In its prime, News/Talk radio dominated every major market in which they operated; Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. It worked because programmers kept creating compelling reasons to listen.
News/Talk is an art form lost on the new generation of programmers caught in the vortex of shrinking audiences, declining revenue and head office demands for higher margins.
This generation of programmers and News/Talk general managers seems convinced that the secret to margin growth is the elimination of core services, the reduction of news coverage and the abdication of News/Talk categories that helped build the format in the first place. Somehow, using this formula and logic, younger listeners will find their way back to the AM band, and if the audience doesn’t get bigger it will at least shift younger and be more attractive to advertisers.
That thinking didn’t work 20 years ago and it won’t work today.
Those three words that are destroying News/Talk radio in Canada: “We used to…”
Here is how a typical interview with a modern day News/Talk GM or programmer might go if he or she were being interviewed on the latest cuts to staff:
“We used to” have a bigger and stronger local news presence but now that there is an all-news station in the market our research shows that we are not known for breaking news anymore.
“We used to” have a stronger sports presence but we couldn’t afford to maintain play-by-play rights for the NHL and CFL; we lost those broadcast rights to the all-sports station. Maintaining a high sports profile just didn’t make economic sense anymore.
“We used to” own the traffic “hill” in this city; no one could touch us. But then the all-news station started traffic every 10 minutes round the clock and we just couldn’t compete so we pared this part of our operation back.
“We used to” have talk show hosts with strong opinions and powerful points of view but our research showed that people wanted to “chat” and have “meaningful thoughtful conversations”.
We shifted our focus toward hosts who could talk about a number of topics, skimming the surface. The more in-depth investigative reporting shifting to on-line ventures.
Any of those sound familiar? The news department is reduced, sports is off the table, traffic is a shadow of what it used to be and the talk show hosts are less confrontational, less forthright in expressing opinions and less aggressive in interviews.
What is left to attract the listener, younger or older?
And so the race to the bottom is justified and a once powerful and dominant format is left adrift.
The CRTC hasn’t helped either. The AM band has been fractured by the construction of high-rise buildings and office towers in major markets. Downtown tuning to an AM station is a struggle in most major markets.
Broadcasters have gone to the CRTC on numerous occasions looking for technical help with low power FMs to in-fill areas where the AM band is no longer effective or listenable. I was involved in several of those hearings where the answer was no.
At the same time, broadcasters have shied away from taking a calculated risk with an under-performing FM signal and have not pursued regulatory approval to flip an AM News/Talk station to an existing FM signal.
By identifying the three words that are killing News/Talk radio I am not suggesting that the old ways were the right ways. They were the right ways for that time period.
But we can learn from the past through successes and failures.
Providing valuable and integral core services to the community the broadcaster serves is a privilege lost on those who can’t figure out why News/Talk stations have margins in the teens or lower while FM stations in the same cluster are much higher.
The oldest and most influential lesson I learned as a News/Talk program director and general manager is as valid today as it was when I took over the programming duties at the once great and powerful CKNW Vancouver: Create compelling reasons to listen, all day every day.
Swing for the fences. Not every time at bat will result in a home run but even getting on base will help.
Sorry for the sports reference, we don’t do sports anymore. Now, if a traffic reporter could tell me the quickest way home from the ballpark…
This commentary originally appeared in Broadcast Dialogue and is republished with permission.