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The Death Spiral of AM Talk Radio

Darryl Parks is the former corporate brand manager for Clear Channel talk stations and was program director for Cincinnati news/talk WLW-AM. Now independent, Parks keeps a blog where he recently has trained his sights on his old business.

A couple of weeks ago he dissected the plummeting ratings across the mostly-conservative AM talk radio format. “The monthly ratings for many talk stations are in a free fall,” he wrote, “displaying a product detached from all but an old, small, shrinking and worthless audience.”

Parks observed that some of the few stations which experienced a bump in ratings did so because they acquired Rush Limbaugh’s show in their markets. However, he pointed out that, “When you have no audience to begin with, tripling the audience isn’t all that hard. 0.0 to 0.3 is a 300% increase or an index of 300.”

Last week Parks dug deeper into “why nothing changes,” in talk radio.

One of his most striking reasons is that, “the program director of today has no say in programming decisions and the corporations don’t want a market PD with thoughts, ideas or any clue on how to correct talk radio’s problems. They don’t get a vote.”

Even from a cynical and jaded commercial radio critic like myself, that tidbit merits a hearty, “Whoa!” I already knew that commercial radio DJs had no role in picking actual songs, as Clear Channel’s classic rock chief Eric Wellman recently confirmed, saying, “I know there are some stations and some companies where if you change a song it’s a fireable offense.” And while I certainly figured that program directors were increasingly under the thumb of corporate management, even I didn’t think the situation was quite so bad.

Parks also blames the vertically integrated structure of commercial radio.

“One company owns the distribution platforms, the syndicator, the rep firm and the chosen talent. Clear Channel, for example, owns stations and the syndicator Premiere Networks. They signed Rush Limbaugh to a reported multiyear, $400 million contract. The media has reported on Limbaugh’s contract for years. For a company to have any chance of making that type of investment back, the show must be broadcast on hundreds of stations. Conveniently, a company like Clear Channel owns many of these radio stations in most cities. Even if the show gets poor ratings the local station has no say in continuing or canceling the show.”

Of course, Clear Channel is in debt to the tune of about $21 billion (or, about 52.5 Limbaughs). Parks compares that number to the $17.6 billion in revenue for the entire radio industry in 2013. “The companies that control the stations and distribution platforms that can reinvent talk radio are handcuffed to invest anything in a dying format and are handcuffed to investing anything in a new genre of talk,” he concludes.

I’ll add that one way that Clear Channel racked up so much debt–that even the entire radio industry can’t pay off–was buying up hundreds of stations, only to decimate local hosts, staff and management. To compete the other big companies had to chase Clear Channel to the bottom. That’s why their collective version of creative programming is to dump Hannity for another syndicated 50-something angry, conservative white guy.

The nation’s largest radio owners have shown very little penchant for change or creative renewal since the ink dried on the Telecom Act of 1996, so there’s no reason to think any changes to the talk/radio format are remotely imminent. Instead, we’ll probably see a continued shift of the AM dial to sports talk, until that format is even more saturated than it already is and the bottom falls out.

The more things change…

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3 Responses to The Death Spiral of AM Talk Radio

  1. jonthebru July 22, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

    Heavens to mergatroid! Think of all the carbon pollution from the power generated to keep this worthless media empire “on the air”! Hundreds of transmitters spewing meaningless gunk into the air and hundreds of “cluster” studio facilities being kept cool for the downtrodden staff. What a sad image that presents.
    And that debt load, 21 billion dollars.
    I would love for the whole thing to crumble, really. But only if those stations go back into limited ownership, locally owned corporations with a stake in the community. Put some sort of heart and soul back into the broadcast field!

  2. Matthew Lasar July 25, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Paul Riismandel has invented a new monetary denomination: the Limbaugh! I’m still working on a symbol . . .

  3. Janelle August 20, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    What a shitty waste of broadband. AM rocks.

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