The Prognosis on Talk Radio

Would you believe that to a young person – heck, to a young adult – their talk radio is actually texting, Twitter and Facebook.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are not on their radar screens let alone their radios.

All this is no big revelation as most of my readers know. Talk radio has been aging for as long as baby boomers have been aging which is longer than David Crosby’s face.

Talk radio formats deliver older, over 60 listeners like nobody’s business and while there are still advertisers who target older listeners, most advertisers are looking for younger demographics.

A good talk station delivers a higher average of late 40’s or 50 year olds but many do not. Some well done syndicated radio shows attract younger demos but then the old standbys run the numbers up – the age numbers along with the ratings.

Don’t get me wrong.

Talk radio is one of the formats that will be remembered in the Second Golden Age of Radio – post TV. It has a unique place in our history and you would be very wrong if you read anything into what I am saying that detracts from that national treasure.

What I want to address is that the talk audience is beginning its decline – some obvious reasons and some not so obvious ones.

Inside Radio
, my former publication doing some great reporting of late, published a story late last week about how the average talk or news/talk station saw a dramatic decline from 4.6 (12+ average quarter hour) in its four final diary surveys to a 4.0 in April-July People Meter ratings – a 13% audience loss. Some 40 stations in 18 markets were in the study.

First, the obvious.

That damn People Meter may be making Dan Mason happy at CBS with his low talk hit radio station franchise, but the drive-by listener is not likely to pick up a talk radio encoded signal in, say, a restaurant.

So if I can argue that music station B-101 in Philadelphia had a dominant audience with under a million listeners when diaries were utilized, then I can certainly point out that well over a million listeners today is the benefit of People Meter technology – again, taking nothing away from that great station.

But there is more.

Older listeners – the kind talk radio still delivers in great numbers --- have nice long attention spans the better to sit through rants, raves, stop sets and promos. It’s all worth it to them to hear their favorite talk show host.

But young demographics have other alternatives.

Don’t underestimate Facebook.

Facebook has for the first time surpassed Google as the online place where Internet users spent most of their time according to a comScore research findings.

In August, online users spent 41.1 million minutes on Facebook, or about 9.9% of the total time spent online compared to 39.8 million minutes (9.6%) for Google and that includes time spent watching YouTube videos and checking Gmail.

Younger listeners have many alternatives and diversions.

They also have shorter attention spans that make today’s talk radio harder for them to digest in their lifestyles.

And there are sociological issues beyond attention spans that count including the nature of Gen Y, for example – civic-oriented by nature and less confrontational than some of the political talk show hosts. In fact, they dislike the very debate and the way it has been conducted on talk radio --- one of its strengths with older listeners.

The Inside Radio coverage included a quote from Journal’s Group Director of Programming Tom Land as saying:

“The PPM has forced us to cover 4-5 topics per hour instead of one,” as Arbitron says the average listening occasion in PPM markets is only ten minutes.

Well, increasing the number of topics may actually help older listeners as well, but there are not 4-5 strong topics an hour which weakens the talk format.

“In focus groups where dial testing is used to measure talk topics, listener interest wanes after about three minutes on a good topic and after about 30 seconds on a poor topic, according to TRN’s Phil Boyce”.

The myth of Gen Y is that they have short attention spans and the reality is that all of us have increasingly short attention spans.

In a nutshell:

Older listeners continue to gravitate to longer radio listening sessions in traditional listening locations guaranteeing an older skewed demographic.

The People Meter does not provide the drive-by listening advantage that hit radio stations get when they are played in public and their encoded signal is picked up by meter wearers who may or may not actually be listening to the station their device is recording.

Attention spans have deteriorated in the general population providing an extra challenge to a format that always did well in attracting long listening periods.

Alternatives – some of them as non-traditional as Facebook, Twitter and texting – satisfies a need to connect and usurps time available for traditional talk programming.

And sociological changes – a large younger generation that sees little appear in political programming, controversy and that while very civic takes a quieter approach.

For these reasons and more, I sadly give talk radio 7 years max before it becomes as endangered as smooth jazz. And more erosion is likely with the aging of the population.

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