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What Happens When You Only Listen to Your P1’s?

If you’re watching the ratings and reading other radio pundits you’d be likely to believe that this is a bad time to be in the spoken word business in radio.  If you’re looking for ratings performance on talk stations in most markets, you’ll need to start by scrolling down toward the bottom of the rankings.  It’s upsetting not only for those managing those stations, but also for the business in general.  With radio’s position as deliverer of music under attack by Pandora and others in the digital space, many have predicted that talk radio – spoken word – is the great future hope of radio.

Some have imagined a future with many different flavors of spoken word formats in each market, beyond the typical current offerings of Conservative talk, Liberal talk (NPR), sports, all news in major markets and some remaining full-service news/talk hybrids.  As it is, many of the existing outlets aren’t healthy – especially the tried & true Conservative talkers.  At a time when spoken word radio should be flourishing, instead it is languishing in too many cases.

Over the years we’ve watched some music stations over-research their core audience – focusing maniacally on their P1’s to the exclusion of other members of their cumes.  Instead of building additional TSL from those closest to the station, who may already have given all the time they have, these stations stop recruiting new core listeners from their outer cume.  As core listeners move on to other choices (which they do because of changes in their lives or tastes or circumstances – and not necessarily because of changes in programming), these stations lose audience.  And if they remain headstrong on their tactic to satisfy their core, they continue to erode.

Many Conservative talk radio stations are guilty of the same problem.  Core listeners demand voices that resonate with their own viewpoints and never vary from their ideology.  Many of the hosts who play to these core listeners reinforce the position taking calls from listeners who quote from other Conservative-leaning media, booking guests who are in sync with their positions and staying focused on the same few issues hour after hour, day after day.  Over time, even the faithful are bound to stray occasionally or get tired and become less faithful.  Having imaged itself as being only for those of a particular political opinion, the station finds itself with diminished prospects.

Talk radio needs to be bigger and wider and more inclusive than it is today.  It should be on the rise instead of the decline.  But, we’ll need more voices and greater experimentation to get there.  Talk TV continues to grow and generate ratings for stations – especially among women (who are frequently missing from talk radio’s audiences).  And in many cases, TV has done what it’s done before: taken the playbook from radio and repackaged it with (often useless) video.

It’s not just about listening to the existing core listeners of current talk radio.  It’s about creating provocative, compelling programming for targeted audiences – who’ll come together because of a shared interest or taste.  It’s about finding the common interests, concerns and opinions of targeted listeners and connecting with them.  It’s about nurturing talent to get the very best from them and supporting them.

None of this is easy.  But, with music radio under greater pressure, can the business afford to let talk radio continue to slip?

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