It was a move that sent shudders through an already-nervous radio industry: Pittsburgh’s WPGB-FM suddenly dumped its talk format, switching to country music. The early August change meant America’s biggest hosts would have to relocate to a small, 7000-watt AM station.
Because it conflicted directly with the expected trend of moving talk AWAY from AM in favor of FM, many took it as a sign industry giant Clear Channel had made a U-turn. With digital streaming services and other emerging technologies stealing music fans from radio by the millions, talk was seen as the one format that could keep traditional broadcasting alive.
Local media speculated the real problem was excess clutter which keeps the average hour clogged up with extremely long commercial sets, news and weather breaks, plus recorded mini-features. Whatever the case, the medium that has done so much to change the national political landscape and inspired others around the world to do the same suddenly seemed more endangered.
But it wasn’t the first head-scratching move: in January, Rush Limbaugh was moved from KFI, his longtime Los Angeles home, to a smaller AM station. And key syndicated shows including his have been bouncing around like ping-pong balls across various San Francisco Bay Area stations. Then, there’s New York, where Rush and Sean Hannity switched to Clear Channel’s newly-acquired WOR-710 from arch-rival Cumulus outlet WABC.
In the nation’s largest market, Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t the issue, the problem instead has been Clear Channel’s bizarre inability to settle on a morning show, critically important for advertisers. For some time, it’s been called “The WOR morning show featuring guest host Hilarie Barsky”.
Cumulus, which merged with Citadel Communications (which itself had absorbed ABC Radio) a few years back, has made peculiar choices searching for “the next Rush Limbaugh”, with an ill-fated push to syndicate moderate Mike Huckabee, which ended up a disaster. From the left, it tried to do the same with Geraldo Rivera, but that fared even worse.
That might not matter if not for the fact that it owns the nation’s biggest news/talkers (WABC, WLS, WBAP, KGO, KSFO, WJR, sad-sack KABC and more), legendary outlets it has seemingly worked tirelessly to run into the ground.
But Hannity and Limbaugh really have little to do with this disturbing trend. Talk would be much worse off without them. Instead, corporate befuddlement at how to program stations combined with a shortsighted refusal to develop promising new talent (they might leave for the competitor!) has led to its potential downfall.
And politics has played a big role, as well: rather than incorporate an overt Fairness Doctrine, the Obama Administration has relied on behind-the-scenes pressure to undermine the format.
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