Monday, March 20, 2006

Turn Your Radio On?

Charlottesville radio listeners have been wondering, since the first of March, why WINA-AM dropped Sean Hannity, the nation's second-highest rated syndicated talk-show host, in favor of a local program hosted by the Sorenson Institute's Coy Barefoot.

According to Talkers Magazine, Hannity had more than 12.5 million cumulative weekly listeners during the last ratings period of 2005. He was exceeded only by Rush Limbaugh's 13.75 million listeners and was way ahead of Michael Savage (third at 8 million) and Dr. Laura (fourth at 7.75 million.) Neal Boortz, who tied for sixth on the list with 3.75 million listeners, remains a mainstay of WINA's morning programming, while Savage is on the nightly schedule.

Still, despite Hannity's nationwide popularity, it's likely he was not getting good ratings in Charlottesville. (I know I didn't listen to him, preferring the far more informative and entertaining "All Things Considered" on NPR affiliate WVTF-FM out of Roanoke.) The fact that, during the first few days of Coy Barefoot's "Charlottesville ... Right Now", there were close to zero calls from listeners, is a good indication that nobody was paying attention. (There surely would have been some carryover from Hannity's audience, who would take a while to turn their frequency knob after realizing the program had changed.)

That should not be discouraging -- yet. It takes some time to build up an audience and get them to interact with a new, relatively unknown host. But it still makes some sense to turn to local programming. And WINA is not alone.

Brian Wilson, a libertarian talk-show host who has worked in such markets as Atlanta, Baltimore, and San Francisco, writes about WBAL's decision to drop Rush Limbaugh on the Citizen Outreach blog:

... BAL’s move – the product of “extensive station research” (and an apparently hefty increase in the affiliate fee from Premier, Limbaugh’s syndicator) – pulled back the curtain on what many talk programmers across the country have been whispering: El Rushbo is losing it. According to Arbitron, which rates radio stations, Limbaugh’s audience share on WBAL “dropped 27 percent in the Fall 2005 ratings compared to Fall 2004”. In radio ratings, 27% is a BIG number. This doesn’t necessarily represent a trend. At some stations – including mine – Rush’s numbers remain fine. But a 27% erosion over a year is a sign of serious trouble. When it’s a nationally syndicated show, it’s gets programmers’ attention pronto.

In addition, WBAL’s own research told them their audience wanted a focus on local issues with local hosts.
What Wilson says about Limbaugh applies equally to Sean Hannity, whose format focuses on one topic each day and beats it into the ground, despite other interesting things that might be happening in the world. (Neal Boortz avoids this trap by switching from topic to topic during the course of his 3-hour show, although he does spend -- understandably so -- a lot of time talking about the Fair Tax (HR 25) and his book about it.)

Says Wilson:
Rush made his mark as an entertainer in what had been a ratings loser format. His show is rarely “entertaining” anymore. As a GOP/Bush ideologue and apologist, he no longer entertains with “Updates” and satirical songs. His show has devolved into a 3 hour rant against anything that isn’t “conservative”, “Republican” or “pro-Bush”. Some still think it’s the best it’s ever been. Others listen for lack of any suitable alternative. But when the Ratings “domino” falls, disaster follows. In today’s market, radio management will not stay with a ratings loser one nanosecond longer than contractually necessary.

“All politics is local” and so is Talk radio. Rush and his acolytes were fine for awhile. But after 20 years, the audience is way more savvy. It is human nature to be more concerned about what’s going on in your state than Washington, your town than your state, your neighborhood than your town. When a station can address your state, town and neighborhood’s issues just reasonably well – and still keep you posted on national and international issues – you will very likely listen there instead of listening (again and again and again) to how “right” Rush is on everything and how “you people” are so woefully uninformed.
WINA's decision to drop Hannity in favor of Barefoot is a logical step to take. As Wilson puts it:
Today’s Talk radio audience is demanding a lot more than it can get from the Rush or most any syndicated show. Listeners want to know what their City Council and Mayor are up to now. What’s that smoke in the sky over the Wal-Mart? Why did they cancel the Christmas parade? What about that teacher with that student that was on TV last night?
We are seeing a renovation of media. Limbaugh pioneered a change in how talk radio works in the late 1980s and early '90s. He (and his format) served a purpose, which was to upend the near-monopoly on broadcast information then held by the three major networks. As cable television became more ubiquitous, more sources of information became available. Then along came the internet -- and, with it most recently, blogging and podcasting. Localization to the point of idiosyncrasy is the wave of the future.

Until something else comes along.

UPDATE, 4:20 p.m.: Elected blogger Chad Dotson of Commonwealth Conservative will be a guest on Coy Barefoot's show today in the 5:00 o'clock hour.

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