The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

31 May 2005

New Evidence Of Talk Radio's Troubles

Talk Radio Derailing?

Poor Decisions, Lack Of Focus Affecting Quality


Is talk radio becoming derailed by peculiar programming moves, unfocused hosts and some who just don't belong on the air?

Recently, the Radio Equalizer has begun to receive feedback from industry managers, air talent and listeners, alerting me to disturbing developments in the medium.

At a time when blogs, XM, SIRIUS and podcasting threaten AM radio from every angle, one would expect a sharp focus on what works, an effective plan of attack.

Instead, the decisions become more baffling every day, with no sign of change coming soon.

Talk radio is adrift.

It isn't just about progamming moves, hiring and firing, but day-to-day program content as well. Here are some examples from just the past couple of weeks:


--- A longtime Dallas-Fort Worth talk show host, who built his reputation on conservative issues and once had a national program, spent an entire segment playing board games on-air with other staffers.

--- A conservative Milwaukee talk station has a morning talk host opening, but instead of taking the time to look for an experienced, well-read, entertaining, talk host to fill the slot, they're holding an "American Idol"-style talent contest.

It couldn't look cheesier on WISN-AM's part, either, wonder if staffers are red-faced over this ill-advised promotion.

--- A new liberal talker in Akron, Ohio, pretended to be a pirate station at first, imploring listeners not to trust corporate radio giants. But it turned out to be a trick, it was really a Clear Channel outlet gearing up to run a slate of (corporate-backed) "progressive" talkers.

It backfired to the point where even the New York Times chastised the company over the situation.

--- Some major national syndicated talk hosts recently spent so much time talking about congressional issues, important as they might have been, that they lost sight of what's made conservative talk radio popular: its entertainment value. One reader told me that he's in the habit of changing the station at the first mention of "Bolton" or "filibuster" on any talk show.


So which is it, Radio Equalizer, entertainment or content? It's about common sense, some hosts and programmers once had a grasp of this, but are now adrift. Some bad decisions were made when sales or music people took over talk station management, forcing out experienced talk radio programmers.

Combining a focused, well-prepped effort to lay out hot issues in a passionate, entertaining manner, with the occasional lighter topic, will still win audience loyalty.

When a talk host is playing board games on the air, that's a sign of serious trouble: he's either too complacent and comfortable in his position, bored, or starting to crack.

When a station thinks holding a contest will produce a host who can deliver ratings against the competition, when a key element of talk radio success is on-air experience, then something is very wrong.

In the Akron case, mistakes are piling on top of each other. The new Clear Channel talker features non-Air America liberals, because another AM outlet in town already locked them up.

So the city now has two stations, duking it out over a format not succeeding, virtually anywhere in the country.

And the stunt attracted negative attention from the New York Times:


To the average listener, Radio Free Ohio has all the earmarks of pirate radio. For weeks, it sounded as if amateurs had been bleeding their voices into the broadcasts of stations in Akron, Ohio, owned by Clear Channel, the corporate radio giant. At the Web site www.radiofreeohio.com, there was a manifesto about "corporate-controlled music playlists" that took potshots at several local Clear Channel stations. But there was no information about who had posted the screed, or what exactly Radio Free Ohio was.

But last week it came out that Radio Free Ohio was not a prank on Clear Channel but in fact a prank by Clear Channel. Tomorrow, an AM station the company owns in Akron will switch formats from sports talk to progressive talk, and Clear Channel would very much like anyone suspicious of corporate media to tune in.

"Once we determined we were going to change the format, we tried to get into the mindset of people who would listen to this new station," said Dan Lankford, vice president and market manager for Clear Channel in Akron. That mindset may involve a suspicion of Clear Channel itself, which has used loosened rules on media ownership to build a radio empire.

That Clear Channel owned the www.radiofreeohioorg Web site was revealed on www.stayfreemagazine.org, a magazine and blog about advertising and popular culture.

Stay Free's editor, Carrie McLaren, said that she had learned the information from someone who had seen it on an Akron Web site. "In a way it's the heart of the problem with Clear Channel," Ms. McLaren said of the manifesto. " 'We're this huge corporation and we do everything to fake being local.' "


Some might say that any publicity is good for a radio station, but this criticism is coming from the very audience segment they're trying to attract: younger liberals.

Listeners still have the same demands, but when talk radio is no longer delivering them, they're finding other places to go. Most distressing is that instead of recognizing the problem, radio keeps repeating the mistakes, with no end in sight.

13 Comments:

  • First, I have to defend WISN/Milwaukee's on-air auditions. That's a practice that long pre-dates the "American Idol" name they gave it. It goes back to at least the 80s. They may already have a candidate in mind and are doing this to maintain interest.
    These "amateur hour" shows are often unintentionally entertaining in a "Gong Show" sort of way. Not to mention, if you find someone good, you can put them to work on a weekend shift.

    These auditions go back to the populist roots of talk radio. The earliest talk shows in all but a few markets were caller-driven. They were about giving a voice to the LISTENERS more so than the
    ego of the host. Sometimes it sounded hokey and unprofessional.
    But it reflected the original bubble-up roots of the medium. Some callers and auditioneers over the years have gone on to be famous hosts -- Lionel is a good example. I personally think talk radio is too much of a top-down medium these days. When Ivy League think-tankers are given prestigious syndicated slots, it mocks the "common man" identity from which talk grew in the first place.

    I think I know the Dallas personality to whom you refer.
    I believe the initials can also be used to signify "doctor."I don't think he's about to crack. As a former PD said of the man, he's too cheap to have any vices. That said, you have to vary it up now and again. Predictability is what's ailing talk radio more than anything. Why not a board game?

    The WTOU launch in Akron was a joke. But that's the kind of thing you come up with when management still operates from an 80's-90's-stunt mentality. The kind that
    thought listeners could be sucked into the idea that some kids were jamming a frequency from their dad's boat to launch a new format.
    They don't realize that post-consolidation, audiences are a lot more jaded about the medium and suspicious of hype in all matters.

    I agree that the disdain for programmers with actual talk radio experience is unfortunate. But certain executives and consultants (Gabe Hobbs and Walter Sabo come to mind) seem to think that the only people who can do or program talk radio successfully are those who have done morning shows on music stations. Talk radio's own body of expertise is discarded.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 31 May, 2005 15:43  

  • You need to see Randi Rhodes testimony before congress:

    http://dembloggers.com/story/2005/5/30/16128/7382

    I think she's getting ready to be taken off the air, and fabricating a 'Right Wing Conspiracy' to blame it on.

    By Blogger Lidsville, at 31 May, 2005 16:28  

  • Anon, you're right, stations have long held these pretend contests to find talk hosts, but this one is real.

    The winner gets a contract, is locked into the morning show, with a salary of at least $50,000. It's guaranteed as per the contest rules.

    It's one thing to give the winner a weekend gig or some fill-ins, but to pick your morning show host this way is asinine. No real programmer would want to do something this stupid.

    By Blogger Brian Maloney, at 31 May, 2005 18:03  

  • I feel sorry for local talkers because of the incredible competition from the national syndicated shows. Over the years I've had my favorite local shows but they have gone by the wayside. I live in a great talk radio city. I can wake up to Bill Bennett (but I prefer a local "happy talk" show to get the day going...), then I listen to Laura Ingraham until Dennis Prager comes on, then Rush, then Hannity or Medved, then Savage, then Hewitt. Great, great radio and I don't really miss local talkers. Although, national and international issues are far more important to me than local issues which I hear repeatedly on every hourly news cast.

    Seems to me that national shows are thriving while the local shows may be struggling.

    If we had a local Boortz or Bill Cunningham or Brian Maloney, it might be a different story here.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 31 May, 2005 22:48  

  • Down here in the state that crapped California into existence, we have some great local people doing work. I'm surprised we haven't exported Mark Abrams or Rob Kremer, or Victor Boc even.

    It's pretty cool to get live programming, even if it is on a Sunday.

    By Blogger Sailor Republica, at 31 May, 2005 23:24  

  • AAR's Latest Arbitron's from Cincinnati Don't Look too good.
    .8 Spring '05. Before WCKY took on AAR they were pulling a 2.0! How long do they let their station bleed before they apply a tourniquet? AAR's ratings have been on a downward trajectory for quite some time now, it doesn't make *any* business sense to me. But neither does the current real estate market...

    By Blogger Lidsville, at 31 May, 2005 23:47  

  • doesn't make *any* business sense to me. But neither does the current real estate market...

    By Lidsville, at 11:47 PM

    -----LOL!I agree.

    ***FYI

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 01 June, 2005 11:31  

  • Sour grapes, Brian?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 01 June, 2005 18:40  

  • Whatever changes or challenges satellite radio bring, I'm sure Rush will make the change better than anyone. Been a fan since 1993.
    Sports talk radio? If you don't listen to it, it goes something like this:
    Three hours dedicated to discussion on why a certain team WILL win. Followed after the game by three hours of discussion of why the team LOST and why they will WIN next week or the next game. I still love sports but I ain't missin' nothin'.

    By Anonymous Robert Jones, at 01 June, 2005 22:12  

  • >>A longtime Dallas-Fort Worth talk show host, who built his reputation on conservative issues and once had a national program, spent an entire segment playing board games on-air with other staffers

    Is that Mark Davis? Davis appeared on Sean Hannity yesterday as Sean brought his Barnstorming FreakShow of Political Pornography (title courtesy of Bill Moyers) to Southfork Ranch. Mark announced he now has a multi-year deal with ABC to do a daily show with the last 2 hours (12-2 ET) national, following a local hour or two.

    I did enjoy Mark's mini-rant about the difference between conservatives and liberals, etc.
    --Bob Nelson

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 02 June, 2005 11:07  

  • Air America isn't successful because it's poorly done, and not very entertaining. I mean how much "bush bashing" can you listen to?

    RUMOR: KQKE will dump AA in the fall when the money runs out. The quake is paid by AA to run the programming. What's next for them?

    RUMOR: There is much dis-satisfaction at KNEW with Savage. He costs a lot, is a pain in the ass to deal with and clean up after, and doesn't produce the numbers. Buh-Bye?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 09 June, 2005 02:54  

  • Air America isn't successful because it's poorly done, and not very entertaining. I mean how much "bush bashing" can you listen to?

    RUMOR: KQKE will dump AA in the fall when the money runs out. The quake is paid by AA to run the programming. What's next for them?

    RUMOR: There is much dis-satisfaction at KNEW with Savage. He costs a lot, is a pain in the ass to deal with and clean up after, and doesn't produce the numbers. Buh-Bye?

    By Anonymous Radio Insider, at 09 June, 2005 02:54  

  • If you right wing AM radioheads were chickens, you'd all vote for Colonel Sanders. Seriously.

    By Blogger Ginger Winchester, at 27 October, 2006 12:22  

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