The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

13 April 2009

Activism- Oriented Talk Sees Revenue Surge In Los Angeles


KFI's Blockbuster Revenues Contradict Industry Sentiment

For years, talk radio programmers have clashed with station sales managers over controversial political content: while the former understands it is key to generating ratings, the latter fears nervous advertisers.

In many cities, shortsighted corporate radio operators allowed salespeople to win the argument, even to the point of firing program directors. That led to watered-down content, particularly where local talk radio was concerned.

With managers from sales backgrounds now in charge of both departments as general managers, a few top-rated syndicated shows would remain for their ratings-generating potential, surrounded by fluff or "brokered" (syndicator pays station to carry it) content. Local hosts were considered too likely to upset the area power structure and therefore eliminated.

Lost in all of this was the talk radio listener, whose needs were completely shut out by the account executive's need to feel comfortable at the next chamber of commerce mixer or Rotary function.

But thanks to Los Angeles powerhouse KFI, the truth has been revealed: activism-based conservative talk not only generates top ratings, but in the right hands, it is immensely profitable as well. In new data just released, the Clear Channel megatalker turned in the third-highest sales figures in all of radio, just behind two Southland FM music outlets.

According to BIA Financial Network, which tracks radio revenue for the industry, KFI generated a stunning $54.4 million in billings during 2008. During a recession, that's not an easy feat. It wasn't long ago that news-talk stations never appeared in the top ten nationwide, lagging significantly behind music formats.

Why is KFI so successful? A few reasons:

Between 5am and 7pm, the station delivers a one-two punch of top-rated local and national programming, with almost no fear of generating local controversy. KFI understands that strong personalities are key to ratings and revenue.

KFI's local hosts combine political activism with entertainment value and most importantly, immediacy: afternoon drive hosts John & Ken devote countless hours of programming to bringing down corrupt politicians and reforming California's troubled state government. Recently, they've been placing "heads on a stick" as a way to kick off recall efforts against legislators in Sacramento.

From noon to 3pm, KFI airs Dr Laura Schlessinger's controversial advice program, still going strong after many years. In fact, Dr Laura is once again making headlines, appearing on the Today Show, an interview in Time Magazine and a visit with Sean Hannity on the FOX News Channel, all in the past week alone.

And of course, anchoring the lineup is talk titan Rush Limbaugh, turning in stellar ratings and boosting KFI's overall listenership.

KFI isn't perfect (it could use some help at night), but it does generally listen to its audience, with a lot to show for it at the end of the day.

As New York City outlets were left out of the top three revenue rankings this year, the new data has added shock value. In particular, the complete absence of WABC from the top ten has the industry buzzing. Worse, it didn't even make the Big Apple's top ten, coming in at number 14.

Some reasons:

WABC is badly mismanaged by Citadel Communications, the troubled and infamously inept firm that took over ABC Radio several years ago.

Though WABC benefits from a block of highly successful syndicated programming featuring Limbaugh, Hannity and Mark Levin, it has almost entirely dumped local talk in the nation's number one market. With hundreds of fantastic regional issues now largely ignored, it is badly underserving its audience.

In a possibly-deliberate move to clash with its core audience, Citadel forced WABC to carry MSNBC host Joe Scarborough's terrible midmorning talk show, with exactly the results one would expect.

Years past his prime, talk fossil Don Imus has failed to generate the sales that once kept his former home, sports talker WFAN, in a top-ranked revenue position. Recently, the program has become more unlistenable than ever, with no sign of improvement in sight.

WABC has cluttered its schedule with other programming, including infomercials, that serve the parent company's shortsighted interests, but undermine the station's overall success.

Now that we know controversial programming can be enormously lucrative, sales managers have no excuse for steering stations away from it. In fact, with that mentality, they are leaving millions on the table for their respective outlets. Talk radio that matters to the listener works, fluff and other force-fed garbage only chases them away.

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  • Great to hear about KFI. I sold local radio time for 20 years and as you may have heard, the word 'controversy' has made it to the ad agency time buyer's desk. Among clients, P&G is the most brainwashed against so-called controversy which is actually political and social bias on their part. The usual pressure groups have P&G in their pocket. All I wanted was for my clients to get results, and that's what foreground talk radio will do. For a period of years Rush Limbaugh, Bob Grant and Howard Stern (who was more Libertarian in his terrestrial hey day) had huge, huge ratings, dwarfing everyone else in both men an women in the New York/New Jersey metro area. Yet some ad agencies seeking to buy time in the market would give the following instructions, no exceptions: No Rush, No Howard, No Bob Grant. I doubt anyone in the ad agency ever listened to any of them for any length of time.

    By Blogger susan mullen, at 13 April, 2009 18:00  

  • I used to listen to KFI night and day when I lived in SoCal. It seemed that when the business office closed for the day, so did the talent on the air. The most listenable week night program was Handel's "Gripe Night", but KFI ruined with a move and with tinkering a accidental hit.

    Marc "Mr. KFI" Germain was ok in the evening. The need a strong personality to contrast to the day and that David Hall won't listen to Kobylt's complaints about to be successful in the evening.

    In fact, when Kobylt's show goes off for the evening, someone ought to stuff a cheese perogi in his mouth and lock him in a closet with Champiou.

    By Blogger PCD, at 14 April, 2009 09:40  

  • WABC has some major problems from a listeners perspective as well.

    I am an avid talk radio listener and I am not able to listen to dithering, mumbling, trying-to-be-cool Imus. I've tried. He inevitably makes me turn off the radio.

    Joe Scarborough is better, but I have found Glenn beck on WOR. My preference would be Laura Ingraham who is only on for one hour at 9PM. WABC should get her show live for the AM hours.

    Lastly, Hannity. I have listened to Sean from before his syndication and now only occasionally. Why? His show is endlessly repetitive and there is too much self-promotion.

    Sean seems to like to ramp up the energy level in his voice and tone but there is very little content. If you took out all the promotional interjections about upcoming guests, his TV show, and other indulgences there is about three minutes of content per segment and it isn't all that compelling or original.

    WABC has to understand that if they are going to run that many commercials along with news and traffic, the host when we are finally returned to him, can't be hawking more stuff - even promoting his own later segments.

    Hannity's callers are pedestrian and often seem to be screened for whether they reside in a place Sean is about to visit, and there is way too much small-talk with callers. When Sean does get a good caller he can't seem to recognize it.

    Hannity does have some interesting guests, but Hannity's questions are paragraph-long statements that prevents the guest from using his own words. By the time Newt finally arrives (after our being told he's coming for two straight hours) we still hear more Sean and not enough Newt.

    Hannity's new opening promo, the one with Obama and some preacher mentioning him by name is horrid. The voice-over of the announcer telling us to "hang onto your wallets our taxes are going through the roof" is so heavy-handed and off-putting I can't listen to it anymore.

    WABC needs to wise up. I'll work for them cheap. They need someone to improve their line-up and/or their shows.

    By Blogger Franco, at 14 April, 2009 11:46  

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