Is Right-Wing Talk Dying?
Feb 9, 2011 5:39 AM EST
by John Avlon
Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh are losing fans in a key market. John Avlon on why listeners and station managers are sick of anti-Obama tirades—and who bucks the trend.
Here’s another sign that the tide might be turning against the Wingnuts— Glenn Beck’s TV ratings are down 50 percent and major market radio stations are dropping him.
That’s not all—a look at radio ratings shows that hyper-partisan talk has been declining or flat-lining between ‘09 and ‘10, despite the intensity of the election year. There’s a demand for something different—smart, un-predictable, non-partisan news is gaining market share because it stands out from the pack. And leading industry analysts say there is a market for more independent voices.
“There are a lot of program directors whose radio ‘spider-sense’ is tingling,” says Randall Bloomquist, a long-time radio executive and president of Talk Frontier Media. “They're thinking ‘this conservative thing is kind of running its course. We're saying the same things from morning 'til night and yes, we've got a very loyal core audience—but if we ever want to grow, if we want to expand, we've got to be doing more than 18 hours a day of ‘Obama is a socialist.’”
A look at radio’s PPM ratings for the largest talk radio market in the nation bears this out. An apples-to-apples comparison of ratings between November ’09 and November ’10 in the New York area shows that Rush Limbaugh’s ratings on WABC declined from 5.4 to 5.0—despite the crescendo of a GOP election year landslide. Likewise, year-end to year-end comparisons of the crucial 24 to 55 demographic show that Rush declined from 3.7 to 2.6—while his packaged follow-up acts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin narrowly declined and flat-lined, respectively. And Hannity was dropped from his Philadelphia radio station along with Beck last month after being dropped from his syndicator in Salt Lake City (!) last year before finding a new home in the area.
PPM is the new method of gauging radio market share that registers actual radio waves instead of relying on the very analog process of filing out forms that allowed fans to essentially ‘vote’ for their favorite radio hosts rather than mark what they were actually listening to—what Randall Bloomquist refers to as ‘the emperor has no clothes’ impact of PPM.
Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images; AP Photo
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Rush is an industry legend and the experts attest that despite his declining ratings in New York, he will continue to be a major, if irreplaceable, force in talk radio. But the larger trends are clear—backed up with both ratings and demographic data.
There is a striking contrast to this trend— The John Batchelor Show. Full, disclosure, I am a frequent guest on the show and co-host Monday nights—but the numbers are objective. Between Mark Levin’s early evening lead-in and Batchelor’s 9 p.m.-to-1 a.m. ET slot, the overall numbers double. In the 24 to 55 demographic they increase almost three-fold, from Levin’s 2.5 to Batchelor’s 8.3 at year-end—No. 1 in that demographic and timeslot. This is not a subtle shift—it is a decisive vote that elevates Batchelor ( a contributor to The Daily Beast) to first in his time-slot with content that offers not partisan talking points but professional insights from journalists posted around the world.
This seems to me analogous to the success of the Economist magazine at a time of generally declining magazine fortunes—people will seek out unique analysis and opinions that stand out from the pack. They will pay for the value-added of ahead-of-the-curve insight. Partisan news is the pack these days and its predictability provides no unique value to consumers. Batchelor’s show gives in-depth analysis that acknowledges the wider world from Afghanistan to China to India and Iraq. This is depth and breadth is unmatched in any other medium, even in the city never sleeps, and it is gaining pick-up stations in major markets across the nation.
“Personally, I think that there's a great vacuum out there for non-partisan objective political commentary,” said Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine. “I think it'd be good for the industry and it has to be good for the country.”