Following 2020, a year that has managed to be consistent solely for the anomalies, inconsistencies and fear, I can’t imagine a better time to look at the promising future of the News Talk format. While there are hundreds of podcasts and programs that dedicate their programming efforts to scratch the itch for subspecialized interest groups that are dynamically osmosensing into additional niche groups with hyper focused categorical identifiers—in turn, resulting in a fundamental dissociation and isolation of the NTS base listener.
In order to circumvent alienating the news talk audience that historically maintains a less radical views, political affiliations and ideologies, there is a gap that will allow hosts to appeal to a more diverse group than ever before and reestablish what to expect from the host and program in future broadcasts. The Rush Limbaugh-esque hierarchical structure of hosting success then has a chance to thrive; allowing the focus to employ an approach that’s committed to their audience, provides an entertaining presentation, demonstrates an innovative grasp of the issues that can easily and accurately be communicated, continued trustworthiness, and content supported by facts rather than personal experience or emotions.
In a nutshell, I believe the 2020 election and the madness that preceded Election Day is demonstrative of the unanticipated consequences used to unify and drum up support for one candidate through the shared hatred of another candidate. Cutting off your nose to spite your face, essentially. The disenfranchisement of the hate-fueled bipartisan political groups and petty disillusioned social media disagreements stemming from an illusory, preponderance of exposition across party lines will fall flat in the New Year; holes poked through the flawed rationale which promotes or capitalize on hate and perpetual misery have been deflating at a rapid pace—especially while the review conjures up frustration, devastation and concern from Americans. This quantitative analysis encompasses a collection of polling results collected prior to the election, to evaluate the toll the year has had over the average American’s emotional health and wellness. The overwhelming majority (60-80%) of Americans polled, citing anger, stress, fear and sadness as the most frequent emotions they experience on a daily, or more frequent, basis.
With this as the case, and so much uncertainty left in the picture headed into the New Year, a few names to get acquainted with while you try to find new content to consume during the holiday or the latest Stay-At-Home order:
Jim Kelly (Bills HOF-er)
Vice President Mike Pence (past experience in the industry)
Christian Walker (perhaps father/son duo of Herschel and Christian Walker)
While you likely already know many of the aforementioned names through other endeavors, I believe the commonality shared by each encompasses the qualities America is starved for; honesty, uniquely fresh points of view, conversationalists, wide-ranging experience, hope, intelligence and success stories. During a time where the nation, and future of the format, have been doing their best two avoid falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, I believe the leadership and character of the above players would greatly benefit from a well-rounded lineup or rotating panel officials such diverse backgrounds.
Who do you think should advance to the next phase and which names would you have liked to see appear on the list?
The Power of “No”
It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space.
Whenever I speak with friends or colleagues, the topic of “what’s wrong with radio” constantly comes up. Everyone has different theories and many of them are valid. Upon further reflection, I feel that it all boils down to one word.
In nearly three decades of working in spoken word media, “no” is the one word I’ve heard more than any other. It explains so many of the past, present and future problems with an industry trying to survive in a crowded content space.
It’s a word that has been said about every facet of the business. For those of you that have worked in radio, tell me if any of these phrases are familiar.
NO, YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS
The recent memo Cumulus reportedly sent out censoring their talk hosts from opinions on the 2020 election did not surprise me in the least.
Companies are infamous for knee-jerk reactions to quell potential controversy. Don’t get me wrong, there is ALWAYS a line and some of the mandates that companies hand out are justified.
Many are just over the top and end up doing more harm than good.
I recall one time as a young Program Director, my morning show host took a very hard stance against affirmative action policies that the local university had been adhering to. Within an hour after his show ended, the station’s General Manger stormed into my office with a sheet of paper in his hand.
“I need you to sign this,” he said.
The document was an edict that, as PD, I would have to enforce a strict policy that matters of race could never be discussed on the station again. I would be solely responsible for said policy and that any violation by any host on the station would result in my immediate termination.
“Hey, why don’t we talk about it first,” I said. “Don’t you think this is an overreaction to this morning’s show?”
The GM went on to explain, in no uncertain terms, that I could either sign this document or clear out my office. Since my rent was coming due, I signed it.
The next thing I did was start calling anyone and everyone to see if they were hiring. I wanted out. A short time later, I landed a new gig.
Radio has lost a slew of talent to different content channels because they didn’t want to be censored or overly controlled. It’s understandable why companies would want to avoid controversy. Far too often, the cost of doing so has been worse than the controversy itself.
NO, WE CAN’T SELL THAT
Yes, the pandemic has hurt many businesses, radio being no exception. The reality is ad revenues for radio have been on the decline since 2006. While digital services jumping into the competition pool has been a big reason for this, so has radio’s stubbornness.
It was shocking at times sitting in sales meetings with fellow Program Directors and hearing how often they would shoot down a revenue idea. Often the phrase that was used was “We’re not doing that; it would be a ratings killer!” Many former colleagues would try to protect ratings points like they were their own children. The irony was, they often did so at their own peril.
Radio is a revenue, not a ratings business. People lose their jobs for reasons related to the all-mighty dollar; not because their AQH shares went down because of Neilson’s nonsense.
While I was never one to roll over and rubber stamp any idea that an account exec would bring to the table, I always did my best to find a solution. I grew up in a family of salespeople. I understood what life was like cold-calling and living on a commission-only basis. You don’t sell, you don’t eat. I would never tell a DOS, GSM, or AE ‘no’ without trying to come up with an alternative that would work. There is ALWAYS a middle ground that can be found. Working on compromises with the sales staff was an opportunity for mutual education. I’d have a chance to explain to the salesperson WHY their idea wouldn’t work for the brand. The salesperson, in turn, could explain to me their client’s needs and how I should align my thinking.
NO, WE CAN’T SPEND THE MONEY
I’ve found far too many radio execs that are comfortable playing defense rather than offense. Quite honestly, I can’t blame them. Companies have made it a capital crime for GM’s who can’t properly justify an expense. In doing so, they’ve created an atmosphere that isn’t about winning, it’s about simply not failing.
I remember in one market; we had the opportunity to make a bid for the broadcast rights to a popular local sports team. Getting them would have been an absolute game changer for us. At the time, the station we were bidding against had been paying $4 million a year in rights fees. When we put our proposal together, our counter to that was to offer no rights fee at all.
When we were finishing our proposal, the GM looked at me and our sales managers and said with a laugh, “It will be a fucking miracle if this works.”
Feeling like I had to speak up, I countered, “Aren’t you afraid we’re going to get laughed out of the room when we propose this?”
“Hey,” the GM responded, “I’d rather be laughed out of the room than ask (our company) for $4 million a year!”
Our presentation was an absolute embarrassment. The Team President looked offended afterwards and insinuated that we were wasting his time. It was a bad look for us and left the impression that we were low rent in front of a multi-billion-dollar company. We didn’t get the radio rights and continued to struggle to gain traction in a competitive talk market.
But hey, we didn’t have to ask for any money.
NO, WE CAN NEVER DO THAT!
Innovation has been sorely lacking from the radio space for far too long.
I’ve written columns in the past that radio needed to embrace technology, not ratings. As streaming services continue to haul in billions of dollars, I’ve pleaded for radio to put a value on their content and to not be afraid of the paywall. These progressive, forward-thinking ideas have generally been rejected.
Much of this is because many radio fears failure.
This ultra-conservative approach has not only stymied the industry’s growth, but its ability to be creative.
While a good deal of progress has been made in the digital space, radio has embraced new ideas at a snail’s pace compared to other content providers.
Facebook built a company worth over $700 billion and did so living under the mantra to “move fast and break things.”
Amazon has a trillion-dollar empire and got there by “treating every day like day 1.”
Apple is a $2 trillion dollar company whose bedrock is coming out with the coolest new tech toys every year. Radio’s mantra? “Hey, we’re surviving!”
Stuart Varney Connects in the Morning
The qualities that set Stuart Varney apart are priceless and sometimes rare for network business anchors to possess.
Oh, the pain of selling your shares of Microsoft, only to have the stock proceed to hit record highs. Especially after years of proudly standing by the holding and proclaiming great pleasure in it’s slow, steady and safe growth. Such was the plight of the jovial, ever-informed and curious Fox Business anchor, Stuart Varney. (he has since re-purchased a chunk of Microsoft.)
On any given weekday morning, you’re likely to hear Varney mentioning his infamous sale, or discussing gas prices near his home in New Jersey and near his vacation spot in upstate New York. In Varney, viewers get exactly what so many of them are searching for as they reach for their next cup of morning coffee. Most notably, he is able to build a bond and a connection with his viewers. Yes, he knows the market. He knows trends, PE values and economic indicators. But you also feel as though you truly know him as well.
The qualities that set Stuart Varney apart are priceless and sometimes rare for network business anchors to possess. You start with knowledge. Sure, he knows his niche – the market and its impact on the everyday Americans who tune in to see him every day. He can tell you what the numbers say and what it all means. He also matches that knowledge with a real-world persona that viewers can identify and connect with.
For example, he sold that Microsoft stock too soon.
“I did that too!,” says Joe Six-Pack.
But he turned around and bought some shares of Boeing.
“Ok, we’ll see,” you think.
During the prosperity of the Trump years, Varney was downright giddy, and happy to say so, about the falling price of gas.
“Hey, I can fill MY truck up for a few bucks less too!”
He came to this country from the United Kingdom and learned the value of hard work by washing dishes in a restaurant.
“I washed dishes at my first job too!”
Through his stops at other networks, including CNN and CNBC, Varney has always been able to connect – with the market and, more importantly, with people. He asks the questions we want answers to, and follows up with a non-pretentious curiosity. If he doesn’t understand how Peloton works, he asks for clarification. If he is still confused about Bitcoin, he asks for clarification from his expert guests. As a result, his morning program, “Varney & Co.,” has the feel of a gang of buddies, rather than some stuffy money show.
In his role as the traffic cop, Varney spends his mornings discussing issues and stock trends with market analysts, network correspondents, CEO’s, political leaders, entrepreneurs and socialites. In one minute, he’ll be asking his correspondent, Susan Li, about the latest move on the big board. In the show’s next segment, he’s talking football with Joe Namath or economics with Art Laffer.
Varney’s intellect and knowledge brings us in, but it is the connection that keeps us. That, and his unbridled pride in being an American citizen, which he became in November of 2015.
“I became an American because I believe America is fundamentally good,” Varney told his audience in January of 2020. “Where else in the world can someone with a foreign accent go on national television and tell people what’s going on in their society?”
And tell us he does. Legions of Americans wouldn’t start their day any other way.
FOX News Enjoys Ratings Climb, CNN Takes a Step Back
“Fox News Channel was cable’s most-watched network during the week of February 15. CNN experienced its lowest-rated week in both total viewers and the 25-54 demographic since before the election.”
Fox News Channel was cable’s most-watched network overall for the week of Feb. 15. They continued topping prime time in total viewers; this past week, they averaged 2.486 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Feb. 17 edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” (3.69 million viewers) led all cable news telecasts for the week.
Fox News also led in total day (6 a.m. to 5:59 a.m.) and notched its best performing week with the daytime average since the week of October 26th leading up to the 2020 election. “The Faulkner Focus” at 11AM/ET anchored by Harris Faulkner posted 1.5 million viewers and 214,000 in the 25-54 demo, earning its highest-rated week in viewership since its Jan. 18 launch and surpassing the competition on CNN and MSNBC in total viewers. From 1-3PM/ET, “America Reports” with John Roberts and Sandra Smith garnered 1.5 million viewers and 213,000 in the 25-54 demo, also seeing its most-watched week since program inception.
CNN experienced its lowest-rated week in both total viewers and in the key 25-54 demographic since before the election (9/21/20) as well as its lowest-watched week of the year in primetime in the key demographic. Nonetheless, CNN still managed to best both Fox News and MSNBC in 25-54. The cable news network’s demos were most assisted by its telecast of the week’s most notable news event: President Biden’s town hall from Milwaukee, WI from Feb. 16. It was the first time in prime time Biden took centerstage since his inauguration. He answered questions from Americans about multiple aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, including vaccines, school reopenings and economic recovery.
CNN also benefited from its Sunday night programming. “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”, which was picked up for a second season by CNN on Feb. 24, was the most-watched program in cable news for the day (Feb. 21) among both total viewers and adults 25-54. In total viewers within the 9pm ET hour, CNN was top-rated with 1.635 million, Fox News’ “The Next Revolution” followed with 1.130 million and MSNBC’s “The Week with Joshua Johnson” had 613,000; in the key demo adults 25-54, CNN averaged 385,000, +192 percent advantage over Fox News’ 132,000 and +442 percentage more than MSNBC’s 71,000, outperforming both networks combined.
At 10pm ET on Feb. 21, CNN’s “Lincoln: Divided We Stand” was cable news’ top rated in the hour with 1.229 million total viewers and 257,000 adults 25-54. Fox News’ “Rush Limbaugh: In His Words” special (999,000 viewers/145,000 25-54) and MSNBC’s “Richard Engel: On Assignment” (627,000 viewers/61,000 25-54) lagged behind; CNN also beating FNC and MSNBC combined within the demo.
Here are the cable news prime time averages for Feb. 15-21, 2021:
Total Day (6 am-5:59 am)
- Fox News Channel: 1.325 million viewers; 212,000 adults 25-54
- MSNBC: 1.185 million viewers; 174,000 adults 25-54
- CNN: 1.032 million viewers; 238,000 adults 25-54
Prime Time (Feb. 15-20 @ 8-11 pm; Feb. 21 @ 7-11 pm)
- Fox News Channel: 2.486 million viewers; 366,000 adults 25-54
- MSNBC: 1.987 million viewers; 296,000 adults 25-54
- CNN: 1.634 million viewers; 395,000 adults 25-54
Top 10 most-watched cable news programs in total viewers:
1. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.690 million viewers
2. President Biden Town Hall (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 73 min.) 3.639 million viewers
3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.558 million viewers
4. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 2/16/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.502 million viewers
5. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.468 million viewers
6. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.461 million viewers
7. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.420 million viewers
8. Rachel Maddow Show “Justice After Trump” (MSNBC, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.216 million viewers
9. Hannity (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.177 million viewers
10. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Mon. 2/15/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.137 million viewers
Top 10 cable news programs among adults 25-54:
1. President Biden Town Hall (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 9:00 PM, 73 min.) 0.902 million adults 25-54
2. CNN Tonight (CNN, Tue. 2/16/2021 10:13 PM, 47 min.) 0.661 million adults 25-54
3. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.580 million adults 25-54
4. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.569 million adults 25-54
5. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 2/16/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.549 million adults 25-54
6. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.549 million adults 25-54
7. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Thu. 2/18/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.530 million adults 25-54
8. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 2/15/2021 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.522 million adults 25-54
9. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 2/17/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.521 million adults 25-54
10. Cuomo Prime Time (CNN, Thu. 2/18/2021 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.520 million adults 25-54
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