Talk radio has been declining for years coinciding with the ascent of one-to-one digital media, but what happened late last week after the Capitol riots when Cumulus surprised its air talent with a censorship dictum is a point of no return.
Why it is important: Talk radio is now being attacked by the same owners who were willing to turn a deaf ear toward conservative talk programming for prior decades.
- The few consolidated radio groups that remain tend to use conservative talk radio as a placeholder to keep their AM stations on the air allowing them an inexpensive programming source that can be bought or bartered and then sponsored with local spots.
- One CEO of a major consolidator admitted to me not knowing what to do with their AM stations if not for conservative talk but that is now changing.
- These owners showed little interest in the format in consolidation years after 2000 other than to save money – before that their intention was to gain ratings which then were in the prime 25-54 although they have aged out today.
Raising censorship issues: Cumulus content chief Brian Philips sent a brutal email to all air talent across 416 stations not just conservative talkers to “induce national calm NOW”, avoid a frequent conservative radio hot topic of a stolen election and informing managers to warn their staffs of the company’s new “ZERO TOLERANCE” policy that would cause immediate termination (the capitals were in the Philips’ email).
- Never before has talk radio (or even music djs) been threatened with termination if they went there (inciting unrest).
- iHeart, an even bigger talk radio broadcaster, is likely to enforce similar restrictions but without making a hot mess out of it the way some say Cumulus did by suddenly reversing everything and threatening the loss of jobs.
Talk radio’s lesson for Parler: Parler was the place radio listeners were turning to now that Twitter is cracking down on unsubstantiated claims.
- Talk radio may have been better off when shows like Rush Limbaugh were heard on news/talk stations that also carried news based on reality instead of what critics call alternate reality – now they are clumped together to save costs risking sameness.
- Parler (when it was last up and running) was populated by people with similar interests and motivations unlike Twitter creating a talk radio-type sameness that eventually did the format in – Parler, please note.
Bulletin: conservative talk didn’t kill talk radio even though the format attracts extremely old demographics – it still scores ratings although major advertisers have increasingly avoided the format because of protest groups and controversy they deemed bias for business.
- Cumulus, iHeart and private equity backed radio groups that have valued cheap programming and high ratings over reigning in inciteful content are not going down with the format – they are cutting ties, tightening rules and potentially creating censorship issues that even liberals should worry about.
- Private equity backed consolidators are losing money at a record pace – talk radio means nothing to them so they are cutting the risk.
What’s next: Pushing back against talk radio while the issue of stolen elections, fake news and incendiary issues.
- Station owners will look to replace talk radio stations with podcast-type programming or more vanilla content.
- Sources close to Westwood One and Premiere say talk show hosts will talk a good game but muzzle themselves because their bosses no longer have their backs and they are paid handsomely.
- The number of talk stations will drop over the next two years as influencers like Rush Limbaugh cannot save the format from its owners.
As the quotable Former Texas Governor Ann Richards said, “I’ve always said that in politics, your enemies can’t hurt you, but your friends will kill you”.
In other words, the liberals didn’t do it.
Talk radio station owners did.
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Several publications picked up our scoop about the Cumulus censorship crackdown, for a sampling of their take, click here: Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, Mother Jones, Forbes, Talkers, All Access, and Yahoo News.
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Jerry Del Colliano is a professor at NYU Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions Music Business Program. His background includes Clinical Professor of Music Industry at the University of Southern California, TV, radio, program management, publishing and digital media.
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