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The future of “Liberal Talk Radio”

From an Oregon paper, discussing Thom Hartmann, Al Franken’s replacement anchoring Air America:

“There is at least as much demand for liberal talk radio as there is for conservative talk, maybe even more,” he said. “For years, program directors just bought the story that was told to them, that all the liberals were listening to NPR (National Public Radio). We have busted open a mythology. There are a lot of stations carrying this format and doing well with it.”

To be sure, some stations are doing better than others. But in general “this format” is not lighting the world on fire, so to speak.

Part of the problem is in the premise of Mr. Hartmann’s point: that “there’s at least as much demand for liberal talk radio as there is for conservative talk.”

Based on my own research, not to mention even a casual perusal of the national ratings landscape, that is abjectly wrong. Dead wrong.

And I think part of the reason for that is related to the “boxes” we place our terms in when we discuss formats. For example, if there is a successful “Conservative Talk” format then there must be a “Liberal Talk” format waiting to happen. If there is a successful “Male Talk” format then a “Female Talk” one must be right around the corner.

You cannot take the “Conservative Talk” format and project it to other audiences unless those audiences are joined by passions which similarly inflame their interests and are otherwise unserved by existing options.

For example, I would argue one of the best “Liberal Talk” shows is the one starring Howard Stern. On TV I would point to the one starring Jon Stewart. Many markets around the country have Male-oriented “Talk Shows” which are entertainment based and “Liberal” to one degree or another – and they are anchoring Rock stations.

Ah, you might say, but I’m talking about Liberal “Politics.” Well, Bill Maher does a great job there, but if it weren’t funny, I wouldn’t care.

We would be mistaken to believe that interest in politics is equal in depth or in kind across both Conservatives and Liberals.

Conservative Political Talk shows are about values as well as politics. Family, safety, and the like. Liberal Talk shows are about values, too: Free speech, irreverence, satire, nose-thumbing – whether or not there’s politics involved. And both sets of values are expressed in different ways. That’s why George Bush will always be funnier to a Liberal audience than Bill Clinton ever was to a Conservative one. And it’s why the Daily Show is funny, but Fox News’ Half Hour News Hour is not.

That’s my theory, anyways.

This is not to say there isn’t a market for “Liberal Talk.” It’s only to say that I don’t know what you mean by “Liberal Talk” and neither do you.

If, for example, the Howard Stern of your market is soaking up your Liberals, then it diminishes the market for your Talk. There are only so many bodies and hours of listening to go around. And happy listeners don’t switch. “Liberal Talk” doesn’t just have the wrong formula, it has the wrong stars.

We make too many dumb assumptions and assertions in Radio. “Liberal Talk” per se is not a format. “Female Talk” per se is not a format.

And primarily because you’re assuming, as Air America does, that “Liberal Talk” and “Female Talk” will fit the “Conservative Talk” model, but with new and different hosts.

The formula is never, ever more important than the talent.

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