Listen to me on KTRS/St. Louis every Friday, 3-6pm CT

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Talk Radio Is In Trouble

You're not aware of it, but there's quite a lot of hand-wringing inside the talk radio industry these days. The audience is aging without attracting younger listeners, many major national advertisers have avoided the format completely since the Sandra Fluke controversy, and there are fewer and fewer places to listen without being bashed in the head by right-wing ideologues.

Former WLW/Cincinnati programmer Darryl Parks writes:

Day in and day out I read excuses and quotes in industry trades with fingers of blame being pointed because no one in the radio industry wants to take any responsibility for culturally disconnected talk programs. Or worse, there are the people who have consigned themselves into thinking low ratings are OK because they’re here for the higher cause of guiding the country and saving it from the Kenyan national we have as President or those who have just given up hoping not to be the next victim as corporate radio, struggling to make its next loan interest payment, executes its latest round of air personalities. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

The June PPM ratings are rolling in and outside of a few stations, the ratings are a disaster. The monthly ratings for many talk stations are in a free fall, displaying a product detached from all but an old, small, shrinking and worthless audience.
I talked with a top executive at one of the big radio groups recently who was bemoaning these problems, and I asked, "What happened to the 25-34 year olds who listened to my morning shows in DC in the 80s and 90s? Have they been driven away because of all of the political fear-mongering that fills most hours of contemporary talk radio?" His answer: "They've either stopped using radio except as a news and traffic source in the car, or they're listening to NPR. If you look at the ratings in Washington and many other major cities now, the NPR station does better than the leading commercial talk stations."

There's certainly a slew of great radio coming out of NPR, from Morning Edition to All Things Considered to Fresh Air, but I find it strange that the industry hasn't taken more notice of this trend and tried to win some of those listeners back by offering content that speaks to that audience more directly.

This isn't a conservative vs. liberal thing. It's a lament for the loss of General Interest talk radio, a format that once boasted quick-witted and intelligent hosts interviewing compelling guests and bringing up topics that engaged callers and non-callers alike. The sort of show that makes you sit in your car for a few extra minutes in the parking lot before you turned it off because you were so caught up in what you were hearing. Radio that was about entertainment and engagement.

There are exceptions across the country, and -- not to sound like a suck-up -- KTRS continues to be one of them. I only work part-time there these days, but even when I was on five days a week, there hasn't been any pressure to promote any particular agenda at any time. In fact, political discussions are frowned upon, because that's not what that station's audience wants. The content is purposely kept light, entertaining, and engaging -- with an emphasis on being local. 

And it makes money.

Look at the list of the most-downloaded podcasts on iTunes -- that's what they're providing. Most of the hosts aren't professional broadcasters, but they know how to create compelling audio without forcing a political viewpoint down your throat. Why doesn't talk radio hire them and give them a bigger platform from which to entertain? 

If the format doesn't turn itself around soon, it's going to grow old and extinct, just like its current target demographic.

You can read Darryl Parks' entire piece here. And read his follow-up, too.