Company Hopes to Make a Splash With Its 'Fair and Balanced' Brand
The fine folks at Fox are hoping that what works for cable will work for radio.
Fox Radio News Service expanded to around-the-clock on-minute hourly news updates on Dec. 1. The expansion followed several months of an abbreviated version of the service that debuted last spring. And while conservative patter has been a radio mainstay for years, Fox thinks there's room for more.
In addition to the headline service, Fox News Radio is lining up a selection of talkers who will bring to the dial the same swagger that has turned the company's cable news channel into a force.
Riding the wave
In October 1996 Fox joined the cable news channel landscape, competing with CNN and the month-old MSNBC. Seven years later, Fox News Channel outdraws the other two competitors combined. October's prime-time Nielsen ratings showed Fox leading the news channel pack with a 1.0 rating and 1.1 million viewers. CNN rated 0.7, with 773,000 viewers, while MSNBC had a 0.3 rating with 258,000 viewers.
Whether stations will be switching to Fox, or just adding it to complement one of the other services, it has a long way to go before it catches up in radio the way it did on cable. As of December, Fox had received commitments from approximately 150 stations, including 16 of the top 25 markets. This puts it well behind ABC News Radio, with more than 2,300 affiliates, and Westwood One with nearly 2,750 affiliates for its CBS Radio News, CNN Radio and NBC News Radio services.
Bob Finnerty, vice president for Fox News Radio, says there are no targets on how many stations will pick up the service by the end of this year. But he is confident that the market is there.
"What we're looking for are good stations that want to build a partnership with us and that are interested in 'Fair and Balanced' news. In many cases, particularly with some talk stations that tend to be a little bit more conservative, there's a disconnect with the audience when you go to the anchors from ABC or CBS in that some think it's less than fair and balanced. So these stations are very attracted to us for that reason."
"Fox is known as a conservative voice in the news media," said Duke Brooks, a former group chief operator and station manager who is now a radio consultant on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "It seems to me that viewers and listeners are gravitating toward that, and they seem to be liking it. We can't always predict what they'll go for, but that cable channel has been spectacularly successful.
"If I were making strictly a programming decision based on what I thought Arbitron ratings performance would be," Brooks said, "I'd go with it. If I believed I was going to get a 2- or 3-share-point bounce in males in my target demo by switching from ABC or CBS or anything else, sure I'd go for it. And my sales manager would be behind it even more than me as a programmer."
One of the ways Fox hopes to make ground is to operate with efficiencies provided by its parent company's vast media empire.
In addition to the cable news channel, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. publishes 175 English-language newspapers around the globe, and owns and operates 35 television stations in the United States plus the Fox Broadcasting Network, movie companies, magazines, books and direct broadcasting services.
The news service will rely heavily on existing Fox News domestic and international resources. The updates will be produced by Fox News and presented by its roster of anchors and reporters, and will take advantage of audio actualities of the day's news, daily entertainment and sports feeds, as well as breaking-news alerts and access to long-form coverage from the news channel during breaking news.
"We quickly realized that just like in cable, we can produce it better and cheaper," Fox News Executive Vice President Jack Abernethy said in a September interview with the Wall Street Journal.
For many programmers trying to decide whether to pick up Fox Radio News Service, the concern is that "cheaper" will come at the expense of "better."
Allan Loudell, program director, anchor and reporter for WILM(AM) in Wilmington, Del., said his station has been a CBS affiliate for 25 years. Loudell doesn't discount the value of Fox's radio service riding the coattails of Fox News Channel's success.
"Because Fox is such a coming commodity, though, there may be some stations for image reasons that (add the service) and it will be interesting to see. More importantly, will there be any ABC or CBS affiliates that drop? I would not have a problem with a secondary Fox affiliation, but the problem there is then you have to clear the additional commercials."
However, Loudell is curious about the quality of the product Fox will offer.
"ABC and CBS are arguably the only two real radio networks left in the business. Even CNN Radio sounds a little like a tertiary network in comparison. CNN sounds like you have people from the 40th market anchoring the news. And it doesn't provide a full service.
"That's the danger when you start from TV, then go into radio. It will be interesting to see if Fox is prepared to do what CNN doesn't do."
He said CBS often will go out of its way to accommodate his station, a 1,000-watt all-news station in the 76th market, even if it is the only station being serviced.
"If someone is giving a speech, I can call CBS and they will put it up on one of their tertiary network feeds. They'll do it just for us, even if we're the only station taking it live. Will Fox provide the same kind of service, or will they simply let radio eavesdrop on TV?"
Finnerty says Fox News Radio Service does not plan to do station-specific feeds, at least for now.
"Eventually, when we roll out to a larger service, those types of things will be made available, but as we get larger our inventory requirements will go up."
Right now, Fox Radio News Service's inventory requirements may be one of the most attractive selling points. "For a CBS affiliate, they get as much as 280 to 300 minutes a week of commercial inventory," said Finnerty. "Our current requirements are 28 minutes a week."
Snow in the forecast
One of the people most excited about Fox's entry into radio is Tony Snow. A former newspaper columnist and presidential speechwriter, he handed over his anchor duties on "Fox News Sunday" to Chris Wallace in mid November.
The versatile talker is the second Fox News Channel personality to be syndicated by Fox News Radio, joining fellow commentator Alan Colmes, co-host of "Hannity and Colmes." Colmes' show is carried on about three dozen stations.
Other popular hosts from the news channel, Bill O'Reilly and Colmes' partner Sean Hannity, are tied up in syndication deals with other services and don't appear to be joining the Fox Radio News lineup anytime soon.
"I'm excited about it," said Snow. "Having talked now with our radio guys, what impressed me is that they have a firm grasp of the realities of the business. They've got a smart business plan. They're not going to do this on the cheap. They're putting together a first-rate team and first-rate facilities. They're going to upgrade facilities we already have here in Washington.
"The stated ambition in New York" - where Fox News is headquartered - "is to be as successful in talk radio and in news as Fox News has been in cable news."
Company Hopes to Make a Splash With Its 'Fair and Balanced' Brand