We're In The Money: What To Take From Those Top-Billing-Station Figures
This Week's 'The Letter' From All Access News-Talk-Sports by Perry Michael Simon
April 1, 2011 at 7:55 AM (PT)
First, the bad: It's April Fool's Day. I hate April Fool's Day. April Fool's pranks are generally not funny, and radio April Fool's pranks... well, you know, I'd like to be more of a positive guy, so I'll shut up about them, other than to say that you'd better weigh the benefits against the negatives if you're doing a prank. The negatives include betraying the trust of your audience, and coming off as uncool and unfunny. The positives include... um... well, not much. Maybe you'll get on TV with your stunt, where many viewers unfamiliar with your station or show will see your prank and think "wacky morning disk jockey." They would not be thinking of that as a positive attribute. April Fool's pranks are "funny" in the way that rubber chickens, joy buzzers, and spinning bow ties are funny, which is to say, they're not.
...nothing grabs the attention of the CEOs like $57,225,000...
Now, the good: Baseball's back. Okay, that's not really germane to a radio column, other than that, you know, it's baseball season and I'm distracted from the task of writing a column about radio. But baseball season is good.
What else is good? For News, Talk, and Sports radio -- I just checked the top of this column and it turns out that it's supposed to be about News, Talk, and Sports radio -- six of the top ten billing stations in America, according to BIA/Kelsey, are in those particular formats. If you're hoping for the expansion of spoken-word programming, nothing grabs the attention of the CEOs like $57,225,000, which is what WTOP in Washington made in 2010 despite being in just the 9th largest market. Or $49 million, which is what WCBS in New York pulled in with news and the Yankees, or $46 million, the revenue raked in by KFI, which doesn't have play-by-play sports but does have great local talent. While everyone's struggling to get back to the revenue peaks of the pre-recession era, it can't be overlooked that spoken-word radio is performing very well in the category that counts the most, revenue.
A few observations: First, I don't think WTOP being on FM hurts. Putting an excellent product on the radio band where the most lucrative demographics are located is one way to outbill everyone in the industry when you're in the ninth market. I do think, however, that even the other spoken-word top-billers will eventually have to follow suit to maintain and grow revenue. It would seem natural to say that those stations don't need to change a thing because they already bill big bucks, but if your demos are aging into the 65-plus range because you're on AM, you won't be billing like that forever. (And these are among the dwindling number of AM signals that cover their markets well; If you don't have a 50,000-watt non-directional low-frequency AM signal, good luck)
Second, revenue's significantly down from the peak years, but we knew that. Spoken-word formats are holding up well; There's nothing like a foreground, engaging entertainment and information medium for marketing. Problem is, it's not the only medium that can be described that way anymore. And that's where maintaining the quality of the product comes in. It's clear that compelling, strongly-produced, unique content is still viable on broadcast radio; what remains a mystery to me is why more of the lower-ranked, lower-billing FM music stations aren't either being used to move spoken-word AM programming to FM or to launch entirely new talk stations. It's been a good couple of years for that, like with all the new Sports stations on FM or the successful move of several AM talkers to FM, but after two decades of "Is FM Talk Coming?" discussions, I thought we'd be further along.
Third, yes, you have to measure these numbers against how expensive doing these formats can be. It's going to be more expensive to staff an all-News station than it is to run a jukebox. But the top-billing music stations have mostly local airstaffs and expensive morning shows, so they're not pure profit either. As the industry grows again, the adage "you gotta spend money to make money" can't be ignored, and the fact that what radio has to sell is unique, top-quality audio entertainment can't be forgotten, either. You don't bill $40 million or $50 million without being good.
So congratulations, News-Talk-Sportsketeers, on a good report card. The trick is, however, not to maintain those numbers, but to grow them. I'm thinking 10-for-10 next year. Let's win this thing.
Thanks, by the way, to everyone who's generously donated to the REVLON RUNWALK FOR WOMEN, in which my wife FRAN and I are walking to raise funds to fight women's cancer. We do that every year, and this year's event is on May 7th in LOS ANGELES. If you can give, please do; just go to do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon, and know that every donation is always greatly appreciated. Thank you!
This is where I do the plug for what's in Talk Topics, the show prep column at AllAccess.com, this week. And it's more of the same kind of material you can use to kick-start your show, all conveniently compiled at allaccess.com/talk-topics. The pile o' prattle this week includes angry casino cocktail waitresses, baseball chicken sacrifices, an uncooperative kidney donor, the danger of walking on water in a giant plastic ball, a coach who should have reviewed the tape he showed his players before he hit "play," why you need to keep a tight grip on your iPhone at the train station, a house overtaken by bats, the practical application of golf balls made from lobster shells, a neighborhood under siege by hawks (and why the residents can't do anything about it), the bar that charges for ice in your drink, why HUGO CHAVEZ won a university's journalism award, how BP added injury to insult to injury for the people affected by the GULF oil spill, how a billion dollar program to keep people from losing their homes ended up helping exactly zero homeowners, and much more, from "real news" of the economy and the college football scandal to poop jokes. Take a moment, too, to read "10 Questions With..." financial commentator RON INSANA, who talks about his COMPASS MEDIA NETWORKS show, his work at CNBC, his experiences in the "real world" of finance, and how he became one of the most well-known figures in financial news and commentary. And, of course, there's the rest of ALL ACCESS, with all the news and features and ratings and job listings and other resources you need, updated all day every day, and all free.
Your Social Media links: Follow Talk Topics at @talktopics and Net News at @allaccess to get the headlines in convenient and clickable form. And you can follow me at @pmsimon if you want a glimpse into my non-radio thoughts, which mostly involve whining and sports, plus trading insults with friends, because that's what Twitter's for.
I'd also be honored if you visit my personal website, where you'll find out about random forgotten pop culture artifacts, and you'll read my rambling thoughts about whatever crosses my mind. It's been around for eight years already and it's at pmsimon.com. I also edit and write for the "nerd culture" website Nerdist.com, founded by G4 "Web Soup" host and swell guy TV's CHRIS HARDWICK, and if you're even a little bit geeky, you'll probably enjoy it. Neither my personal site nor Nerdist are the fault of ALL ACCESS, so please don't blame them.
And now, the most important part of the column. AL East: BOSTON. AL Central: Um... MINNESOTA. AL West: TEXAS. AL Wild Card: CHICAGO. NL East: Who do you THINK I'm gonna pick? PHILADELPHIA , of course. NL Central: CINCINNATI. NL West: SAN FRANCISCO. NL Wild Card: ATLANTA. World Series: BOSTON vs. PHILADELPHIA. World Champion: Do you think for a moment I'm gonna pick against my team? Parade down Broad Street. See you there.