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05.12.11

The Right-Wing Talk-Radio Flameout

Ratings for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and other hyperpartisans are declining as listeners seek honest talk from hosts like Michael Smerconish over angry rants. A more civil conversation will add value to our political debate, writes John Avlon.

There’s new evidence to suggest a demand for something different than hyper-partisanship in the world of talk radio and political media.

It’s not just the sunset of the Glenn Beck Show on Fox or the dispatch of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC to CurrentTV. It’s the shuttering of a pioneering conservative radio station and data showing the demographic decline of Rush Limbaugh.

In contrast, growing numbers of listeners are tuning in to independent voices who can be honest brokers in debates and don’t just angrily parrot talking points.

In February, I wrote a column asking whether right wing talk radio was dying and ruffled some feathers in that flock. A more accurate means of measuring listeners showed that conservative talkers’ ratings had either declined or flatlined in the heat of the 2010 election, while the world-journalism focus of the John Batchelor Show had seen a decided ratings climb. Now, a look at radical centrist Michael Smerconish’s national ratings growth since the start of the year provides more evidence of this emerging market.

First, here’s a snapshot that puts the shift in perspective: Just days after the 2010 election, the nation’s first all-conservative talk radio station, KVI in Seattle, switched back to a classic-rock format after 17 years. Its innovation had become media saturation—and music became an appealing alternative to the drone of a dozen Rush Limbaugh imitators.

Limbaugh can sell bedpans and resentment forever. But the demographic trend is not his friend.

Rush is a giant in his field, reaching more listeners than anyone in political talk, but even he has seen erosion in his numbers. Analysis of industry data shows that in market after market, Rush’s ranking has declined decisively over the past five years among advertisers’ coveted 25-54 age group. For example, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rush fell from sixth to 12th between 2005 and 2010. In Portland, Oregon, he fell from fourth to eighth. In San Francisco, he’s seen a similar decline. Among listeners 65 and older, Rush remains No. 1. He can sell bedpans and resentment forever. But the demographic trend is not his friend.

It’s not that “the angry white guy conservative political talk format”—as consultant and former Clear Channel talk radio programming director Gabe Hobbs calls it—is over. It’s just got little room to grow, going forward.

“Rush has been around for 23 years. They’re not necessarily making new Ditto-heads. You have to fish where the fish are,” says Hobbs, who helped launch the radio career of Glenn Beck, among others. “We’re singing to this choir, that’s great, they’re worth a lot of money and they do a lot of wonderful things, but boy, there’s a lot over here we could do.”

“This civil and smart approach—like [John] Batchelor and Michael Smerconish and some other shows—to me is kind of a ‘duh,’ '' adds Hobbs, indicating that it should have been obvious long ago. “The numbers that NPR is drawing clearly portends to something. I’ve seen it myself in research. It’s the tone; it’s the approach. Some people don’t want to be engaged at that loud, angry level—that hard right or left ideological approach where it’s my way or the highway.”

A Republican turned Independent who supported President Obama in 2008, Smerconish is a pioneer, putting himself out in the world of daytime political talk radio as a radical centrist, surrounded by the old hyper-partisan voices. He is currently an island, but he is far from alone, reflecting the 41 percent of American voters who now identify as Independent but are seriously underrepresented in our political and media debates.

This is no mushy middle. Smerconish memorably described his policy profile in The Washington Post as “someone who supports harsh interrogation, thinks we should be out of Iraq but in Pakistan, doesn't care much if two guys hook up, and believes we should legalize pot and prostitution.” (Note the Pakistan comment—Smerconish has been beating that drum long before most Americans had heard of Abbottabad.)

“I choose subjects and offer my opinions without regard to any party's talking points,” Smirconish says. “I have plenty of opinions, but they do not fit neatly into those faux, talk- and cable-created ideological boxes. And it matters not to me whether the audience at the other end is a conservative, liberal or independent—I don't check registration cards."

Since he gave up his Philadelphia morning drive-time slot in January to focus solely on his nationally syndicated radio show, Smerconish has been seeing startling success: “I've been letting my Independent freak flag fly and people are responding.”

In Austin, Texas, Smerconish has increased the station’s drive-time ratings in the 25-54 demographic by more than 150 percent over the first three months of 2011, according to Arbitron ratings. In his evening Dallas time slot, Smerconish has increased the ratings among men age 25-54 from 0.5 to 2.7—a 500 percent increase. Over in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Smerconish has led a 146 percent-share jump for his station. In Syracuse, New York, he increased the station’s ratings for adults 25-54 more than 500 percent in the first three months of 2011.

In Boston, he’s more than doubled the ratings among women—an audience often alienated by angry talk radio. “If women are listening to it, then two things are probably true,” reflects Ian Punnett of Minneapolis’ MYTalk107. “First, they're creating word of mouth about it because it’s something fun. Second, it's something which might reflect the popular culture more than any one particular political ideology. It's more informative than it is exclusive. It creates a bigger tent.”

The industry is starting to get the message. “What I feel has really shifted in the past six months is that we're getting calls from stations saying ‘I want to do talk but I don't want it to be angry. I don't want it to be really polarizing. I don't want it to be just about politics,’” says Amy Bolton, senior vice president and general manager of news and talk for Dial Global, an independent, full-service radio network company providing national advertising sales representation for more than 100 independent producers and syndicators, including Michael Smerconish. “You hear program directors out there saying, ‘It's like listening to somebody bang on the same piano note over and over and over again.’”

What’s triggered this shift? In large part, it’s an emperor-has-no-clothes realization driven by data. The radio industry changes in the way that ratings are measured, from diary-style self-monitoring to a more scientific method known as PPM. This changed the focus from rewarding voices with hardcore fans—like Limbaugh’s “Ditto-heads”—and reflected more accurately what people actually listen to throughout their day.

“The hard left-wing stations and hard right-wing stations that were voted on by their fans in the diary—which was more of a popularity contest—seem not to be doing so well,” explains Jack Swanson, the program director at San Francisco’s KGO-AM. “Nationwide, I think we are seeing a trend of some weakness in the hard right and the hard left on both sides.”

“We’re seeing some things like Smerconish and some things like John Batchelor doing better,” Swanson continued. “Is this a trend? I don’t know. I do believe we’re at a tipping point in talk radio, though… It’s not just a Left or a Right or a Republican or Democrat thing. It’s a million points of light out there on the Internet in terms of the discussion of ideas and ideals. And one size doesn’t fit all anymore.”

One day we just might look back on the past two decades and see the hyper-partisan group-think that has disproportionately dominated talk radio as odd. The signs are all around us, from the PPM ratings that give a better idea of what people actually listen to during their day, to the implosion of Air America’s "Limbaugh of the Left" model while the thoughtfulness of NPR enjoys great and growing listener loyalty.

This is still an emerging market, a rebellious project. But a more civil, smarter conversation will add value—not venom—to listeners’ lives. It will bring light, rather than just heat, to our political debates. And in the process, it will more accurately reflect the essential diversity of American life.

John Avlon's most recent 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.