Darryl Parks — former Clear Channel employee, former WLW(AM) Cincinnati programmer/talk host and current culture blogger — can look at radio from both sides now, to paraphrase Judy Collins. Radio World spoke to him about the state of our industry.
Radio World: What are the big broadcast groups doing wrong, and what are they doing right these days?
Darryl Parks: iHeartMedia, back when it was Clear Channel, had the foresight to move onto digital platforms, so they get a lot of credit for that. But on the terrestrial side, most groups have developed little original content.
In news/talk, for example, there is a lack of investment, so it’s fundamentally the same format as it was 25 years ago. Most AM stations run syndicated conservative talk all day long. If there’s a local show, it parrots what the national hosts are saying. “Obama bad!”
There has to be some variety, or else you run the risk of poorly positioning yourself and backing yourself into a corner. In marketing few things are worse than that. AM radio today is basically conservative talk, sports or religion. There’s very little variety.
RW: Air America tried a liberal slant to talk radio, but it failed.
Parks: It failed because it wasn’t entertaining. Talk radio needs engaging hosts like Howard Stern, Ellen [DeGeneres] or people that hook you emotionally like Dr. Phil.
Sports talk stations can expand content choice, too. The successful ones go beyond just the Xs and Os, and they talk about all the stuff guys are interested in. It should be about the fan experience, the stories, the emotion of sports fans.
RW: What else should news and talk stations be doing?
Parks: For a talk station to be healthy, it has to have news that’s relevant to the local audience. News is the gateway into the format. Many stations have laid off their entire news departments. If something important happens people are supposed to be able to tune in for that, and then stay for the talk hosts.
When the San Bernardino terrorist event happened, I read that KGO(AM) was simulcasting a TV partner. Radio has given up images it used to own, like the news image. Severe weather updates come from someone else like a local TV station, as often does breaking news. Sports stations have given up their branding to entities like ESPN.
If all you are is a conduit for content instead of an originator of content, you’re teaching people that, if they really want information, they have to go elsewhere.
RW: How did we get to this state?
Parks: News outsourcing goes back to about 1997, when radio started putting in automation systems connected to the Internet. We experimented with hubbing and spoking in our news departments back then.
When I was in Columbus at WTVN(AM), we fed news to Toledo, Lima and other places and I think the concept is workable. But in each spoke market there has to be some basic human infrastructure. We never really figured it out at Clear Channel because many of the spoke stations had only skeleton staffs. There were no news producers, just a program director whose job it was to keep the automation system working. The concept is OK, and the technology is there, but the problem is really lack of investment in human capital to make hubbing news content work. There have to be point people, plural, in each local market.
I’ll tell you where the real problem lies, and it’s not with the top-of-the-hour newscasts. It’s when there’s a tornado coming through town at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, or some other important breaking local event. If you’re hubbing news from another city, the news person in the hub market may not know it’s happening. The Achilles heel of the whole system is breaking news and breaking weather. That kind of information must be immediate, and that’s the weakness of the hub and spoke news system.
RW: What does your crystal ball show for AM radio?
Parks: That’s an economic question. Which is cheaper? Having 40 acres of land, a tower site and equipment; or broadcasting on the Internet? Eventually it will come down to that.
Revenues for many news/talk stations are in decline because of aging demographics and increased competition. As audio goes more to an “on demand” model on devices like iPads, those products are expensive. The people who gravitate to those devices are more affluent, and those that can’t afford the devices will be left to listen to terrestrial radio, watch over-the-air TV or read a printed newspaper. It’s a qualitative issue, and look at the demographics.
Many conservative talk radio shows discuss the Reagan years, but their target audience, a 45-year-old guy, never even had the chance to vote for Reagan because he turned 18 in 1988. You might as well be talking about the Korean War. Talk radio is stuck 25 years in the past. Its audience is aging out and becoming less desirable to advertisers.
RW: Can you talk more about how demographics will be changing AM?
Parks: There is a fundamental generational and ethnic shift happening that most AM news/talk stations ignore.
When Obama was elected for the second time, a lot of people seemed surprised because those people were operating in the echo chamber of conservative talk radio.
How do you think the Hispanic population of Texas got to be 40 percent? That didn’t happen overnight; it happened over decades. Many programmers and group owners chose to be blind to it, and that is why their young demographics are going down. This is no longer the baby boomers’ world. It is now the world of the millennials and the Generation Xers, and they have much different sensibilities.
When I hear talk radio ranting against same sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, I think, “Are you out of your mind?” Younger listeners, Gen-Xers and millennials, don’t care about that. Chances are the people in those generations may be fiscally conservative, yet they’re socially more moderate. Radio, TV and newspapers have to start reflecting this new reality. Programmers and talk hosts who continue to focus on conservative social issues will witness the end of the format.
Music of Your Life stations went away, beautiful music went away and pre-1964 oldies went away. They were no longer demographically appealing to advertisers, and remember, radio companies still have to sell commercials.
RW: That doesn’t sound too promising for AM.
Parks: Last year Borrell Associates (www.borrellassociates.com) looked 10 years into the future, and they predicted that half the radio stations would be off the air by 2024. I don’t know if I believe that, but my point is that they looked at radio’s future and trends with open eyes.
RW: Is podcasting the answer?
Parks: It may be part of the answer. So often podcast content is just repurposed from the terrestrial side. “If you miss my show, you can listen to the podcast.” Stations don’t even bother to strip out the “best of” or just grab a cool interview out of a show. My point is, there’s little new original content in podcasts, and for podcasts to be the answer for radio stations the content must be new and original, not old material from the terrestrial side. That’s where the creativity should happen.
RW: Would younger air personalities bring in listeners?
Parks: The real, successful personalities of the past, today and in the future will relate to and connect with people. They will always bring in listeners. While the ways to reach an audience may change, having a great personality connect one-on-one with a listener will never change. Great personalities are the voices and advocates for listeners. Listeners identify with these personalities. If you turn your station into a jukebox, you lose.
Parks blogs at www.darrylparks.com. Ken Deutsch is a former on-air “personality” who says his exit from radio was met with relief from listeners and management alike.