Talk Radio on Hold Against Low Ratings, Changing Audience

by Luke Jones  on Monday, May. 12, 2014 12:00 am  

Alice Stewart

(Editor's Note: A correction has been made to this story. See end of this story for details.)

Talk radio, long a bastion of charismatic, conservative show hosts, may be reaching a turning point as ratings fall and audiences change.

The most telling evidence of this is the fact that Rush Limbaugh's January move from KFI-AM, 640, to KEIB-AM, 1150, in Los Angeles — where KFI once was the No. 1 station in the market — failed to make a difference in either station's ratings. KFI has remained mostly flat and sits at No. 10 in the market, with a 2.9 rating, while KEIB, which changed its call letters to reflect Limbaugh's slogan, "excellence in broadcasting," has maintained about a 0.5 rating since the station rebranded in January.

Moreover, ratings have plummeted at many stations where Cumulus Media Inc. has talk programming. The Atlanta company in April fired several employees from Little Rock’s KARN-FM/AM, 102.9/920, including longtime conservative talk host Dave Elswick.

Holland Cooke, a radio consultant from Rhode Island, said there are two trends contributing to this development: Huge radio corporations are shouldering enormous debt, leading to shrinking assets in small- and medium-market stations, and younger audiences are losing interest in shows patterned after leading talk show hosts.

Cooke — whose experience lies mostly with medium-sized markets like Little Rock — said the bigger the radio company, the worse off they are.

“The two biggest, Cumulus and Clear Channel, are carrying untenable debt,” he said. “There’s not enough money in nature to pay off what they owe.”

That results in companies deconsolidating, and sometimes that means shrinking their stations in markets like Little Rock.

The upshot of this, Cooke said, is that mom-and-pop stations are “having a great time.”

“This next generation of mom-and-pops that are small groups, independent and locally based, seem to have spotted the bottom, or close enough to it,” he said.

Changing Audience

That may be good news for smaller radio stations, but not necessarily for talk show hosts. Cooke said the changing audience traces back to many hosts emulating the success of big names like Limbaugh.



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