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News/Talking about the Wrong Things

Republican soul-searching followed the demographic slam to the gut from younger voters, African Americans, and Hispanics in the election earlier this month. And the reverberations from that punch have resonated through the ranks of News/Talk programmers and talent nationwide.

While I can’t be specific about the research I have done in that area (it’s both extensive and proprietary), I can tell you this much:

It should come as no great surprise.

Interest in Talk per se – as expressed in the form of Conservative Political Talk – is only a small fraction of the overall interest in the News/Talk format. In our zeal to deliver talkers on a plate, we have too often forgotten that the muscle of any News/Talk station, the “bridge” for most listeners most of the time, is news, not talk.

Check the ratings for the average NPR affiliate in your market and there’s a good chance you’ll see what I mean.

That’s not to suggest that your News/Talk station should “be NPR.” But if you’re not thinking of the news needs of your audience and how you can deliver on those needs on the platform of every consumer’s choice, then you are dismissing the larger opportunity in favor of an aging roster of Talk stars and their aging fan base.

And don’t talk to me about the ratings for Fox News on TV as some sort of hope beacon for the genre, overall. Leaving aside the differences between TV and radio and the different motivations to use each, any look at the demographics tells the story: That audience may be big, but mostly it’s older than 54 and perhaps much older.

Granted, TV viewership in general is older (which is another post altogether), but an analysis from the ratings this past Wednesday shows that if we assume “Total” listening includes no appreciable listening under age 25, then 85% of Fox News’s primetime audience is over 54, compared to 75% for MSNBC and CNN and only 63% for HLN. An hour of Fox News viewing provides an overdose of ads for reverse mortgages and life insurance and canes and life alerts and pharmaceuticals intended to replace what viewers of some other networks have not even imagined losing.

How to get in touch with the needs of younger audiences, not to mention younger ethnic audiences?

The answer is not for Sean Hannity to “evolve.” Because Sean Hannity is not the answer.

The answer is to find other things to talk about and other people to talk about them.

The answer is to recognize that the interests of consumers are wide and deep, yet most Talk stations barely touch on most of them. Indeed, they are not News/Talk stations, they are really Conservative Politics stations. “News/Talk” promises breadth and depth. “Conservative Politics” promises neither. We have found a successful niche and we seem Hell-bent on running it into the ground.

Attitudinal evolution among today’s talkers or younger talkers doing the same shtick will not draw younger and more ethnic listeners. New voices with new topics and new genres will.

If the format were simply “Non-Music” or “Spoken Word,” how different could it be? How many shapes could it take?

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