July 20, 2005

Early Figures Indicate That Talk Radio Decline Is Real

Filed under: Business Moves,General,MSM Biz/Other Bias — Tom @ 3:35 am

BizzyBlog had a two-part excursion into talk-radio ratings analysis in late April (here and here) and opined that bloggers and blog readers might be eating into talk radio’s audience.

Well it’s still early, but the final second quarter figures are out for 5 of the top 20 markets (click on the “Rank” column to sort in descending order), including the top 3 of New York, LA, and Chicago (#17 San Diego and #18 Nassau-Suffolk round out the other available Top 20s). Together, these markets represent more than 15% of the national audience.

My take on the results, also having looked at a few of the smaller markets that have reported, is:

  • Talk radio’s audience continues to decline, and in general is down significantly, not only during the past two quarters, but also in comparison to the second quarter of last year.
  • It’s not just talk radio. All-news format stations are in general down similarly outside of Metro New York and Long Island.

So the question really is why a significant percentage of the news talk and all-news audience audience has decided to tune out (more on that later).

Here are the key items from the five ratings reports (click on the market to go to the full detail; the numbers presented are, in order, 2Q04, 4Q04, 2Q05):

New York
ABC (talk): 3.9, 4.5, 3.2
WINS (news): 3.7, 3.3, 3.7
WCBS (news): 2.4, 2.6, 3.0
WOR (talk): 2.4, 2.2, 2.3
Comment: Metro New Yorkers appear to be moving to all-news at the expense of talk. WOR’s relative stability could very well be due to Michael Savage’s popularity.

Los Angeles
KFI (talk): 4.5, 4.4, 3.9
KLSX (talk): 3.0, 3.0, 2.3
KABC (news): 2.9, 2.9, 2.1
Comment: Big declines across the board. Laid-back Angelenos are moving their ears elsewhere.

WGN (news/talk): 6.2, 5.9, 6.6
WBBM (news): 4.7, 4.3, 4.0
WLS (talk): 4.5, 4.4, 3.4
Comment: WGN is difficult to peg because of its emphasis on sports and local talk personalities. The extent of the drop at WLS is a shocker.

San Diego
KOGO (news/talk): 4.7, 5.2, 4.3
KFMB (news/talk): 4.0, 4.8, 3.2
KFI: (talk) 2.0, 2.0, 2.4
Comment: Interesting substitution of LA talk for San Diego talk.

WABC: 4.4, 5.1, 4.1
WCBS: 3.7, 3.6, 3.8
WINS: 2.9, 3.2, 3.2
WOR: 2.7, 2.8, 3.0
Comment: Like New York, there appears to be a move to all-news at the expense of talk. Again, WOR’s climb is noteworthy, and may be because of Savage.

Three possible explanations for the declines, especially from a year ago (to eliminate the impact of the presidential election) are:
– People who want to stay informed are doing so in other ways: blogs, forums, Internet news, etc.
– Many people, even news junkies, are worn out from following the news after the intensity of the past election cycle, the Iraq War, and other events. They are also tired of the same short list of topics that are getting beaten to death in hard news and in talk, and are either seeking refuge in music formats or simply keeping the radio off.
– Talk-radio and all-news programming itself is getting stale.

Despite my theory back in April, I don’t think the first reason is a major factor, YET (but I believe it continues to build in the background). I believe the second and third factors are the primary influences that are acting in combination to drive talk numbers down.

The list of items usually discussed on talk radio is very short, and at least to me is getting very, very tiresome. Speaking only for myself while believing that I am not alone, I can tell you that the radio almost inevitably gets turned off when I start hearing anything about the following (and keep in mind that I am a news junkie, and I believe that everything listed has relevance):

  • Nadagate.
  • Federal and Supreme Court judges.
  • The word “filibuster.”
  • People who are complaining about the progress, or lack of it, in Iraq.
  • Outrageous things some Democrat said today, yesterday, or in the past week.
  • Stupid things some Republican said today, yesterday, or in the past week.
  • Stupid or outrageous things some celebrity said today, yesterday, or in the past week.
  • Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton.

If you conclude that I turn the radio off quite often, you are correct.

Now as to why I believe that the format is getting stale:

I believe that talkers are letting the Mainstream Media set their agenda. This is a big mistake. I’m certainly not proposing that the day’s news and how well or poorly it has been covered should be ignored, but must we take up most of entire programs over Nadagate just because the MSM can’t think about anything else? (That’s it! Nadagate is a leftist plot to turn conservatives away from talk radio!–Ed.; /sarcasm) For all the complaining about the MSM-driven drumbeat of bad news from Iraq without perspective, where is the consistent effort by the talkers to tell the good news of economic and societal rebuilding, or to relay the incidents of military heroism (how about this one while I’m at it)? And think about this: Savage is the only big player in talk who will go off on weird tangents that sometimes make you wonder if he’s simply lost it–but he’s the one whose ratings are either holding their own or are growing.

Second, talkers are spending way too much time criticizing the loopy comments of politicians and celebrities. Again, I’m not proposing that they be ignored, but the daily laundry list of outrageous comments that ends up gobbling up whole hours of time has got to go. (Aha! Maybe THAT’S the leftist plot: Have their leaders say so many outrageous and stupid things that talkers can cover nothing else, causing listeners tune out for the sake of their sanity–Ed.)

Third, I believe the format has lost a lot of the sense of humor it had in the mid- and late-1990s. Yes, we live in more serious times, but you can only keep the adrenaline and edgy anger going for so long before it just wears the listener out and he/she doesn’t want to hear it any more. Lighten up, people, and don’t hesitate to poke fun at conservatives (besides McCain) who lose their way from time to time and deserve the needle.

Most of the rest of the major radio markets will be reporting in the next week or so. I expect that this will be all I have to say about talk radio this quarter, because as soon as Brian at Radio Equalizer weighs in, I’ll be officially out of my league.

UPDATE: Brian has done his first weigh-in, with more to come. 9:30 PM July 20 He’s added Philly and Detroit. Brian’s bottom line on the business: “The emerging Spring 2005 figures paint an especially bleak picture that must serve as an urgent industry wake-up call.”

UPDATE 2: This post is an Outside The Beltway Traffic Jammer.

UPDATE 3: The radio business is apparently looking to more high-tech methods for measuring listenership.

UPDATE 4: This post is a Wizbang Carnival Trackbacker.



  1. I agree with you on your points, but also think about podcasting.

    Now with an iPod and an FM transmitter, you can download and listen to any number of radio shows of your choice.

    Talk Radio listeners are more likely to be the affluent type to own ipods, ergo, iPod is a bigger threat to the talk radio market.

    Comment by Dave — July 20, 2005 @ 10:44 am

  2. It’s far too early to write-off talk radio. There’s a lot of seasonality to AM radio, with the highest numbers in the fall, when taking kids to school, dealing with bad weather, and excitement over football drive listeners to talk-heavy, AM formats. And, of course, November elections.

    2004 was such a deeply contested election that the numbers generated by talk radio in the fall book were pumped up. It is no surprise that the numbers have fallen, and fallen tremendously, since then. The real test will be what the numbers are like this fall, and whether we see AM stations switching format away from talk. (There has been a mini-growth in interest in reviving the old “full-service” format, but with “Music of Your Life” and geared to the 50+ audience. But this interest is among the independents and small groups, which in the larger markets are generally shut out by the mega groups from getting the big names in talk such as Limbaugh and Hannity.) If we start seeing stations dropping talk, then the format is in trouble. Otherwise, the industry understands the current decline as a seasonal variation that will pick up in the fall, especially if contentious political issues re-emerge.

    Comment by Michael Meckler — July 20, 2005 @ 10:56 am

  3. Very good points in both comments

    Comment by TBlumer — July 20, 2005 @ 12:37 pm

  4. There might be a third factor…satelite. The number of cars with XM or Sirius is increasing and no more are you stuck with one or two talk stations and half a dozen music variations. We have 12 satelite stations keyed in and we haven’t listened to broadcast radio in over a year…though talk and fox cable are both part of the 12.

    As more people get and use satelite, broadcast will feel the pinch…people are getting use to paying monthly for their cable and their satelite, free broadcast…is expensive in time wasted on commercials and limited options.

    Comment by Tracy — July 20, 2005 @ 10:45 pm

  5. Yes, Tracy, there are all kinds of “little” things nibbling away at talk, and the commercial-time allotment is overdone. Another example: how many kids growing up with iPods permanently attached to their ears are going to take an interest in talk?

    Comment by TBlumer — July 20, 2005 @ 10:52 pm

  6. Having worked in talk radio for five years, I can say that yes, MSM is setting the topics more and more, because that’s what people want to talk about. They want to watch something on CNN or MSNBC or Fox and then call Boortz or Rush or Sean *asshat* Hannity and discuss their feelings on it.

    I blame consultants.

    I come from a more traditional talk-radio mentality, where I talk about what interests me, not what interests the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why my blog hasn’t really taken off. Today there was another bombing reported in London; I only posted one short bit on the first one and then went back to my regularly-scheduled topics.

    MSM drives all media, really. Including each other. Because the medium is the message, and now, the medium makes the message, too.

    Comment by Josh Cohen — July 21, 2005 @ 9:26 am

  7. Talk Radio In Decline?

    BizzyBlog looks at the ratings, and concludes, “bloggers and blog readers might be eating into talk radio’s audience”. That certainly makes sense–I’ve been listening less to talk radio, and watching less news and opinion TV, since becoming part of …

    Trackback by Ed Driscoll.com — July 23, 2005 @ 3:08 pm

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