I’d been waiting for an opportunity to write about the demise of talk radio in America, and not just the usual “this guy sucks”, “this guy’s a moron” screed that I routinely crank out when the mood hits me. No, something more substantial , an in depth look at the declining ratings, causes and effects, the changing demographics, some good inside-the-industry analysis, etc. In other words, a blog you might read and go away thinking something other than “wow is this guy still that bitter?”
But it turns out that while I was napping, a whole bunch of other guys have beaten me to the punch. Here’s a column I read the other day by a guy named Perry Michael Simon who edits a radio industry website called All Access. Simon strikes a “balanced” point-of-view, essentially saying that talk radio may in fact be dead, but hey! Zombies are dead too, and they’re still walking around, aren’t they? In fact, I defy you to read that column without agreeing with about half of it and disagreeing with the other half. (That’s either the mark of a truly great writer or an industry hack who doesn’t want to offend his radio subscribers .)
I found Simon’s piece on a Facebook page devoted to “the former listeners of KGO” radio. This is a page that was started by disgruntled listeners of the once hallowed Bay Area talker right after Cumulus Broadcasting acquired the station, abruptly changed format to “all news”, and shit-canned a bunch of legendary broadcasters in the process. At one time, KGO held a record for the longest sustained stretch of #1 ratings in the history of radio. Now it’s just another middle-of-the-pack news station, monotonously jamming superficial news fluff in and around endless traffic and weather reporting. I’m sure when the former listeners of KGO started their Facebook page, there was, in their minds at least, a glimmer of hope that the whole thing would be reversed and that KGO would magically revert to its former self, as if waking from a bad dream.
After reading the Simon column, I checked the ratings at some of the big talk stations in the big cities around the country, and sure enough, poof! Many of them could not have sunk as quickly and precipitously had they been swallowed by an Orlando sink hole. Once great stations like WLS in Chicago, KFI in Los Angeles, WABC in New York, and KOGO in San Diego have lost a third of their audience, or more, in just a matter of months. KABC in Los Angeles, as legendary in its day as KGO had been in its, has sunk so far in the ratings that it barely now registers, to a 0.7 share. To put that into perspective for you non-radio types, that means that at any given time, on the average, 99.3% of radio listeners in Los Angeles are listening to something other than KABC. (Former listeners of KLSD in San Diego, where I hosted the morning show for 3 years, will take scant satisfaction from the fact that the all-sports format that replaced us is barely registering at all with a 0.3 share,as close to flat-lining as you can get in radio.)
But, after reading the Simon piece and a couple of other similar internet posts, then verifying the numbers for myself, I stumbled onto a podcast called “Radio Stuff” where former nationally syndicated talk host Tom Leykis spent a half hour drawing similar conclusions from crunching the same numbers. At least Leykis had the guts to dispense with Simon’s half-filled-glass-of-water bullshit and call it like it is: talk radio has become a festering dung pile with the same gaseous stench bubbling up from its depths on hundreds of stations across the country. Hannity. Limbaugh. Mark Levin. Michael Savage. Dennis Miller. Bob Grant. Glenn Beck. Neil Boortz. What do they all have in common aside from being professional liars? They’re boring. It appears that America, finally, is losing its collective appetite for listening to paranoid gun nuts, birther’s, end-of-the-world bible thumpers, racists, and assorted neo-McCarthyites clogging up the AM dial.
See, the fun thing about talk radio in the past was that it was entertaining. There was some wit, some humor, some irony, some playfulness, along with the controversy and political advocacy. It’s what made stations like KGO and KABC great…and popular. And stations then had yet to adapt to the single political point of view theory. When I arrived at KSDO in San Diego in the 1980’s, the on-air line-up consisted of this: Ernie Myers, a former music jock at top-40 KGB, politics unknown; Roger Hedgecock, center-to-right former mayor of San Diego; Stacy Taylor, libertarian-progressive satirist; Ron Reina, a sports guy with local cred; and Ken Kramer, thoughtful, NPR-style liberal. But the point wasn’t even about politics really. Shit, I spent half my airtime then talking about motorcycles, music, and over-the-line. Kramer did a segment in his show on the history of San Diego place-names (which eventually morphed into his popular KPBS show “About San Diego”). Ernie Myers would spend hours dryly cracking wise about how much money he was losing at Del Mar on any given afternoon, while dishing out “news maker” interviews. Sure, politics would naturally creep into any serious on-air discussions ( and there was plenty of that going on in the midst of Iran-Contra, El Salvador, etc.) , and there was plenty of advocacy, but at least it was honest and personal (sometimes too personal), and it was not targeted to a single audience of ditto-heads. And we all lived in town, and talked about where we lived.
(And there’s another thing about KSDO in the 80’s: we had a news department, dozens of reporters, editors, and anchors, providing hosts with local stories and ideas. )
Back then, no one I knew at the management level of radio ever thought, for even a moment, that all that variety was going to be confusing to an audience or appear to be politically “inconsistent”. When I left KSDO in 1989, we had a 13.0 percent share of San Diego’s listening audience. Today, politically consistent right wing propaganda machine KOGO, KSDO’s successor as San Diego prime talk station, has a 2.6 percent share of the audience. But if you bring any of this up to any of today’s local radio “programmers”, they give you the ol’ “Yeah, but that was then…” excuse, while failing to site any examples of why things are so different now. One thing I can think of that’s different is that each of these ass-kissers takes his marching orders from some green visor guy at corporate headquarters. But what case, exactly , can be made that these corporate clock-watchers know what the fuck they’re doing? Heavily leveraged Clear Channel and Cumulus, the biggest of today’s radio corporate raiders, are losing hundreds of millions of dollar annually, and their audiences are shriveling up like raisins. Hell, the only people making any real money off this mess are the leveraged buyout guys who make their profit from someone else’s failure. But,as the expression goes, “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”. Never has that been more true than in today’s radio, where accountability is a corporate dodge and success equals lowered expectations and reduced payrolls.
The irony here is that radio today is “market driven”, targeted at segments of the market, not “broadcast” like in the old days. In talk radio, the problem is that the target is only one tiny segment of the market: narrow-minded ideologues who think the teacher’s union is a nest of anti-christ communists and who privately think “Martin Luther Coon” is still funny.
The one reality radio management does cite when questioned about talk radio’s demise is the new methodology used in measuring today’s radio audience, the so-called “people meter”, a devise designed to more effectively translate actual listenership into ratings. Their argument is that PPM’s over-represent more youthful listeners and more minority listeners, to the detriment of old fogey formats like news/talk. What they’re really saying is that they have been living off a false measurement methodology for so many years, that they got suckered into thinking they were good. But now that it must be dawning on at least a few of these numb skulls that the formula no longer works, what’s the next move? If history is a teacher, the reaction will be retrenchment, more panicky cut-backs, more consolidation, more syndication, more vertical integration, more sucky radio. The action now, supposedly, is podcasting and streaming. But so what? Comparing podcasting to radio is like comparing karaoke to a jam session.
Sad how the captains are the last to acknowledge the iceberg.