Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It can't be a success if they don't try

Ed Schultz read an email on his show yesterday from a devoted listener (mp3). The listener also happens to own a home construction business, and tried to purchase advertising time on one of Schultz' affiliates, a progressive talk station. The station's account executive tried to talk him out of it, and steer him toward advertising on one of the company's other stations. The potential client was furious, and fired off the email to Schultz.

Schultz also brought up an example of a business owner in Miami, who had never purchased radio time before deciding to advertise with WINZ (940AM). The client was thrilled with the results. This stuff can and does happen.

Which begs the question, are the owners and sales executives of the various progressive talk stations across the country even trying to support it? Do they even care, or are they just trying to force them to switch formats (as will happen in Madison at the end of the year)? Suffice it to say, the format can work. But if account executives and owners refuse to support it, then they're in the wrong business.

This point was brought up by a few people. Former Madison, WI mayor Paul Soglin cites mismanagement and lack of effort at WXXM-FM (92.1 The Mic). "The research is wrong," said Soglin on his blog. "It is well documented that The Mic was doing just fine. Perhaps the owners fell that they were not making enough money from Oreck Vacuum Cleaner ads."

"The decision to end the Mic is a result of poor marketing and sales of advertising for the station. There were no Toyota or Honda commercial(s) or the type of big revenue radio spots that fill the coffers."

"You have just seen capitalism and the free market at its worst. A business discontinues a product. The product failed not because of the consumer but because of the mismanagement by the owner."

Jesse Russell at Madison-based blog Dane 101 wonders why too, wondering if it was because "Liberals obviously don't drive cars," but thinks that the answer could lie with Clear Channel's Sales Manager for Madison Eric West, a highly-active Republican.

In addition, the blogger also says, "With the Mic off the air, many Madison businesses lost their one Clear Channel venue for advertising, including the High Noon Saloon, Mad Cat, the Willie Street Co-op, Quivey's Grove, Madison Community Land Trust, and more."

The Mic's situation is quite bizarre. In the most recent Arbitron ratings, WXXM ranked #11 overall in the market with a 3.7 share. It did even better in demographic and daypart breakdowns, in some instances finishing #1 and beating its sister talk station. And unlike the typical demographics of conservative talk radio (which attracts a less desireable older audience), WXXM and many others like it are attracting a younger crowd, highly sought after by advertisers. Following the announcement of a pending format change to all-sports, listeners are highly vocal and extremely outraged. So why aren't sales and managers taking advantage of this?

Schultz is a good example of someone in the progressive talk business who understand this. Over the past several years since the Fargo, ND host went into syndication, he has effectively cultivated a strong relationship with his sponsors. And he's even lined up brand name companies such as Office Depot, Glaxo Smith Kline (makers of Zantac), Ricola and others. And he's lined up the usual network radio advertisers like Select Comfort and Oreck. In short, he doesn't just settle for the obscure co-ops and blue-friendly sponsors that are often gimmes for progressive radio. Rather, he goes after the ones that advertise on other radio formats, with the attitude that he's just as good as anyone else. In short, he gained credibility with them. And he's successfully been able to balance his relationship and credibility with his listeners as well as his sponsors, who keep him on the air. Schultz gets it.

But whereas Schultz' syndicator, Jones Radio Networks, has obviously succeeded with Schultz and Stephanie Miller, they are still flawed. Mike Malloy explained this as well when he claimed recently that Jones, which contracts with Air America Radio to do advertising sales, didn't even bother to try and sell time on his show, an occurance that likely led to his dismissal. And Air America doesn't exactly have what could be considered A-list sponsors, since many of their network spots are for "Impeached" board games, progressive magazines, health food and labor unions. Granted, this is not a put-down of those advertisers, since it's important to have any kinds of dedicated sponsors supporting their programming. But in order for the likes of Air America to succeed, they do need a stronger roster of clients.

Many have read about the ABC Radio Networks 'blackout' memo a few weeks back. It was essentially a list of companies that refused to allow their network spots to air during Air America programming. Only thing is, those kinds of lists exist for many other types of controversial or polarizing programming. Air America is not really being singled out here. Rush Limbaugh has a boycott list. So does Sean Hannity. And Howard Stern. And Opie and Anthony. This list is nothing new. Some advertisers don't like any kind of talk radio, while a scant few like eHarmony do in fact favor conservative talk radio. But there are still a lot of companies, services and small business owners out there that will support this kind of programming, and would love to target the dedicated audience that progressive talk radio attracts.

Some question the committment of local station managers. When WSMB in New Orleans dropped progressive talk last week in favor of "WWL On Demand," essentially a time-shifting of local shows from WSMB's sister station, the reason given was that "...because of the storm, it was hard to launch that kind of programming in the marketplace, when so many people were concerned with survival, not philosophy. We think this is a better use of the 1350 frequency at this place and this time. This is a better choice based on what audiences and advertisers are telling us.”

What they didn't explain (or what the newspaper reporter didn't ask) is why, if (station owner) Entercom thinks New Orleanians can’t handle “philosophy,” they should continue to be subjected to Rush Limbaugh’s rantings on WWL in the prime midday schedule. He never questioned why, if Entercom is so interested in the survival issues of New Orleans residents, it broadcasts 15 hours a week of sports, 20 hours a week of time travel and alien abductions, and 15 hours a week of food talk. He never asked what content Entercom provides on the other three radio stations it owns in New Orleans. And just this past Monday, Clear Channel in New Orleans debuted a new talk station, as "The New 995FM" took to the air. The new format’s mission is “to be an activist voice in the improvement of New Orleans,” said Dick Lewis, New Orleans-based regional vice president for Clear Channel, though no one knows for sure how Hannity, Mark Levin, Bill O’Reilly, convicted insurance commissioner Jim Brown, and Ray Nagin’s key advisor and Republican mayoral election rival Rob Couhig are to do that in post-Katrina New Orleans, where Republicans are likely held in low regard. At least they didn't hire ex-FEMA head Mike (heckuva job) Brown.

One final thing that merits mentioning is the fact that, compared to other radio formats, syndicated progressive talk is an outrageously inexpensive format to run. All of the programming is offered on a 'barter' basis, that is, affiliates pay nothing for it. It's offered for free. The only catch is that the network syndicating the show asks for five minutes or so per hour to air their own ads. The rest, outside of the shows, is available to the affiliates to do whatever they want with it. According to Air America's programming clock, in a given hour, they hold back five minutes for their own network sponsors. The affiliates get 17 minutes for themselves, which also includes news breaks (most air some sort of network news feed from the likes of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, or AAR, plus their respective bartered one minute or so of time). So, in essence, a typical talk station will get about 10-12 minutes per hour to slot in ads, which is a few minutes more than a typical music format. And, unless the station has local shows, there's no jocks to pay, subtracting from the overhead. Not bad.

All in all, the progressive talk format works, so long as some effort is put into it. The listeners will come, if station management even bothers to promote it. Businesses will advertise, if given the chance.

In short, a station can't succeed if they don't even try.


Schroeder said...

I like the Michael Brown comment. I'm going to post back to you in my next post! Why are these guys so *uninspired*.

It's pathetic. I wonder sometimes if I wouldn't go work for Clear Channel just to figure out the beast, then leave and beat them at their own game.

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