Friday, December 29, 2006

Calling MythBusters! LTR debunks the top myths and misconceptions of 2006

As 2006 draws to a close, LTR sees this as an opportune time to look back on the year that will soon pass. Over the next few days, you'll see some lists commemorating the year that was.

We'll start with this rather long piece, which will hopefully debunk much of the nonsense, myths, rumors and misguided speculation you've likely read about across the vast series of tubes known as the internet about the radio format so dear to all your hearts. So, without further ado...

1. Major advertisers banded together with ABC to boycott Air America Radio programming

You all remember that whole ABC Networks 'Air America Blacklist" memo, right? In fact, it's still one of the most searched-for terms at LTR. Well, just to let all of you know, the whole AAR blacklist thing is not what it seems.

The fax was brought to public attention by syndicated host Peter B. Collins, who apparently got it from management of KSAC in Sacramento (they have an original scan of the fax on their website).

Oh yes, the fax is real. And I thought it really was a blacklist when I first saw it. The wording of it does seem rather strong. Then, the more I thought about it and looked into it, the more I realized that reaction to it was a bit overblown. I remember seeing similar memos back when I worked in the business (albeit without the strong wording), and I've heard of them being used for years with various syndicated shows. The reason for this 'blacklist' could be attributed to several things.

Many in the radio industry know that 'blacklists' exist for many talk radio formats. AllAccess, a radio industry web site, said that this list was similar to the ones that conservotalk and shock talk stations get. Rush Limbaugh has one and so did Howard Stern. Many advertisers tend to avoid polarizing or controversial programming. Others shun talk radio altogether (like the US Navy, since the teenagers they target really don't listen to talk radio).

Other companies prefer to concentrate on particular formats (talk radio, in general, is not as desireable as music formats) in order to target whatever demographics they desire. Some, like McDonalds and Radio Shack, avoid advertising on talk radio altogether.

Some of the companies listed do indeed advertise on AAR affiliates, and some have their own deals with AAR or other syndicated progressive talk programming. REI, for one, had no idea they were on this list. And Office Depot is a major sponsor of Ed Schultz' show. Schultz even voices some of their ads. Guess what? Office Depot is listed on this memo.

The more I thought about it, and after seeing the exact memo, the more I realized that the reaction to the blacklist memo from bloggers on both the left and right was overblown.

So, what exactly is this document, anyway? This so-called 'blacklist' is really just a set of directions for the traffic department (which is responsible for the scheduling of advertising spots) of the radio station. This is an internal memo from the network to ABC affiliates about which advertisers will air on the station during a given week. Many of these advertisers ask to avoid being place with certain types of programming (such as shock jock shows or political talk) or format specific, such as not running Massengil ads on a male-oriented sports format. I worked at a Rock/Country station combo, even dubbing ads from Westwood One's network into the system as an up-and-coming grunt, and some advertisers shunned one or both of these formats. They have an idea of who they want to target, and use a particular format's demographics for ad placement. Ever hear Depends or Gold Bond ads on a Top 40 station? Or Pepsi ads on an adult standards station? This is why.

What does ABC have to do with all of this? Well, some AAR affiliates run ABC newscasts at the top of the hour. The more likely scenario is that many more stations carry ABC's ad syndication network. The big radio networks do indeed syndicate national advertising. They sell the ad time, they send it to affiliates and they all get a cut. Easier than the national companies going to each and every station individually, right?

And if you want to see who's advertising on your favorite stations, is a website that is designed to show what stations are playing what songs, but for quite a few talk stations, it shows some of the national agency ads (including ones from ABC Networks) airing on them. You may notice some of the 'blacklist' advertisers are indeed running ads on AAR affiliates. I've seen HP, for example, quite a few times.

From what I could find, it doesn't really seem like an all-out advertiser boycott of Air America. The wording on the memo is a bit strange, but all in all, I don't think it's anything to be alarmed about.

2. Air America Radio is going out of business

After months of speculation and rumors, Air America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York on October 13. Of course, this gave wingnut bloggers, anxious to relive the grand ol' days of Gloria Wise, raging hard-ons. The smarmy vultures immediately began writing the struggling network's obituary. Uhh... not so fast, guys. See, Chapter 11 is a reorganization, meaning that the filing enabled them to set up a repayment plan to their creditors while getting their ducks in a row. If they had filed Chapter 7, then it would be adios, Air America.

And it looks like AAR is expected to stick around, since there is a hush-hush agreement to take over the company, pay off their debts, and run it like a real radio business, as it should be.

Hopefully, all involved with AAR, and radio in general, will realize how a radio business should be run. Bickering board members, unpopular programming decisions, extravagant spending, a huge staff of writers to deliver a rather mediocre show, the lack of experienced and successful radio people, and running a network primarily as a propaganda bully pulpit while maintaining more secrecy than the Illuminati is not the best way to do radio. Hopefully, they take a cue from Jones Radio Networks, currently one of the largest and most successful syndicators in the country, who see fit to run their operation like a business.

3. Air America Radio is liberal talk, liberal talk is Air America Radio

According to many in our so-called mainstream media, or whiny wingnut blogs, liberal talk stations are almost always Air America stations, as if they merely air just the AAR satellite feed and nothing else. Sure, AAR has built itself (for better or worse) into a sort-of brand name for the format. But they are not the be-all, end-all of liberal/progressive talk. Actually the biggest player in the format today has become Jones Radio Networks, which has experienced some remarkable success with Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller and Bill Press. Not to mention others tossing their hats in the ring, such as Nova M Radio, WOR Networks (Lionel), Radio One's Syndication One with their African-American talk format featuring the likes of Al Sharpton, or even the independently syndicated fare from Peter B. Collins and Doug Basham. And coming soon is Tom Athans' Talk USA Radio, which is slated to develop an assortment of 'non-conservative' shows in the coming year. Finally, don't forget the non-commercial Pacifica network, which has been airing hard-hitting news shows and progressive opinion for almost 60 years!

4. Nobody listens to this stuff

The commercial progressive talk format as we know it today came into being on March 31, 2004. That's the day Air America signed on via seven stations across the country. One of those stations was Clear Channel-owned KPOJ in Portland, then a high-powered AM station struggling with an oldies format that garnered virtually no ratings whatsoever. The initial results were not bad. WLIB in New York scored decently in demographic ratings breakdowns. The Los Angeles and Chicago stations showed up for the first time in years in the ratings books. But the big success was KPOJ, which combined the AAR programming with Ed Schultz' show, which had debuted in syndication earlier in the year. KPOJ went from a perrenial ratings dog to one of the top rated stations in the market. And inspired a much-used template schedule that many other stations emulated. Clear Channel, and eventually others, were impressed enought to spread the format to other cities.

The success didn't translate to all markets as it did in Portland, since many market managers seemed to merely put the format on their weakest signal and hoped for the best, while promoting it as little as possible. It was basically seen as inexpensive programming that they hoped would get strong word-of-mouth promotion. As the saying goes, you get out of it what you put into it.

Some stations were promoted well and succeeded with it, such as KLSD/San Diego, KPTK/Seattle, WINZ/Miami, WXXM/Madison, KKZN/Denver, KABQ/Albuquerque and many other markets. And progressive talk has shown a gradual ratings increase as of late in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and other places.

But is anyone listening to it? Well, yes. Currently, Air America Radio's main streams are ranked in the top ten of all webstreaming services, not counting the streams of individual affiliates. And in even the larger markets, a 1.0-1.5 overall share translates to tens of thousands of listeners. Outside of Air America, personalities such as Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller have done very well in comparison to their talk competitors, with Schultz even claiming victory against Sean Hannity in a few markets.

So yes, whether the wingnuts like it or not, people are listening.

5. Mitt Romney is buying Clear Channel in a fiendish plot for world domination

On November 17, after months of speculation, the Mays family, which controls Clear Channel Communications, announced the sale of the largest radio station operator in the country. The buyers consisted of two private equity firms, Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital. Many were skeptical of the sale, particularly since Bain Capital was founded by Republican politician Willard 'Mitt' Romney. Many thought that Clear Channel would become even more of a right-wing company, controlled by a guy yearning to be George W. Bush's replacement in the White House. Well, you can all take a deep breath, since Romney is no longer involved with Bain Capital, having cashed out of the firm in 2001. Therefore, Mitt Romney will have no say in the new Clear Channel Communications.

There is a positive in all of this, since the sale will negate a grandfather clause that enabled them to swallow up so many stations. As a result, Clear Channel is currently divesting of most stations outside of the top 100 markets where they own broadcast properties, and is also divesting of stations in larger markets to get to the maximum allowed. And in some cases, the company is taking a significant loss on a few properties, including Fargo, ND.

6. Selling advertising spots on progressive talk stations is impossible

I've written a great deal about this in recent posts. Many people are bewildered that radio station account executives have been having such a hard time selling advertising spots on liberal talk stations. Even Ed Schultz has been very vocal on this topic, particularly since he has positioned his show as very advertiser-friendly. The problem can be attributed to many things. First off, account executives tend to take the easy way out, and sell the 'easy' formats, such as sports, rock, adult contemporary, country, Top 40 and even conservotalk. Those are formats they understand. They don't seem to understand this 'progressive talk' thing, and think that it doesn't necessarily sell effectively to the same advertisers who buy time on the other stations. Some, like the Zwerlings in Santa Cruz, don't seem to even bother to try and sell time on their station, preferring to hold the station's format ransom to force sponsors to come to them. And some large radio clusters try to get by with a skeleton sales crew selling anywhere between 4-10 stations, obviously leaving them less time to seek out new sponsors for the unique new format that is actually reviving a previously left-for-dead frequency.

Obviously, Clear Channel managers and sales execs in Madison must have felt somewhat humiliated when, after announcing the dropping of WXXM's format, a young disabled veteran with no radio experience whatsoever named Valerie Walasek organized a devoted grassroots effort and delivered reportedly a whopping thirty new sponsors to save the station, something management couldn't do in the previous two years. If she can do it, so can the so-called 'professionals'. And if they don't at least offer Walasek a job, they're stupid, since she obviously showed them all how it's done.

So, there you go. Hopefully this will go a bit farther in debunking some of the crap that's out there. Am I 100% correct on all of this? Probably not. And I'm sure I'll get dumped on by both the left and right over what's written here. But at least it's a good, hard, realistic look at the state of progressive talk at this moment. And you won't read about that over at the Tranquilizer's site either.


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