Talk Radio's Judgment Week
May 27, 2011
Once again, we come to the eve of a three-day weekend and I have to write a column even though I'm guessing your brain's out barbecuing or enjoying the beach. So we'll keep it short, because that's your attention span at the moment and because my brain's in the other room watching the basketball game.
There were a bunch of articles out this week throwing dirt on talk radio's grave, with dire numbers showing top talkers' ratings dropping a zillion percent and many observers racing to be the first to proclaim talk radio, specifically conservative political talk, dead. Look at the headlines: "Has Right-Wing Radio Run Its Course?" "Are We Done With Rush Limbaugh Yet?" "Rush Limbaugh Takes A Hit as Ratings Crater 33%." THE SKY IS FALLING! A guy at The Atlantic wondered if "the loud-mouthed, apocalypse-warning, slur-slinging pundits are a fad that's cooling like shutter shades or Pinkberry."
The articles all trumpeted a drop in ratings for Rush and Hannity since October, but none noted the obvious: October was the last full month before the election. And the numbers cited were for one station in New York, not the nation. (I just randomly checked some other major markets; I didn't see 33% drops, but I did see some increases. It must not count if it's not New York) None of the writers asked me about it, but if they had, I'd have told them that drawing a conclusion from a post-election sag in a single market by two individual shows is a mistake, but I don't think that they'd listen. They have their conclusion predetermined: Conservative talk is bad, ergo it must be dying off. The fad is over. That the "fad" has been going strong for decades doesn't fit their conclusion, so it's just left out.
And setting up the argument as they do is missing something I think a lot of people, even those in the format, miss. Talk radio is not a zero-sum game. The success of conservative talkers doesn't mean that other types of talk can't work. Rush doesn't have to fail for someone else to succeed. There's room for a wide range of styles of talk, especially now that there are finally more FM stations in the format. There's more than one way to do this right. You wouldn't suggest that a Country station has to die for a Hip-Hop station to succeed, so why are people thinking that the rise of "lifestyle" talk or liberal talk or any other kind of talk depends on the decline of the big conservative talkers? If there can be dozens of different music formats on the dial, why do people both within and outside the industry assume that there's room for only one or two talk stations, and one kind of talk?
I'm not even casting judgment either way as to whether the shows are good or bad or declining or better than ever. I'm not a critic or a consultant, so it doesn't matter what I say, anyway. It would just be nice if people reporting on the business did more than just take a cursory glance at isolated numbers before they made their declarations on the health of the format. And I'm looking forward to the same writers' upcoming pieces on the inevitable ratings upswing. I'm sure they'll be following up.
I said I was gonna keep this short, so... just go to Talk Topics for lots of news items and kicker stories and stupid comments from which you can build a show, updated all the time and written with talk and personality radio in mind. Stuck for something to talk about? That's where to go. You'll find it here. And you'll find it on Twitter at @talktopics. All Access also offers the best radio and music industry coverage you'll find anywhere, and you can have the biggest headlines delivered to you through Twitter at @allaccess. But if random, generally non-radio-related thoughts about life, pop culture, and sports are more to your liking, follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon.
Finally, I do other writing, too. You'll find my own blog at pmsimon.com and my writing on the latest in "nerd culture" at Nerdist.com. They're both unrelated to All Access, in case you're thinking of complaining to Joel.
And that's it for the week. Enjoy your weekend, and if you're on the air on Monday, take a moment to remind everyone about the brave people this holiday is meant to honor. They deserve some attention between the burgers and ballgames.