Radio Waves: January 22, 2021

Could censorship backlash save political talk radio?

For years, political talk radio has been on the decline, both in ratings and influence. This due to various reasons including an aging listenership in an era when advertisers want younger. This places formerly popular hosts on lower-quality signals such as when Rush Limbaugh was moved from clear channel blowtorch KFI (640 AM) to candle-powered KEIB (1150 AM) more than a few years back.

Realistically, with rare exception, conservative talk radio was never the ratings juggernaut that people thought it was. On the conservative side you had Limbaugh … and a few imitators. Most successful stations used Limbaugh as an anchor and the other programs basically lived off of his ratings coattails. And liberal talk radio has never been a factor in radio since the alternatives are so vast.

But there is no denying that political talk has declined in importance, and nothing says that better than recent decrees to both national and local personalities to basically tone it down. Cumulus, primarily — owner of KABC (790 AM) locally  — recently sent a memo to all personalities and hosts stating that if they do not basically tone it down.

It came from the company’s Brian Phillips, who wrote that the company was adopting a “zero tolerance” policy when it came to various topics, including any mention of a “stolen election.” This was sent to all air talent at all 416 Cumulus-owned stations. Any violation would lead to immediate termination.

At the same time, there is a movement away from local talent at all the majors, including Cumulus, iHeart and Entercom. So are the days of talk radio numbered? And why?

The why is easy. In addition to the above, there are numerous alternatives that did not exist when Limbaugh was King. Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Fox News. Online news sources. And more. With so many alternatives, talk on radio became less compelling … and more loaded with commercials … and thus just like with music, talk fans found alternatives.

But a force is at work that may change that. This will primarily affect conservative hosts and conservative talk fans, but the actions by social media to censor and silence voices and points of view may just bring importance — and listeners — back to radio.

It’s not going to be easy or fast, but I can see it happening. What it will take is a good host to make it happen. Just one, as Limbaugh did in the 1990s. It can’t be Limbaugh — he’s been doing it nationally since 1988 and was local in Sacramento prior to that. His age and health issues will prevent him from carrying the torch.

But some like Limbaugh could. The trick is to recall what made Limbaugh so popular in the first place. And it wasn’t his conservative views … I knew liberals who listened in the early days especially. No, it was that his show was light and fun.

You need someone who has a sense of humor, a bit of sarcasm and cynicism, and an intelligence that prevents going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Someone who makes you feel good about the possibilities even if you don’t necessarily agree with the current situation. Someone who embraces opposing views but gives clear reasons for their own thinking. Someone who isn’t afraid to have opposing views on the show. That’s what made Limbaugh so popular in his early days.

Who could do it now? It’s certainly not an easy job, and frankly, I am not sure a lot of people would want it. It’s much easier to be Limbaugh-lite. You need someone much stronger. Think Ben Shapiro … if he could manage to speak slower and take a few calls.

But if social media continues its current course, it is certainly possible that the importance of radio will increase once more. Podcasts — Shapiro’s current focus outside of the Daily Wire (indeed his podcast is what is run on KABC weekday afternoons) — are the current alternative, but they pale in comparison to the potential listenership of a powerful radio signal.

Smart stations should be preparing for this, and they should be encouraging viewpoints from all sides. I still like balance. If a talk station can have conservatives and liberals on the same station — indeed, on the same show a la Ken Minyard and Bob Arthur in the old days of KABC or the “Meeting of the Mouths” as heard on KFI years ago — perhaps we as a nation can better see that the “other side” is not the evil side so many assume it is. 

Classical AM

I happened to be close enough to the transmitter site for my car stereo to decode the digital HD stream of K-Mozart (1260 AM). And it sounded wonderful.

Well, at least on the local programming. I happened to hear a syndicated pre-recorded program that sounded a bit shrilly due, I assume, to the multi-layered digital processing it went through. But the content from the K-Mozart studios sounded superb.

The problem is, you have to be near the Valley to hear it in HD, otherwise it is analog. Still decent, but certainly not the same. I can’t wait until owner Saul Levine at least experiments with the newly-authorized all-digital mode to see if the signal would reach my home.