Early in my career, I heard a gem from a general manager. While heading out to lunch one particularly beautiful day, we discussed a significant drop in our station’s ratings as released just that morning. I asked him why the station had plummeted in one ratings period.
Do politics have a place on your station?
“People listen to radio stations because they like them,” he said. As kind of a joke, I asked him why people stopped listening. He responded, “They stop listening when they don’t like them anymore.”
I realized he was being serious and asked him, “Do you think it’ll get worse?” He suddenly halted, put his hand on my shoulder and said to me, “Ratings can always go down.”
I still smile when I recall the clarity of this conversation — then revel in this simple brilliance that is so often forgotten, even by programming veterans.
RADIO & POLITICS IN TRUMP’S AMERICA
Since we changed presidential administrations in November, program directors and on-air talent would do well to remember why listeners remain loyal to specific stations while ignoring others. Once again, simplicity rules, especially when it comes to politics. Why? For many, many stations in the USA, party politics just isn’t relevant.
With the exception of talk radio, taking a partisan approach should be well researched, carefully debated and executed after careful consideration.
But why does this matter? Because of expectations. Your audience’s expectation could very well be that your station should stay politically neutral, or even prefer that you ignore political goings-on altogether. This is especially true for music stations.
Just because you work at a country music station, don’t imagine that every single one of your listeners leans to the right. Sure, country music fans may respond well to patriotism, but that alone doesn’t give a country station license to cross over into right-wing politics.
Here’s another shocker: Rock radio fandom doesn’t consist of 100-percent leftist liberals, although it seems that DJs in that format often project that tone as if it’s fact.
Truth is, you can never tell what other people are thinking. Haven’t you been shocked by co-workers or other people you thought you knew well when they’ve expressed a political opinion that is polar opposite to your own? When you presume that you can intuit what your listeners think about policy or candidates, you inject highly-charged tensions into a neutral situation and risk alienating your audience.
TALK RADIO AND NON-NEUTRALITY
What about news stations taking a political stance?
Some do so because that’s the angle they’ve chosen in a competitive situation. This can happen if a station has a hybrid news/talk format, where they’ve got both straight news and talk show hosts who dominate the day.
For the majority of pure news outlets that wish to remain bipartisan, it requires a vigilant news director to monitor political bias carefully. This can be detected even in the tone of voice used to ask questions of politicians or the way they are introduced.
For example, when news organizations identify guests from “conservative newspapers” but then never mention that other guests are from “liberal newspapers,” it becomes especially obvious to the conservative audience that the station/network has a certain political slant.
If news stations go for it and take an intentional stance (à la Fox News or MSNBC on cable TV), it’s one thing. But if your station is perceived as having a political position solely due to the leanings of specific anchors, that’s quite another.
OK, OK, calm down! I am not against discussing politics on the radio. I am also not suggesting that you can’t make political jokes; you can, but they must be truly funny and not just snarky.
Politics has always been emotional, compelling and vital to our national and local discourse, especially on the radio. But before staking out a political position that will become one of your brand elements, PDs must recognize that politics don’t mix well with all formats. Most importantly, have a plan. Don’t allow your station to project a political image without a full understanding of what can be gained — and what can be lost.
And remember: Ratings can always go down!