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02.09.11

Is Right-Wing Talk Dying?

Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh are losing fans in a key market. John Avlon on why listeners and station managers are sick of anti-Obama tirades—and who bucks the trend.

Here’s another sign that the tide might be turning against the Wingnuts— Glenn Beck’s TV ratings are down 50 percent and major market radio stations are dropping him.

That’s not all—a look at radio ratings shows that hyper-partisan talk has been declining or flat-lining between ‘09 and ‘10, despite the intensity of the election year. There’s a demand for something different—smart, un-predictable, non-partisan news is gaining market share because it stands out from the pack. And leading industry analysts say there is a market for more independent voices.

“There are a lot of program directors whose radio ‘spider-sense’ is tingling,” says Randall Bloomquist, a long-time radio executive and president of Talk Frontier Media. “They're thinking ‘this conservative thing is kind of running its course. We're saying the same things from morning 'til night and yes, we've got a very loyal core audience—but if we ever want to grow, if we want to expand, we've got to be doing more than 18 hours a day of ‘Obama is a socialist.’”

A look at radio’s PPM ratings for the largest talk radio market in the nation bears this out. An apples-to-apples comparison of ratings between November ’09 and November ’10 in the New York area shows that Rush Limbaugh’s ratings on WABC declined from 5.4 to 5.0—despite the crescendo of a GOP election year landslide. Likewise, year-end to year-end comparisons of the crucial 24 to 55 demographic show that Rush declined from 3.7 to 2.6—while his packaged follow-up acts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin narrowly declined and flat-lined, respectively. And Hannity was dropped from his Philadelphia radio station along with Beck last month after being dropped from his syndicator in Salt Lake City (!) last year before finding a new home in the area.

PPM is the new method of gauging radio market share that registers actual radio waves instead of relying on the very analog process of filing out forms that allowed fans to essentially ‘vote’ for their favorite radio hosts rather than mark what they were actually listening to—what Randall Bloomquist refers to as ‘the emperor has no clothes’ impact of PPM.

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“I will tell you that a very senior talk radio executive, somebody with responsibility for a large number of talk radio stations, expressed to me just this week his concern that talk radio as we know it could be largely gone in five years and the reason for that is, just plain and simple, the aging demographics of the format,” explains Bloomquist. “Depending on who you talk to, the median age for talk radio is somewhere between 52 and, and, and 63, and it's just going up… for the most part political talk, particularly ideological political talk of any stripe, appeals to old people.”

Rush is an industry legend and the experts attest that despite his declining ratings in New York, he will continue to be a major, if irreplaceable, force in talk radio. But the larger trends are clear—backed up with both ratings and demographic data.

There is a striking contrast to this trend— The John Batchelor Show. Full, disclosure, I am a frequent guest on the show and co-host Monday nights—but the numbers are objective. Between Mark Levin’s early evening lead-in and Batchelor’s 9 p.m.-to-1 a.m. ET slot, the overall numbers double. In the 24 to 55 demographic they increase almost three-fold, from Levin’s 2.5 to Batchelor’s 8.3 at year-end—No. 1 in that demographic and timeslot. This is not a subtle shift—it is a decisive vote that elevates Batchelor ( a contributor to The Daily Beast) to first in his time-slot with content that offers not partisan talking points but professional insights from journalists posted around the world.

This seems to me analogous to the success of the Economist magazine at a time of generally declining magazine fortunes—people will seek out unique analysis and opinions that stand out from the pack. They will pay for the value-added of ahead-of-the-curve insight. Partisan news is the pack these days and its predictability provides no unique value to consumers. Batchelor’s show gives in-depth analysis that acknowledges the wider world from Afghanistan to China to India and Iraq. This is depth and breadth is unmatched in any other medium, even in the city never sleeps, and it is gaining pick-up stations in major markets across the nation.

“Personally, I think that there's a great vacuum out there for non-partisan objective political commentary,” said Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine. “I think it'd be good for the industry and it has to be good for the country.”

But Harrison cautions against reading the long-term decline of Rush into the numbers—especially using the relatively recent gauge of PPM. “I'm always asked is ‘Rush Limbaugh's influence on politics fading?’ My answer is it doesn't matter, he's never had that much influence on politics anyway. We do not give them as much credit for setting the stage for the political culture in America as the politicians and the political press do.”

“I'm always asked is ‘Rush Limbaugh's influence on politics fading?’ My answer is it doesn't matter, he's never had that much influence on politics anyway.”

“Beck on the other hand, because he has gone so far out there in terms of stirring the pot, it's much more unknown as to what his fate will be,” says Harrison. “It's been an ongoing thing in this business where sometimes it's just hard to sell even big ratings to the major advertisers. There are sponsors that just say ‘don't put us on shows where there is political controversy.’” It’s clear that this is a fundamental hurdle for Beck on both TV and radio—live by the sword and die by the sword.

The trends aren’t limited to Beck and Rush. “I don't hear a lot of program director who are just loving, loving on Sean Hannity,” says Bloomquist. “The attitude towards Sean among stations that carry him seems to be ‘we're stuck with him. He's doing okay, but he's not setting the world on fire’… and anybody who wanted to drop Levin who also carries Hannity has a bit of a problem because Hannity is very close personally and professionally to Levin.”

Radio trends are determined market-by-market and individual show's ratings are a closely guarded secret. While the New York area is the nation's largest radio market—and WABC is the flagship station for Rush and the other talkers—there may be other areas where their brand has fared better. But interestingly, at least for Beck, the radio insiders haven't seen notable areas of strength for his radio performance. "The one place where [Beck] kicks ass in a top‑25 market is Tampa and that's because his show started in Tampa," says Bloomquist.  "He's sort of viewed as a local personality."

“You don't see many trade ads saying ‘We need the next Rush Limbaugh—we need a right-wing hard ass’” adds Bloomquist. “What they say is, ‘we need somebody who can talk about a variety of topics, somebody that can connect with people who can do humorous topics, somebody who can have some fun on the air.’ It's the circle of life, the wheel turned and in the process of turning pinned this format in the corner of all conservative talk all the time and I think there's a sense of fatigue there.”

Be Different. Be Better. Be Yourself. These are good rules for media as well as for life. The cookie-cutter predictability of hyper-partisan talk radio talking points is provoking a backlash. They are failing to skate to where the puck is going: the millennial generation rejects hyper-partisanship in favor of news they can use—independent, intelligent analysis that plays offense from the center, punching left and right with a sense of humor. Playing to the lowest common denominator doesn’t always pay. The American people will reward people who respect their intelligence—recognizing that the news doesn’t need to taste like medicine or Kool-Aid.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.