At least that’s what the pundits say. Talk Radio is dying. It’s history!
Of course it has been dying for years according to the critics. Newsweek alluded to its passing in a cover story in 2009.
The fact that Talk Radio is still alive while Newsweek is gone should not go unnoted.
Since then there has been a steady stream of stories questioning the survivability or relevancy of Talk, invariably invoking the name of Talk Radio’s bad-boy poster child Rush Limbaugh.
Remember Sandra Fluke? Rush Limbaugh called the poor Georgetown law student a slut, and all hell broke loose.
The Fluke controversy led to sponsor boycotts, and a condemnation pile-on that included many Talk Radio “experts” and high profile personalities including Don Imus of nappy-headed hos fame. (There’s the pot calling the kettle black.)
Look at the impact of the Fluke remark on Limbaugh's Google search traffic below (click to enlarge). The blue line is Mike “more conservative less controversial” Huckabee’s searches over the same time.
Meanwhile others were taking a wider swipe at radio. The Hollywood Reporter gave a bitter Tom Leykis a platform to vent in a breathless piece called How Radio Will Kill the Radio Star.
Shirley Halperin, who penned the piece tells us that:
Leykis left his first love (broadcast radio) not because he couldn’t get paid, but because he believes traditional radio is dying.....Radio audiences are getting older (more than a third of talk-radio listeners are 65 and up) and the personalities are aging out of relevance.
Even a year after the Fluke incident, Lew Dickey was still talking about the destruction that Rush had done to Talk Radio and his company. And it was newsworthy enough that the Huffington Post picked up a radio trade story quoting Dickey:
Clearly, it's been well documented that the talk side has been challenged....There has been residual hangover on the talk side in terms of advertisers sitting out and not placing there.
Clearly that's had an impact not only on our network business but it's had an impact on some of the news talk stations that we own.
Arbitron added its official imprimatur to the Talk Radio is Dying meme last month noting ominous trends in Talk Radio’s ratings:
News/Talk's lead over Pop CHR and Country has shrunk in each of the past two months, and for the first time since we began keeping our format records, it recorded two consecutive books below a 9 share, finishing at an 8.7 in July.
Now summer is historically the lowest time of the year for News/Talk listening, and we will be keeping a close eye on the results as August and September approach, but it's worth noting that the format's summer shares have declined about 10% since 2011.
So is it true? Are we looking at the end of Talk Radio?
No, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of Talk Radio’s imminent death is greatly exaggerated.
All formats go through periods of boom and bust. Every one of them.
Think about Top 40. According to Arbitron, CHR is currently the top rated format in PPM markets, in 25-54 no less! Yet Top 40 has been declared dead more times than Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
CHR might be riding high now, but in the 1980s stations were bailing out of CHR right and left. And many stations that stuck it out denied they were CHRs.
It was a time when every CHR tried to pretend they were really AC and every AC wanted to call itself Mix. Now look at the two formats.
Today Country is doing well, but there have been dark days for that format too. Remember when the Eagles were in power rotation?
Every format experiences different levels of success in repeating life-cycles. Every format goes through periodic transformations, periods of creative destruction.
For the most part, a cycle is roughly every ten to fifteen years, coinciding with generational shifts in tastes.
Few people want to listen to their parent’s radio station.
The CHR format dates back to the 1950s, but today’s CHR is very different from Gordon McLendon’s KLIF, Bill Drake’s KHJ, or Mike Joseph's WCAU.
The KSAN of Tom Donahue was unlike any of today’s Rock stations, but AOR continues to thrive. The same is true of virtually every other mainstream format.
What about Talk Radio?
Modern Talk Radio was born on August 1, 1988. That was the day that Rush Limbaugh debuted on WABC, 25 years ago.
Back then Ronald Reagan was President. Miami Vice and Murphy Brown were hit TV shows. Rick Astley, George Michael, and Richard Marx all had Billboard’s Top 100 hits.
In those 25 years we’ve seen at least one boom and one bust period for every music format. Yet Talk Radio has not really changed that much.
Why? Because Rush Limbaugh is still on the air.
Limbaugh is about all radio has that is still relevent for many people. Were it not for Rush, radio would hardly be mentioned at all in general market news sources, and the few mentions would be the same old radio is dying story.
The clock has stood still for Talk Radio because the format’s spiritual leader continues to command the biggest megaphone, the most buzz, and the largest audience.
The pattern of radio format transformations suggests that formats evolve because they have to. Even after a format falters, intrenched leaders refuse to adapt.
Leaders make too much money to risk taking a chance.
Talk Radio is too successful, and Limbaugh is too critical for the format’s continued success for stations to try something new.
But what if Limbaugh quits tomorrow? What if he tires of carrying the format and decides bottling tea is more fun?
Talk Radio will have to reinvent itself. It will have to experience (some might say suffer) the same transformation that every other format experiences.
And like every other format before it, Talk Radio will ultimately be stronger because of it.
In part 2 we will explore what Talk Radio 2.0 might look like. Hint: It won't sound like your father's Talk station.