #srchat, and we debate the decency of a Fresh N Easy commercial. There’s a lot here! Enjoy. Let us know what you like, what you want more of, and what you could do without. And please send contributions, tips, audio, insights to both of us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is one of the times of the year when sports radio hosts like to go on the air and tell listeners that there’s nothing much going on in the sports world. I hear hosts calling this a “dead time;” right after the Super Bowl and before March Madness. When hosts do this they are not only turning off listeners and advertisers, they are telling them to go away.
Listeners are tuning into radio, in part, to escape the realities of their everyday life. No one wants to tune in to hear someone whine about how slow their day is going and babble on about nothing in particular. Strange as it is, this idea of a “slow time” only happens in the sports format. You never tune into a talk format and hear Rush Limbaugh droning on about how slow it is in Washington. I’ve never heard a rock DJ say, “boy this is a dead time for music, I really don’t have anything worth playing today.” Think about it this way, if you turned on CNN and they announced, “No real news today to report.” You would turn to another channel. Same goes listeners of sports talk.
Not only will announcing to the listeners that is a slow time for sports make your radio station more of seasonal listen than it already it is, it could also lead to less revenue. Advertisers are looking for the biggest bang for the buck. If I was an advertiser on a station and I heard a host lamenting about how it’s a slow time and there’s nothing to talk about, I would have to reconsider how I invested my ad dollars. I likely would cancel my order and place my commercials on a station that is excited about its content and is compelling fans to listen.
These are the days that hosts earn their money. This is when they prove their worth to a station and company. It’s a host’s job to make fans care about something. Regardless of what’s going on they have a responsibility to be creative, passionate and compelling. It may be a slower sports day than they like, but that is a YOU problem. Hosts need to work harder to find great story lines, tease them, develop them and pay them off.
Programmers, GMs and sales teams need to hold the hosts accountable to help drive ratings and revenue, not drive it away.
Seriously, why are all the news channel anchors questioning each other about how much sleep they got or didn’t get last night? One of CNN’s anchors just started her interview with Wolf Blitzer, “Before we get to the election, I have to ask, ‘Did you get any sleep last night?’” Really, you have to ask? You couldn’t have waited until a commercial break?
Radio hosts, please take a note. I don’t care about how much sleep you get following the Super Bowl, how bad your commute is this morning, or that you forgot to eat dinner. Trust me when I tell you when I stop listening/watching you I am not racing to the bar or chat room to tell my buddies, “I’m really concerned for Johnny Touchdown on 590 The Homer, he’s tired. Do you know he was up until 4am covering the game last night? He should get a day off.” No, I’m looking for insider information, unique observations, and compelling opinions to steal from you to use as my own. I’m investing time into your show. Time is money. The return on my investment is the content you create. Stop wasting my time. You go to cool sporting events, talk sports all day and get paid for it. It’s hard for your listeners to care that you’re tired.