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Talk Radio

Talk Radio

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

More than 20 years into its run, what Americans have come to call talk radio continues to grow, and in 2007 again demonstrated its political muscle.

According to the latest data available, 1,370 radio stations carry talk radio programming.1 And over 47 million Americans listen to it each week.2

The medium remains distinctly conservative. But a notable, if small, group of liberal talkers has established itself as well.

In many ways, talk radio is as old as radio itself. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his fireside chats from the White House over the radio. And Father Charles W. Coughlin and the humorist Will Rogers each hosted popular political talk shows in the early 1930s, with opinionated banter as the foundation.

Yet after a period of relative balance brought on by strict regulation in 1960s, the modern era of talk is generally considered to have begun in the 1980s with Reagan-era deregulation, particularly the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The repeal, taken as cable and other new technologies changed the media landscape, freed stations from an obligation to offer equal representation to all sides of a controversial question. Also, with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the mandate for radio stations to cover issues of local importance disappeared and nationally appealing satire-driven commentary flourished. Though there is talk among some Democrats in Congress about bringing the Fairness Doctrine back, it seems unlikely.

The number of stations carrying talk programming swelled from about 400 nationwide in 1990 to 1,400 in 2006, a growth of almost 250%, according to Inside Radio.3 Though the growth of stations has slowed since the mid-1990s, it is still getting larger.

News/Talk Radio Growth
1990-2007, Select Years
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2007 Edition,” February 14, 2007
Note: No figures available for 2000

Talk Radio Still Wears a Conservative Crown

In 2007, Rush Limbaugh continued his reign as the king of radio talk. According to data from Talkers Magazine, he commanded an estimated 13.5 million weekly listeners in spring 2007.4 But talk radio’s No. 1 voice also has apparently peaked. These 2007 audience numbers are down one million from 2003, when 14.5 million tuned in weekly.

Though definitive explanations of his ebbing audience are impossible, the most obvious factor is that the man who helped define the medium now has more competition. Chief among those is conservative rival and long-time runner-up Sean Hannity. In the spring of 2007, according to the Talkers data, Hannity trailed Limbaugh by one million weekly listeners by cume, the number of people who tuned into radio at least once and at least for five minutes in an average week .

Other conservatives have also been increasing their radio audiences over time: These include Michael Savage and on-air counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger (both with 8 million weekly listeners), and Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck (both with 5 million listeners).5

Liberal listeners have to look much further down the list of leading talkers to find a personality reflecting their views — Ed Schultz, with 3.25 million listeners weekly. Other liberal talkers barely attract audiences over 1 million: Lionel, Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Stephanie Miller and Alan Colmes (each with 1.5 million weekly listeners).6

Talk Radio Audience
Weekly Cume (in millions)

2007 2006 2003
Rush Limbaugh
Conservative
13.5
13.5
14.5
Sean Hannity
Conservative
12.5
12.5
11.75
Michael Savage
Conservative
8
8.25
7
Dr. Laura Schlessinger
General Advice
8
8
8.5
Laura Ingraham
Conservative
5
5
1.25
Glenn Beck
Conservative
5
3
*
Neal Boortz
Conservative
4
3.75
2.5
Mark Levin
Conservative
4
1
N/A
Dave Ramsey
Financial Advice
4
2.75
*
Mike Gallagher
Conservative
3.75
3.75
2.5
Michael Medved
Conservative
3.75
2.25
*
Jim Bohannon
Ind. / Moderate
3.25
3.25
4
Clark Howard
Consumer Advocacy
3.25
3.25
2.5
Bill O’Reilly
Conservative
3.25
3.25
1.75
Doug Stephen
Ind. / Moderate
3.25
3.25
2
Ed Schultz
Liberal / Progressive
3.25
2.25
N/A

Source: Talkers magazine, “Top Talk Personalities,” Spring 2007
Note: * = Information unavailable; NA = Talk host not nationally broadcast

Audience Demographics

The talk radio audience is largely male, relatively young and ideologically conservative, although not necessarily Republican. Talkers magazine put the party breakdown in 2007 at 23% Republican, 14% Democratic, and a majority, 58%, independent. Data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a more equal spread among regular listeners in 2006: 32% Republican, 35% Democratic and 30% independent.7

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the “talk/personality” audience was male, according to the 2007 “Radio Today” Arbitron report. And more than 36% of the talk audience is between 25 and 44 years old, compared with 22% in the news/talk/information grouping.

Talkers magazine’s Talk Radio Research Project, released in the fall of 2007, found that talk listeners tend to identify themselves as conservative (38%), of which 12% identify as “ultra conservative,” or middle-of-the-road (23% said they were moderate and 18% fiscal conservative/social liberal).8 Only 14% of the talk audience identified themselves as liberal, of which only 2% said they were “ultra liberal.”

Air America 2.0

Major changes were set in motion when Air America, the “progressive” talk radio network, declared bankruptcy in October 2006.

In late January 2007, Stephen Green, a New York real estate entrepreneur, agreed to acquire the fledgling network for $4.25 million and Green Family Media formally completed the acquisition on March 6, 2007.

Stephen Green became board chairman and majority shareholder and his brother Mark Green, the author, politician, former Ralph Nader associate and professor at New York University, was named president. Scott Elberg, Air America’s chief operating officer since spring 2005, retained his title.

“We intend to stabilize its structure, programming and balance sheet – and then to turn it around by next year,” said Stephen Green. “I’m a businessman used to making money and Air America will be no exception.” 9

Mark Green outlined a two-pronged strategy. “First, we’ll make sure our programming stays informative, sharp and entertaining – so that it’s appealing to a growing audience and advertisers alike. Second, we’ll be thinking outside the radio box by creatively distributing great content across many platforms in the next years, including the Web, video, mobile and broadband. We intend to become a must-hear content site for all people interested in truth, justice and the Air American way.”

The company has some rebuilding to do. As of December 2007, Air America content was being carried on 62 traditional radio stations, or affiliates, as well as XM satellite radio.10 Before declaring bankruptcy in October 2006, it had 90-plus affiliates.

On May 21, 2007, the new ownership introduced Air America 2.0 by launching a new and more interactive Web site talk lineup, adding three new shows to its weekday offerings and five new shows on the weekends (see http://w ww.airamerica.com/schedule for full lineup). The kickoff featured two days of interviews with 30 political leaders and celebrities, including Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John Edwards, Senator Barack Obama, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Gloria Steinem and Theodore Sorensen.

On April 25, Westwood One took over from Jones Radio Networks to manage the network and affiliate advertising sales. Westwood One, managed by CBS Radio, serves more than 5,000 radio stations and distributes more than 150 news, sports, music, talk, entertainment programs, features and live events.

“Because Westwood One is such a renowned network ad and affiliate sales firm,” said Elberg, “it’s obviously exciting that Westwood One will be a vital part of AAR 2.0.” 11

As expected, there also were talent changes, initiated in mid-February when the humorist and host Al Franken left the network to pursue a U.S. Senate seat.

Lionel, one of the top-rated progressive talkers with an average weekly audience of 1.5 million listeners, joined the lineup. Another program, “Seder on Sunday,” targeted the interactive audience with its recap and review of the Sunday morning political talk shows, largely from the view of bloggers.

The Return of Don Imus

On December 3, 2007, Don Imus’ radio show, Imus in the Morning, returned to the airwaves.

Citadel’s New York station, WABC, became the new home for the controversial host nearly eight months after his show was canceled by CBS Radio and the MSNBC cable television station.

An apologetic Imus was welcomed back with a four-hour show and several standing ovations from the large audience that filled a New York theater. Imus repaid his new network with a significant ratings boost. According to Portable People Meter ratings for New York, the show reached 87% more people than the average audience listening during the show he replaced at the same time slot (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.) on the previous 10 Mondays.12 But listeners looking for more of Imus’ caustic shock-jock spiel may have been disappointed. Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote that the show was “a cautious, even stilted affair, especially compared with the freewheeling satire and commentary that characterized his program before the controversy.”13 According to Farhi, the most irreverent note Imus hit was when he declared, “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I’m back on the radio!”

The ABC Radio Network syndicates the show, which also is simulcast on RFD-TV, a cable and satellite network that reaches about 30 million homes, through a five-year deal with Rural Media Group.

Imus’ difficulties started on April 4, 2007, when the radio host described players on the largely African American women’s basketball team at Rutgers University as “nappy-headed hos.” The National Association of Black Journalists shortly called for Imus to taken off the air.

Outrage against Imus grew when several public figures, including the Rev. Al Sharpton insisted that he should be fired. Imus responded by issuing a formal apology, but the disc jockey made the situation worse when he tried to do damage control. Imus appeared on Sharpton’s radio program, apparently looking for the black political leader’s blessing. When Sharpton and a phone caller continued to argue that he should be fired, a frustrated Imus blurted, “I can’t get anywhere with you people.” Syndicator CBS and MSNBC soon reacted with a suspension. But public outrage grew and, in the week that followed, big-name (and big-money) advertisers like General Motors, Staples, American Express and Procter & Gamble pulled their ads. After a frank meeting with NBC staff, at which prominent African American NBC personalities reportedly expressed anger, MSNBC fired Imus on April 11 and CBS did the same a day later. According to estimates from several analysts, Imus accounted for about $20 million in ad sales for CBS in 2006.14 And he attracted a weekly audience of 2.5 million listeners.15

Legal battles followed the firing. Imus filed a lawsuit against CBS in May for breaching his contract, which amounted to $40 million over five years. CBS countered, demanding compensation for lost advertising revenue and fees from radio stations and MSNBC, which paid to carry the show. Imus and CBS settled their claims in August, and Imus walked away with $20 million.

In August, Kia Vaughn, a Rutgers basketball player, sued Imus, citing slander, libel and defamation of character. Nearly a month later, she dropped the case, citing her need to focus on her studies and basketball training.

Who Syndicates the Hottest Air (Talent)?

What radio companies are benefiting from presenting and syndicating the most popular radio talk talent?

Premiere Radio Networks, a property of Clear Channel Communications, syndicates four of the top six talkers: Limbaugh, Schlessinger, Ingraham and Beck. Combined, these four reach 31.5 million listeners a week, according to their individual audience totals, though much of this total is likely a common audience.

Companies That Syndicate the Top Talkers

Host Syndicator Year the host began brodcasting nationally
Rush Limbaugh
Premiere Radio Networks
1988
Sean Hannity
Citadel
2001
Michael Savage
Talk Radio Network
1999
Dr. Laura Schlessinger
Premiere Radio Networks
1994
Laura Ingraham
Premiere Radio Networks
2001
Glenn Beck
Premiere Radio Networks
2001
Neal Boortz
Cox Radio Network
1999
Mark Levin
ABC
2006
Dave Ramsey
Self-Syndicated
1996
Mike Gallagher
Salem Radio Network
1998
Michael Medved
Salem Radio Network
1996
Jim Bohannon
Westwood One
1993
Clark Howard
Cox Radio Network &
Jones Radio Network
*
Bill O’Reilly
Westwood One
2002
Doug Stephen
Self – Syndicated
1988
Ed Schultz
Jones Radio Network
2005

Source: PEJ Research
Note: Premiere Radio Networks is a property of Clear Channel. * Information not available.

On average, these leading talk hosts have been broadcasting nationally just since 1998. Limbaugh, with the largest audience, has been attracting national listeners the longest, for nearly 20 years. But Sean Hannity, his conservative rival, only has six years of national exposure. The Hannity show bears close watching over the next years to see if it gains enough of a following to eclipse the talk domination that Limbaugh has maintained for so long.

Footnotes

1. Inside Radio

2. Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio, 2007 Edition,” April, 13 2007.

3. M Street Directory 1989-1999 and Inside Radio, Radio Book, 2006-2007. Inside Radio, formerly M Street Corporation, redefined the news/talk category to remove the category of sports talk. It began recording stations with the all-sports format in 1994. Before that, the news/talk figures reflect a removal of only estimated sports talk stations. According to Scott Fybush of Inside Radio, the number of sports stations was insignificant before 1993.

4. Talkers magazine, “Top Talk Personalities,” October 2007: http://www.talkers.com/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17&Itemid=34. Talkers bases its analysis on Arbitron’s Spring 2006 Monday-Sunday weekly cume ratings, supported by other reliable indicators in rated and non-rated markets. Estimates are rounded off to the nearest .25 million listeners.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, biennial news consumption survey, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006.

8. Talkers magazine, “The Talk Radio Research Project,” http://www.talkers.com/main/index.php?option= com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=33. Data are drawn from interviews with listeners of general news/talk radio across the U.S., supplemented by input from talk radio programmers, hosts, sales personnel, radio station in-house research, and some studies by academic institutions.

9. “Air America Completes Sale to Green Family,” Air America press release, March 6, 2007.

10. http://www.ai ramericaradio.com/stations .

11. Air America blog, April 25, 2007, http://www.airamerica.com/press.

12. Katy Bachman, “Imus Gives WABC Ratings Boost,” MediaWeek, December 10, 2007.

13. Paul Farhi, “Don Imus Gingerly Steps Back on the Air,” Washington Post, December 4, 2007.

14. Paul R. La Monica, “CBS’ Imus Problem,” CNNMoney.com, April 13, 2007,

15. Peter Johnson, “Coach: Team Accepts Imus Apology,” USA Today, April 12, 2007.