|The modern era in talk radio effectively began with the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
Under the doctrine, all sides of controversial and political questions had to be given equal representation on the airwaves. The result up to that point was that radio talk programs consisted primarily of general (non-political) talk and advice. The big names were people like Michael Jackson in Los Angeles, whose program included interviews with celebrities, authors, and civic leaders.
With the doctrine’s repeal, radio shows could become more one-sided, more freewheeling, ideological, and political. And it didn’t take long. One of the first to gain popularity under the new rules was a new voice out of California named Rush Limbaugh. Within a year or two of the new rules, Limbaugh’s provocative denunciations of Democrats became a phenomenon. Stations quickly began to pick up his syndicated show, and other conservative names followed his lead. Being controversial seemed a plus. Among the imitators were G. Gordon Liddy, convicted in the Watergate scandal, and Ollie North, implicated in Iran Contra.
That popularity is clear enough in the numbers. In the wake of the regulatory change, the number of stations carrying the talk format swelled from about 400 nationwide in 1990 to some 1,400 in 2006, according to Inside Radio, a growth of almost 250%.1
In the last five years (2001-2006), the growth rate has been a respectable 23%. But much of the explosive growth happened early on.
Talk radio runs the gamut of topics. But it remains most associated with conservative talk — though even that may be misleading. Talkers magazine, the leading talk radio publication, examines nine separate categories of the format in which “general issues/political talk” leads as the most-programmed talk style. Sports talk is second, followed by “hot talk” or “shock jocks” like Howard Stern. In order, the remaining six talk forms are: popular culture talk (lifestyle, entertainment), financial talk (business, finance, real estate), home talk (home maintenance and improvement, gardening), health talk (diet and fitness), psychology/relationship talk (emotional/mental health issues, romance, family), and specialty talk (computers, automotive).
Conservative Personalities Dominate
Personality, not just ideology, is a defining quality of the most popular talk programs, and here the first of the new age of talkers remains the most popular of all. Rush Limbaugh, whose career began in 1984, remains the No. 1 talk show host on traditional radio with 13.5 million listeners as of the spring of 2006, according to Talkers magazine.2
He was once far ahead of his competition, but some of Limbaugh’s fellow conservative talkers are catching up. According to the Talkers estimates, Sean Hannity has 12.5 million listeners followed by Michael Savage with 8.25 million, Laura Ingraham with 5 million, Neal Boortz and Mike Gallagher each with 3.75 million, and Bill O’Reilly with 3.25 million.
Talk Radio Audience
Source: Talkers magazine, “Top Talk Personalities,” Spring 2006
Liberal talk radio personalities fall much further down the list, according to Talkers’ estimates. Ed Schultz ranks first at 2.25 million listeners; the comedian Al Franken is second at 1.5 million, followed by Randi Rhodes and Alan Colmes at 1.25 million listeners each. (Franken announced in early 2007 that his last show would air on February 14. He is said to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate.)
Is the audience for talk still growing? Some data would suggest it is. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the number of regular listeners to talk radio grew to 20% of adult Americans in April 2006, up from 17% two years previously. Except for months leading up to an election, that number has been on the rise, and was as low as 13% ten years ago.
Survey data would also suggest the audience for Limbaugh in particular has dropped from the mid-1990s, but is stable today. In 1994, according to research from Pew, 6% of Americans said they listened to Limbaugh regularly, and 20% said they listened “sometimes.” In the most recent survey, 2006, Pew found that 5% of the public listens to Limbaugh regularly, a figure that has remained steady over the past 12 years, but occasional listeners dropped to 11% in 1996 and has basically stayed there in the 10 years since.3
Who Listens to Talk
Talk radio also attracts a different audience, even from more conventional news and information on radio. The talk radio audience is younger than the more inclusive “news/talk/information” format. More than a third (36%) are between 25 and 44 years old, compared with 23% in the broader news/talk/information grouping. According to Arbitron, talk personality stations tend to attract a younger audience by distinguishing themselves with “edgier programming.”4
Other characteristics of the talk radio audience, according to the Talkers magazine’s Talk Radio Research Project released in the fall of 2006, are that listeners tend to be male (55%) and white (65%). In addition, 65% of the audience report household incomes between $30,000 and $70,000.5
The audience is also distinctly conservative, but not necessarily Republican. Talkers magazine data put the party breakdown at 23% Republican, 14% Democratic, and a majority, 57%, Independent. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds a more equal spread among regular listeners to political talk radio: 32% Republican, 35% Democratic and 30% Independent.
How do such listeners see themselves? When asked to describe their own political philosophy, Talkers found that 38% said conservative, 14% liberal and 41% moderate. The Pew Research data put the breakdown for “regular” listeners at 43% conservative, 23% liberal and 30% moderate. While that audience is conservative, it should be noted that the general public also identifies itself more that way. The Pew Research Center finds that the ideological breakdown for the general public is 36% conservative, 21% liberal and 35% moderate.
Whatever their politics, talk radio’s listeners can be activists with an impact. A campaign led by the blogger “Spocko” in 2006 was designed to get advertisers to boycott the San Francisco talk radio station KSFO-AM for what were deemed racially, religiously and violently offensive commentary by four KSFO radio hosts. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, three large advertisers responded to the campaign by removing their ads.
Howard Stern and the Satellite Challenge
One other powerful talk personality who has commanded much media attention is the “shock jock” Howard Stern, most recently for his move from CBS Radio to satellite’s Sirius Radio. In 2003, his radio audience stood at about 8.5 million listeners, which placed him third on Talkers magazine’s list of top talk personalities. Since his move to Sirius at the beginning of 2006, it is more difficult to quantify his audience. Sirius ended 2006 with just over 6 million subscribers, an 82% increase over its close-of-year 2005 figure of 3.3 million.6 While Stern’s move to Sirius may have contributed to the growth, there is no way to measure the extent to which he was responsible for the subscription gains.
But Sirius certainly gave him some credit. In October of 2004, at the time of Stern’s signing, Sirius made an agreement that if the subscription base exceeded 3.5 million by the end of 2006, he would receive a stock-based performance bonus. In early January, Stern received that bonus in the form of more than 22 million shares of Sirius stock, valued at about $83 million.7
Big-name talk personalities are becoming increasingly popular on satellite radio, which at the end of 2006 had a combined subscriber base of 13.6 million (of which XM Radio reported 7.6 million subscribers and Sirius 6 million. See Audience). Both satellite companies capitalize on their extensive selection of commercial-free music channels, while also offering an ever-growing selection of news, sports and entertainment programming with “limited” commercials.8 Besides Stern, Sirius boasts unique programming from Martha Stewart, the comedian Raw Dog, Playboy Radio, Court TV Radio and such syndicated political talk personalities as Michael Reagan, G. Gordon Liddy, Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller. XM boasts unique talent from Oprah Winfrey and Friends, Ellen DeGeneres, Tyra Banks, Opie & Anthony and Bob Edwards, as well as syndicated talkers from conventional radio, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Bob Costas and Air America.
Liberal Talk: A Future or a Failure?
Talk radio hosts are overwhelmingly political, and overwhelmingly conservative in their ideology, according to talk personality listenership numbers. In fact, of the 40 talkers that made it on the Talkers magazine list of top hosts, only six were liberal (Ed Schultz, Al Franken, Alan Colmes, Randi Rhodes, Stephanie Miller and Lionel).9
In an effort to alter those numbers, Air America, amid much fanfare, hit the airwaves in the spring of 2004 with a liberal lineup highlighted by Al Franken and the comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo. Compared with other popular talk programming, however, the network never garnered much of an audience: it reported in late 2006 that its programming reached about 2.4 million listeners weekly.10
Though it got off the ground with significant financial backing, the network stumbled through two and a half years before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2006. Despite its financial problems, Air America has remained on the air and has retained most of its affiliate stations, though several opted out of their contracts. Recent news reports say there is a preliminary agreement to sell Air America to the New York real estate executive Stephen Green.
Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, says the network was too concerned with being the antidote to Rush Limbaugh rather than providing great entertainment and making great radio. The advantage of Rush Limbaugh, according to the radio consultant Walter Sabo, is that “he’s a great broadcaster, not a great conservative.” On the other hand, none of Air America’s talk talent, aside from Randi Rhodes, had any previous experience in radio.
Another possible explanation for the lackluster reception for liberal talk radio, some analysts say, is that its conservative competition is inherently more entertaining. As Tom Taylor suggested, conservative “bumper sticker” language is easier to talk about and easier to understand — conservatives stand for cutting taxes and supporting the troops. The progressive stances don’t seem to come in such neat packages — it’s more complicated than, for instance, raising taxes or not supporting the troops.
Others argue that the conservative talk movement is only a response to the rest of the mainstream media, which many conservatives believe is predominantly liberal. It has been an argument for years among some conservatives that NPR is the liberal voice of radio, a claim NPR would dispute. Regardless, it seems too early to tell whether the financial ills and relatively low audience numbers for Air America spell doom for a liberal talk genre.
There seems to be at least one rising liberal talk star, Ed Schultz, the most popular talk radio host of his persuasion on the air with 2.25 million listeners.11 His show, “The Ed Schultz Show,” began broadcasting in January 2004 and airs from Fargo, N.D. In its brief existence, the show is already syndicated to over 100 stations, including 9 of the 10 largest markets, and Sirius Satellite Radio.
The Future of Talk Radio
The proliferation of new media outlets does have some in the radio industry worried about the future of talk. Ed Christian, president and CEO of Saga Communications, takes a proprietary stance on the idea of sharing traditional radio content with new competitors like satellite radio or the Internet. In an interview with Talkers magazine, he said that “the two things that distinguish our medium [traditional radio] from any other are localism and exclusive content. I believe in not sharing that content with anyone else.” Based on that principle, Christian removed Sean Hannity from the programming schedule at WINA in Charlottesville, VA when the popular radio personality started syndicating on satellite radio. In Hannity’s place, Christian put on a live, local talk show which he said has been very successful in “whipping our former program.”12
Underscoring the need for unique programming, Talkers magazine’s publisher, Michael Harrison, wrote that “the survival of terrestrial radio…boils down to one thing and one thing only: they must program exclusive content unavailable on any other medium.”13
In such an environment, radio owners and program directors are predicting that investing more in local talk talent may be the key to continued survival. But at least some industry players and observers predict that recruiting the talent may not be easy. Because of the ease, financial efficiency and popularity of programming nationally syndicated shows, they say stations find it costly and difficult to cultivate good local talk hosts who can attract a large audience.
Scott Fybush of Inside Radio warns that “The problem with staffing local talk talent is that it costs money, and talent is hard to find.”
Another potentially important issue for talk radio is the changing political landscape. In light of the 2006 midterm elections, there has been much speculation about how the Democratic Congressional win will affect talk radio — with no clear consensus emerging.
Most conservative talk personalities believe that the party shift will bode well for their shows, giving them more fodder to attack the Democrats. Others say that politics doesn’t matter at all. For instance, Greg Knapp, a talk show host for Radio America, believes that talk radio isn’t driven by elections or politics, “unless you’re Rush Limbaugh.”14 But as the Texas-based conservative host Lynn Woolley told Talkers magazine, “bubbling under the surface is the liberal resentment of conservative talk radio.”15 Woolley predicts that the Democratic leadership, especially with the prospect of a Democratic president in 2008, might push for a return of the Fairness Doctrine, which would mandate equal representation of political opinion on the airwaves.
A reinstatement of the policy whose repeal ushered in the modern era of talk radio would dramatically shake up the industry. For now at least, most observers believe that despite changing winds in Washington, it is unlikely to happen.