The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

29 November 2005

Interview Excerpts


Highlights From All Access Interview

Is talk radio in good shape? And what does the future hold?

After an interview with entertainment industry trade publication All Access this past week, I thought I'd share an excerpt here, since there isn't a public link to the piece:

All Access: You and Michelle Malkin have been pretty relentless on the trail of Air America Radio. Whether it's that network or other syndicated or local product, can liberal talk work? If not, why not, and if so, what will they need to do to make it work?

Brian Maloney: Michelle and I were perfect to tackle the Air America investigation, because we both have strong Seattle ties. Its worst-kept secret is that decisions are made there by Rob Glaser and Eileen Quigley, both longtime Puget Sound Area political activists (Ed. Note: Real Networks' Glazer serves as AAR Chairman and Quigley as Chief of Staff to the Chairman of the AAR Board). Malkin and I are determined to see issues through- I observed this during her Seattle Times tenure and I'd like to think I had the same habit at KVI and KIRO.

I have nothing against liberals doing talk radio; at KIRO, I was the token conservative. I only dealt with one host in Seattle that was over the line. Since 1993, I've worked with a number of leftists, all the way back to KSCO. Through its own corporate behavior, Air America brought this upon itself. It's a journalistic goldmine, which is why we've frequently been battling New York City newspapers over who can get stories out first.

Liberal talk's worked just fine at KGO and a few other local stations. If I were running Air America, my first call would have been to KGO management to find out how they'd done it. Barring further cash infusions that seem increasingly unlikely, I don't think Air America will be able to stick around much longer. It's too late to fix it.

However, I see no reason why liberal programming from Jones can't remain on the air for some time. In fact, I could see Jones with more "progressive" talkers if Jones and Air America sever ties. At least at Jones you have radio people making the calls. Anyone expecting significant ratings outside of Portland and a few other places, however, is going to be very disappointed. At Air America, it's been a bunch of record promoters and film producers running around the building. That really never made sense.

AA: Take politics out of the equation for a minute and tell us: what makes a good talk show? What do you listen for in a talk show?

BM: You need to grab them in the first two minutes. Right out of the gate you need energy, headline teases, relevance and gravitas. If you aren't focused in the first segment, listeners have no reason to invest in your show. Then, in each subsequent segment, you've got to remind them why they're still with you. The energy level must remain high and you need to know what you're talking about.

Let them know what's coming up. Refresh it all for the guy who tuned in halfway through. They're busy, you can't force them to listen. And, they have a million other choices now. You've got to develop the topic for the listener and make it happen. Reading the headlines doesn't do it.

It's stunning to hear how many talk novices have been thrown into syndicated radio shows and nobody's coaching them. The results are dreadful. You can't wing it and survive for long. Experience matters; some of them aren't prepping and it shows. I've recently done many radio interviews on the Air America story, and I've noticed some of the local hosts do this far better than the national guys.

AA: Talk radio slumped somewhat in the ratings in 2005, although it's showing some signs of rebounding. Still, it's down- do you think it's just a predictable drop coming off an election year or do you think there are symptoms of politics fatigue among radio listeners?

BM: For the most part, we've recently been turning out a shoddy product and Arbitron finally caught up. Election boosts are sometimes overstated. We're making K Cars, but there's no Lee Iacocca, or a federal talk radio bailout coming. Some still think they can force people to listen; the arrogance never went away. It's incredible.

Removing political topics is a mistake; to fix the situation, you need lively, interesting hosts with subject depth. Experienced talk programmers have been pushed aside in favor of cluster managers with sales backgrounds. They have no idea how to make talk radio succeed. Then they wonder why they're getting clobbered.

The 2006 midterm elections will do little for talk radio, because there are very few truly competitive races remaining, because of rampant gerrymandering. It will be very different in 2008, which should be a wild year, but it's too far down the road. So the time to get talk radio in shape is now.

Talk radio listeners have changed and are begging the industry to take notice. In order to invest in talk shows, they want activist hosts, heavily involved in issues. They don't want cheap, lame stunts, but a sense that a station is bringing about change in the community. KFI's John and Ken, KSFO's Lee and Melanie and KVI (at its peak some years back), provide the models for how it should be done.

Listening to John and Ken on California recall election night was incredible radio. Melanie Morgan's activism with Move America Forward has brought increased listener loyalty to KSFO.

The northeast and New England no longer lead the way in talk radio; it's fallen apart in just a few short years. Sad to see.

AA: Why do you think there just isn't a lot of critical analysis or reviewing of radio- not just talk radio, but any radio- in the other media? Newspapers all have TV critics- why do the same papers, with a few exceptions, ignore radio to the extent that they don't even have staffers assigned to the beat or use freelancers or wire copy to cover the medium?

BM: With daily newspapers, it varies by city. Radio journalism's still strong in Chicago, Philly, Denver and a few other places. It's vanishing in Dallas-Fort Worth and elsewhere. There's no longer an investigative zeal in Boston, so a lot of stories slide right past them.

I've noticed that, in some cities, the interns or cub reporters get the radio beat, which results in fluff coverage. We're controversial, but the papers avoid covering the noise we make. They're still worried about competition; they'd be better off writing about us when we do something interesting. Editors refuse to modernize and it's killing them.

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