The Free Fall of Talk Radio

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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 humorless.

It’s predictable.

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.

THEY DON’T LIKE US, LEYKIS. WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?Tom Leykis

Tom Leykis, former radio show host now internet trailblazer at NewNormalNetwork.com, believes he was in the epicenter of the downfall of talk radio.

“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.

BOLD PREDICTION

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.

  1. August 10, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    Sobering article. One dimension radio must address is that it must continue to get in front of the consumer. It can’t just rely on the AM radio in car dashboards since more and more listening is moving to the net and smartphone. Programmers need to look for new ways to deliver shows that improve convenience and ubiquity.

    50% of home have DVRs so people increasingly expect programming on their schedule not the broadcasters. I run a DVR for radio service called http://DAR.fm where people can timeshift programming to a time more convenient for them. In spite of what grouchy Leykis says, there is great programming and talent on radio.

    Radio – especially talk – is in need of more innovation around the delivery to customers ears. I think you’re seeing some interesting developments such as Swell (ios app), Stitcher, and http://UberTalk.com Some in the talk realm fear these developments but the industry has no choice but to embrace them or watch their business fade like newspapers.

    • August 10, 2013 at 7:55 AM

      Michael, good insights. Thanks for commenting. Have you considered white labeling DAR.FM so radio stations can brand and integrate into their websites and apps?

  2. August 10, 2013 at 2:19 PM

    I like Tom – but that consultant largely got it right from a business point of view.

    Rush turned the expression of conservative ideology into a product. A product for which there was a huge market.

    The market was so large in fact – COUNTLESS other “conservatives” have built multi-million dollar careers/businesses in Radio, TV, Print and Online following his lead. Almost none of them had Rush’s radio broadcasting chops.

    Yes Rush was “entertaining” at one time – but it was always in service of expressing the conservative worldview. That was the market. Look at the explosion of conservative media from the late 80s onward. That was about “conservative” far more than about Rush being “entertaining”

    Leykis’s early syndicated show had him as a young, edgy, smart center-left social libertarian that often hilariously lay waste to much of the BS coming out of conservative media.

    Tom was Jon Stewart before Jon Stewart – but the market wasn’t there yet – especially on upper demo AM radio. And on FM – no one cared about politics.

    So Tom moved his show toward the issues that generated the most heat with FM radio audiences – apolitical tabloid style morality tales and man vs woman issues. It was quite compelling for awhile.

    As for “talk radio” – who cares. It had it’s time. Who are these people calling and waiting on hold anymore? Don’t they all just blog, facebook, twitter and troll forums now?

    Tom is 100% correct – anybody with vision has all the tools they need to develop a brand, build an audience and then try to monetize it without ever talking to a Radio or TV executive.

    It’s never been a better time to be a media creator.

    Broadcast will always need more milquetoast personalities that offend no one or feed a pre-determined market – because they are in the game of MASS. But what good is reaching 5 million people with trite sameness? For some that’s a job and paycheck they’d love.

    For edgier artists – online is where “cult” is not a dirty word. It can be an exciting thriving personal business for those brave enough to pursue it.

    • August 10, 2013 at 2:34 PM

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It was a business, but at what price? The argument is that talk radio sacrificed its future for a short term niche.

      • August 10, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        I disagree – when all this happened – talk radio had no future. so the price was extinction.

        conservative talk radio extended the life of AM radio by several decades and generated huge piles of cash.

        while I personally don’t like it or the negative side-effects it produced at large – there’s no questioning it was a successful business and smart for broadcasters.

        it kept the medium relevant far longer than appeared possible.

        the fact that the product is now stale and no longer “wins” like it used to is not an argument that it was wrong all that time.

        it’s only “wrong” (from a business perspective) to keep doing it now as if it’s still 1995.

        conservative talk was a radical pivot from what “talk” had been. so now Talk needs to pivot again.

        just don’t expect the same explosive growth. it’s not going to happen.

        on the plus side – non-music audio entertainment is being consumed at record levels.

        it’s just not happening ONLY on AM/FM radio anymore. and the audience knows that.

        thanks for the conversation!

  3. August 10, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    Years ago I worked at a station that aired Rush Limbaugh. I never felt that his show succeeded exclusively because of politics. It was because he was a radio guy and did the basics well. He used sound brilliantly, he did bits, he paced well, his timing was good and he used the phones well. Whether the format is radio or podcast, good showmanship will always find an audience. Similarly, “The Daily Show” doesn’t succeed because the zeitgeist is right for its politics. It succeeds because it’s funny.

    • August 10, 2013 at 8:37 PM

      Thanks for sharing Jerry. no doubt Rush is a radio pro to be admired for more than his politics.

  4. Jim Munchbach
    August 15, 2013 at 5:26 AM

    Big radio will be financed with commercials and #Purpose.

    The future belongs to #Podcasting.

    The past belonged to the man/woman with the biggest microphone.

    The future will belong to the small man/woman with the big purpose.

    Return of the Epic: David meets Goliath.

    Goliath loses his head.

    #RushEgoOut
    #MunchMac in Houston, Texas

  1. August 11, 2013 at 12:38 PM
  2. December 29, 2013 at 9:04 PM
  3. January 13, 2014 at 4:26 PM

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