As Goes KGO...
April 1, 2016
Amidst all the drama surrounding what was obviously the biggest news of the week in talk radio -- the KGO changes -- let's see if we can learn a few things from the decline and fall, because I've seen a lot of people weighing in, but there's been something, well, missing.
First, the obvious: The wholesale loss of jobs is bad. The elimination of most of a large news department is doubly bad. Radio news needs more, not fewer, reporters and producers out on the street getting stories. As with newspapers, the reaction to business troubles has been to eliminate one of the very reasons for the medium's existence, in turn eliminating competition in news, which is not good for radio, not good for the media, not good for society. This is undisputed. For that alone, the news from San Francisco was terrible.
But this: The KGO that's being revamped on Tuesday isn't the KGO of legend. And the KGO of legend hasn't really been around for several years. More to the point, even the KGO of legend was bound to run into trouble, for reasons that were in part beyond its control. Let's recap:
1. AM. The lore was that San Francisco was an AM town longer than most because of the terrain, but that wasn't 100% true. Yes, FM signals can be problematic there, but the numbers show that FM in the Bay Area is as dominant as anywhere else. The audience moved to FM in San Francisco like they have done everywhere. Most of the AM talk stations -- not all-news, which is a utility of sorts, or sports, which has the benefit of play-by-play exclusivity, but traditional talk -- are not what they used to be. The only purely talk AM station in the top 10 billers is way off from its peak billing, and they've done practically everything they needed to do to be relevant and adapt to the times. The best you could do as a traditional AM talk station was to be down less than you might otherwise have been. And at the critical time, under ABC and Citadel, KGO didn't have an FM option.
2. Changed market, changed world. KGO was, over the years, managed by very, very smart, capable people, Hall of Famers. They DID bring in some new talent and tried new things as time went on. But the 25-54 numbers were falling for years, and a large part of that is that as younger generations less attached to the station they identified as "Mom and Dad's station" came into the prime demos, that image remained. And if programming and imaging changed TOO radically, you would have had a firestorm of resistance. A lot of it would have been from some of the same people who are decrying what happened this week. Damned (by listeners and critics) if you do make changes, damned (by ratings and sales) if you don't.
3. PPM. It wasn't kind to this station. It wasn't kind to a lot of heritage stations and shows, especially spoken-word options. But you weren't going to stop the meters from coming in. And we're STILL fighting over how they measure radio in general and stations with pauses and bits of dead air to this day. Not that Voltairing and CBETing the signal to within an inch of its life would make that much of a difference, but, still, PPM was and is a factor.
4. Economics: Yeah, this is the tough one. You bring in companies like, first, Citadel and then, Cumulus who paid top-of-the-market for a load of stations in a slowing industry, you're gonna have some problems with a big budget, even for a station that had been one of the nation's top billers. This is not just a KGO problem, though, this is the entire industry's problem. Sure, it would have been better if the station had never been sold, but that's fantasy. The reality is, practically all major stations changed hands since the late '90s, and I don't have to tell you where that led. And once you've cut everything and revenues still don't cover what corporate needs, you cut bone, and it doesn't matter how important what you're cutting may be to your product. The lenders want their money, and the corporate folks don't want to hear that you need that money to maintain the quality of your product. Numbers are numbers. The stuff that makes a great station great, the stuff that made KGO KGO, does not get broken out in the quarterly financials. There's no line item for quality. Humans are included under "expenses." But you know that, everyone knows that, and that applies to most stations the same way it applies to KGO.
So, what happened at KGO is what happened to heritage AM talk stations elsewhere, too. And what I haven't seen amidst the anguish is an answer, other than "get to FM and change with the times," to the underlying problems that got us here. Keeping everything exactly the way it was 20 or 30 years ago wasn't a viable option. Gradual changes were made and didn't stem the tide. The radical change to sort-of-all-News didn't work, and neither did the change back to talk with news blocks. I've thought about KGO for a long time and I really don't know what would have worked short of moving to FM and, effectively, blowing things up, but you couldn't jeopardize the revenue, so that wasn't ever a real option. Greater minds than mine tried to fix the problems and couldn't. Remove the management issues and ownership issues and take it stripped to its essentials -- the air product -- and ask yourself what you could have put there on 810 AM that would have maintained the impossibly high ratings, revenue, and standards the station set over the years.
And when you come up with it, let me know. Seriously, I'll post the best responses in the column. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but I will admit here that when it comes to a former AM dominator that's hurting, I don't have an answer any better than anyone else's. It's not what you'd do now -- we'll see on Tuesday what the next step will be -- but what you would have done differently when things started to become critical. Maybe those ideas will help other heritage talk stations survive and prosper. But "spend a lot of money on news and programming" is probably not an option and hasn't been an option since private equity got into the act, so you'll have to think harder.
And then we'll wait and see what comes next. I'd like to think that the story isn't over.
Whatever the next stage in AM talk radio will be, they'll need stuff to talk about, and you won't find a more eclectic range of topics than you will at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes for any kind of show, by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And there's the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, a division of Legendary Pictures and Legendary Digital Networks, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
And now, a reminder that the Worldwide Radio Summit in Hollywood is coming up on April 13-15, 2016, and for the first time, they're letting me come up from the back of the room to the front as the moderator of a panel, and it's going to be on podcasting, specifically about what you, coming into the relatively new medium, need to know and what you can expect. To help you with that, I've assembled a great panel of people who have been-there-done-that and emerged as success stories.
On the panel:
*Chris Hardwick, my boss at Nerdist, as seen on TV ("@midnight," "Talking Dead," "The Wall," the upcoming special "Funcomfortable"), who created the Nerdist Podcast, the network for which I work, and an entire media empire of nerd culture
*Dave Anthony, co-host of All Things Comedy's "The Dollop" and "Walking the Room," WGA Award-nominated TV writer and performer on IFC's "Maron," and one of the brains behind the L.A. Podfest and the All Things Comedy podcast network
*Jackie Kashian, standup comic and creator of two very successful podcasts, All Things Comedy's "The Dork Forest" and Nerdist's "The Jackie and Laurie Show"
*Alison Rosen, reporter-turned-Carolla sidekick-turned-host of her own popular show "Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend"
*Katie Levine, the Head of Production for the Nerdist Podcast Network, who works with dozens of shows and can answer any production question you can throw at her
And you'll find more, like Seth Resler of Jacobs Media and our podcast section with a podcasting panel looking on the business side, with Panoply's Andy Bowers, Audible's Eric Nuzum, Libsyn's Rob Walch, and Raw Voice/Blubrry's Todd Cochrane. Steve Goldstein of Amplifi Media and our podcast section has a panel on the future of the radio industry with Jeff Pollack, The Current's Jim McGuinn, Triple M/Australia's Mike Fitzpatrick, Shazam's Peter Szabo, consultant Tim Zunckel. Fred Jacobs will have Techsurvey 12, CEOs like Ginny Morris, Jeff Smulyan, and Larry Wilson will be on hand, and there's a talent panel with folks you know, and music panels with programming minds from around the world, and much more.
Time's a wastin', so register, like, right now. Go to worldwideradiosummit.com for all the details.
And while you ponder the future of talk radio and the lessons we might take from KGO, I'm gonna go get set for the Final Four, which, of course, includes my Alma Mater No. 2, Villanova. I'm writing this on Friday, so if you're reading this after Saturday, please don't time-travel back and spoil the ending.