Opening Up the Conversation

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Has the heyday of talk radio come and gone? Clinton's ratings-friendly scandals have died down, Howard Stern's marriage collapsed, Rush Limbaugh seems to have lost his buzz along with his weight and Dr. Laura Schlessinger was swiftly booed off TV. On the surface, it seems the radio babblers have been unceremoniously shushed.

Not so fast. Talk radio is still tremendously popular, capturing 17 percent of all listeners during a given quarter-hour period, a share that has remained stable over the past few years. Radio talk show hosts wield enormous influence. Witness the success of former radio stars on television: Larry King, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes all rose through the ranks of radio. Limbaugh and Schlessinger still host the No. 1 and No. 2 radio shows in America. And five days into office, Vice President Dick Cheney awarded his first radio interview to Oliver North, syndicated host on Common Sense Radio.

But talk radio today goes beyond conservative political bluster. The format is veering in multiple directions — trying to target younger audiences, Hispanics and women — with variations like “hot talk,� infotalk, sports talk, consumer and personal finance talk, and all-Spanish news. “The biggest trend taking place in talk radio is similar to what music radio went through during the '70s and '80s,� explains Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine. “We're seeing a broadening and expansion of talk into a number of niches — in terms of format, subject matter and demographic targets.�

Advertisers have long underestimated radio's reach. The RAB Media Facts Book reports that consumers currently spend 85 percent of their time with ear-oriented media like radio and television, compared with 15 percent on print formats. Yet advertisers spend 55 percent of their dollars on eye-media, such as newspapers and magazines, and only 45 percent on ear-media. Talk radio is a particularly strong form of ear-media because it requires a high level of involvement from the listener. Unlike music, which tends to fade into the background, talk radio demands a listener's full attention. Furthermore, most programs rely on a high degree of interactivity through guests and listener call-ins. If a program's topic doesn't prove immediately popular with call-in listeners, the subject is changed, placing listeners in charge of content.

Talk radio seems to fit right in with our changing society — mobile, impatient and self-obsessed. Talk is most popular during weekday mornings, with the highest average quarter-hour rating (AQR) share of any format during the 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. commute — also the time slot with the largest radio audience overall. The rise of cell phones has aided talk's popularity during the morning drive time, allowing listeners to call in from their traffic-stalled vehicles. Radio listeners also tend to be loyal, tuning in to two or three different stations, but generally remaining true to one favorite.

Recent ratings back up the fact that listeners have their ears cocked. According to Interep, a New York City-based radio advertising and sales company, nine of the top 10 metro areas currently feature a talk format among their top 10 ranked stations. Arbitron, an international media research firm that measures radio audiences, shows the AQR for the news/talk/information category was up to 16.9 in the fall of 2000, from 16.4 in the fall of 1998 and a low of 15.6 in spring 2000. With nearly 17 percent of radio listeners in any given quarter-hour period tuning in to talk, it's the most popular radio format on the air. Moreover, all-talk formats have been steadily increasing, from an AQR of 1.6 in 1998 to an AQR of 2.2 in 2000. In 1983, only 53 radio stations had talk/news formats. (There were also fewer radio stations back then — 8,748 total in 1980 — but the proportion of talk formats was, nonetheless, miniscule.) Today, 1,724 of the 13,307 radio stations in America — or 13 percent — are devoted to news/talk/information.

Talk radio is not only one of the earliest examples of media providing connectivity, it's also one of the most effective. Advertisements are often integrated into the programming, with products hawked by its popular hosts, who create a “just between you and me� kind of pitch. The result is a highly successful illustration of one-to-one marketing.

Talk programs also tend to be more expensive for advertisers than music formats. One measure used to track radio revenue by format is the “power ratio,� which compares share of audience to share of revenue. Historically, talk has had a power ratio of about 1.4, which means there's a 40 percent premium for talk radio above and beyond its strict audience share, according to George Nadel Rivin, partner in charge of broadcast services at North Hollywood, Calif.-based Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., a certified public accounting firm specializing in radio. “Talk has consistently been among the top three formats in terms of converting audience share to revenue share,� explains Nadel Rivin.

At the same time, talk has a bad reputation. Critics say the format has evolved from a dispassionate discussion of public affairs into an incendiary forum for extremist opinions. They charge on-air hosts with inciting hate, undermining public debate and spreading harmful lies. This image dates back to the FCC's repeal of the “fairness doctrine� in 1987, which required stations to give equal time to both sides of any issue. As a result, talk ricocheted to the political right and rocketed in the ratings. Limbaugh was launched into national syndication from Sacramento's WFBK in 1986, followed by other right wing hosts like G. Gordon Liddy, Alan Keyes and Schlessinger, all of whom give talk radio an extremist reputation. Their defenders claim that such hosts simply understand how verbal theatrics translate into high ratings. They also like to point out that talk radio listeners are not all right wing, but are rather diverse politically.

They're correct — to a certain extent. The stereotypical talk radio listener is the angry white male fuming along to Don Imus while stuck in rush hour traffic or gramps puffing on his pipe to Limbaugh's latest aural rampage. In fact, it's true that radio skews male and older. Fifty-eight percent of listeners are men, age 18 and older, compared with 42 percent of same age women. According to Arbitron, three out of 10 listeners are seniors over age 65. For adults ages 55 to 64, the news/talk/information format remains one of the most popular, along with stations that play classical music and adult standards, such as Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter.

But in other ways, the stereotype of the talk radio listener is inaccurate. “Talk radio is much more diverse than you would think,� says Tom Taylor, editor of the Nashville, Tenn.-based M Street Daily newsletter. “Radio changes to reflect the demographics and tastes of America.� The demographics of radio audiences are beginning to shift: talk radio listeners are no longer exclusively conservative. Most talk show hosts say that even for political programs, the core value is entertainment, not policy. “Politics has to have something exciting going on, otherwise it's just policy and people tune out,� Talkers' Harrison explains. Moreover, listening does not signify agreement. Harrison points out that liberals and moderates will listen to conservative radio, but not vice versa. In the effort to gain a larger audience, it can make sense for a station to choose a right wing host.

At the same time, new voices are breaking out of the Limbaugh mold. One example is “the Lone Liberal,� a frequent anonymous talk show guest who skewers traditional talk radio conventions. Another is Dave Barber, a popular host carried statewide by the Michigan Talk Radio Network. Tom Leykis, syndicated nationally by Westwood One, opens his shows with the line, “I'm not a conservative wacko or a convicted felon.�

“The mind numbing conformity pervading talk radio� is one impetus to this broadening spectrum, according to Holland Cooke, a news talk specialist with McVay Media, a radio programming consulting firm based in Cleveland. He adds that, “Everyone became Rush Limbaugh wannabes and what you lost was interactivity and spontaneity.� According to Cooke, the result has been a renewed search for fresh formats and hosts.

A variety of up-and-coming talkers are creating a new picture of talk radio's potential. One growing area is personal finance, where syndicated hosts like Dave Ramsey, Ken and Daria Dolan, Tom Martino and Clark Howard (the nation's No. 3 talk show host after Limbaugh and Schlessinger) together draw over 11 million listeners a week. Dr. Joy Browne's discussions of relationships attracts a core group of women ages 25 to 54. And Premiere Radio's Phil Hendrie attracts up to 1 million listeners with his satirical mockery of traditional radio talk shows.

The talk audience is not only becoming more open-minded, it's getting younger. Over the past three years, the number of listeners age 35 to 44 increased to 25 percent from 22 percent of the talk audience, while the 65 and over age group fell by 5 percentage points to 6 percent. “Talk is successfully attracting a younger audience,� says Walter Sabo, president of New York-based radio consulting company SaboMedia. “In Orlando, WTKS FM targets the 28-year-old man and focuses on what he talks about over lunch — annoyances at work, trouble with the girlfriend, what to do over the weekend — and it's the No. 1 station with men 18 to 34. It beats every music station. That's revolutionary.�

This shift toward a younger audience can partly be tied to a slow move over the past six years from AM to FM, as talk radio has begun to infiltrate the FM dial. With more people switching to FM from AM (1 percent to 2 percent of listeners move over every year; and the number of FM stations has more than tripled over the past 30 years, while the number of AM stations has remained constant), talk radio has started to shift as well. The move has not been dramatic for a couple of reasons: First, there is still the presumption that FM is music and AM is talk, limiting the extent to which investors are willing to plunge into FM talk. Second, there are regulatory statutes that almost force station owners in metro areas to push talk to AM, by stipulating the number of formats and stations per metropolitan area. Nonetheless, five years ago, there were about five full-fledged talk stations on FM; today there are 35. And more music stations are broadening their formats to include talk.

In fact, advertisers' desire for young listeners has led radio stations to offer a proliferation of new formats. An increase in shows such as the recently syndicated “Opie and Anthony� and its predecessor, “Howard Stern,� lure young males with so-called “hot talk� or “shock talk.� Indeed, talk show personalities tend to be controversial, crude and full of attitude because those attributes appeal to young males. Sports talk radio like WFAN, the No. 1 billing station in terms of advertising revenue in America, also brings in a younger, mostly male, demographic. “Understand that for a 40-year-old guy listening to that WFAN — which has news and talk — that is his news/talk/information station,� says Sabo. “That's a major new trend. And those stations do really well.�

Michael Packer, president of Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Packer Talk Radio Consulting, says that talk is splintering into new formats to serve two very different psychographic types. The first type, “intuitive feelers,� are the traditional talk base. “They want the inside story, the dirt, the emotional side,� he explains. The second type, “analytical thinkers,� believe that “talk show hosts are the dumbest people in the world. They want the facts, the news, the useful information,� he adds. The result is a split between the old-fashioned Limbaugh format and variations on the “news you can use� format.

Talkers' Harrison believes talk radio is still missing tremendous opportunities to target women. “Talk radio is in the habit of programming to men — old and young,� he explains. With programming created by and for men, it's no wonder advertisers think of talk as a male medium. Cooke agrees. “The missing quotient in talk radio today is … the opposite of Rush Limbaugh. It's Annabelle Gurwitch — this gangly, wisecracking young woman who hosts a show on TBS. What if we sought out a young woman instead of an angry old man and see what happens?�

One area that talk is becoming increasingly reflective of America's diversity is Spanish language programming. Ten years ago, there were only a few Hispanic stations; today there are over 60 programs nationwide exclusively in Spanish. Miami-based Radio Unica, the first 24/7 news station aimed at Hispanics, launched three years ago; it features Hispanic media stars on 59 affiliate stations across the country. The largest Spanish language broadcaster is Hispanic Broadcasting based in Dallas, which owns and operates over 40 stations in 12 of the top 15 Hispanic markets. “When the census figures get plugged into Arbitron's system later this year, it's going to be a revelation,� predicts Taylor. “Hispanics spend an enormous amount of time listening to radio. It's a real connection to their culture. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, radio is ubiquitous, and that's the usage pattern Hispanics are bringing to the States.�

Targeted talk radio is clearly the future of the format. The new talk hones in on Hispanic, black, female, young male or older male interests and delves into personal finance, consumer affairs, relationships, gardening or old-fashioned politics. In short, talk radio is going through the expansive proliferation of niche markets that has already hit almost every other form of media — television, movies, magazines and music radio.

The key is getting local and getting specific. “When I program a new talk station, I bake from scratch,� explains Sabo. “I create a station for a particular group of people in a particular city at a particular point in time. The result is completely different in each case — and it should be.�


Talk attracts independent thinkers above all.

Republican 24% 20% 19% 20%
Democrat 20% 16% 14% 15%
Libertarian 6% 10% 9% 9%
Independent 47% 51% 55% 51%
Other 4% 3% 3% 5%
Voted in 1996/2000 71% 70% 68% 71%
“Ultra conservative� 7% 11% 9% 9%
“Conservative� 23% 20% 22% 22%
“Moderate� 26% 26% 26% 26%
“Fiscal conservative/social liberal� 20% 22% 22% 22%
“Liberal� 14% 12% 10% 11%
“Ultra Liberal� 2% 1% 1% 2%
“Depends on the issue� 8% 8% 10% 8%
Source: Talkers magazine


Adults 35 to 44 are tuning in and bringing down talk's median age.

Male 52% 52% 53% 54%
Female 48% 48% 47% 46%
12-17 3% 5% 7% 6%
18-34 15% 14% 16% 16%
35-44 22% 22% 23% 25%
45-54 25% 27% 26% 26%
55-64 24% 22% 20% 21%
65+ 11% 10% 8% 6%
White 66% 64% 63% 63%
Black 18% 20% 21% 20%
Hispanic 7% 7% 8% 10%
Asian 6% 6% 4% 4%
Other 3% 3% 4% 3%
Source: Talkers magazine, Mediamark


Top talk radio host audiences by size (fall 2000).

Rush Limbaugh 15
Dr. Laura Schlessinger 14
Howard Stern 8.5
Dr. Joy Browne 5.8
Jim Bohannon 4.5
Don Imus 4.5
Bruce Williams 4.5
Ken & Daria Dolan 2.5
Clark Howard 2.5
G. Gordon Liddy 2.5
Source: Talkers magazine


Talk show listeners are 55 percent more likely to live in a $100,000-plus household than the average adult.

Under $20,000 10% 9%
$20K - $40K 21% 17%
$40K - $60K 20% 20%
$60K - $75K 14% 15%
$75K - $100K 13% 16%
$100K plus 22% 23%
Source: Mediamark Research Inc.
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