Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Radio Ratings Lie

For some time now, I've been engaged in a research project to evaluate how radio show ratings have changed since the time when Ronald Reagan did away with the Fairness Doctrine – something he did without input from voters or Congress. Since that time, as most analysts agree, conservative talk radio has spiked in popularity. But it is generally thought that this means that conservative talk radio is somehow a successful format which has won popular support through free market economics.

Bullshit, I say. And I believe I can prove it.

You see, conservative talk radio is not a free market economy. It is an oligarchic economy where old men with their old-fashioned values own all the radio stations there are. They therefore hold ultimate veto power over dissenting views through corporate bigotry. They have always put curmudgeons on the air who agree with their own viewpoint and have done their level best to squelch all debaters who get in their way.

But it was not always so. Once, small broadcast networks held sway. Local talk show hosts talked locally about issues which were of interest to people only in local markets, like Cleveland, St. Louis, or Milwaukee. Nationally syndicated talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, were artificially popular because they were carried by radio giants like WABC. The other major players in nationwide radio were WNBC and WCBS. In television, cable networks now had hundreds of channels, but when it came to nationally syndicated radio shows, there were still only three major players, and your national talk show host only had to be better in his time slot than the other two.

Then, Rush Limbaugh got his big break. Reagan removed the Fairness Doctrine as one of the closing acts of his lame-duck presidency. Limbaugh was now free to present his views without his studio needing to give the opposing side. The timing could not have been more perfect. The Republican and Democratic national conventions were underway shortly thereafter, and Limbaugh quickly became the most popular conservative voice among only a few lucky radio personalities who were in the right place at the right time. Like most rich people, Rush Limbaugh’s success did not come as a result of brains or hard work.

Exact numbers for radio ratings are hard to come by because records for nationally syndicated radio show ratings have only been kept since 1991. But Rush Limbaugh’s show has always rated fairly high, ranging from about nine million listeners to above fourteen million today. That might seem like a lot, but when one considers what has happened with corporate control over radio stations during that time, Rush’s success suddenly doesn’t seem so spectacular. During the early ‘90’s, local radio stations were in financial trouble. Nationally syndicated radio shows became a popular means for struggling A.M. markets to make ends meet without having to pay a more expensive local talk show host a permanent salary. Rush was, as previously mentioned, the biggest of only a handful of radio talk show hosts available for local markets to turn to. But local radio stations often rebelled at having to resort to ultra-conservatives like Limbaugh. They wanted more balanced people to put on the air. As such, it was during this time that certain more liberal radio personalities, such as Jim Hightower, had their own radio time-slots on local networks. For a little while, it appeared that this lopsided “balance” was where the A.M. radio market would stay. But greed, as it often does, wins out.

In 1996, Bill Clinton made what I consider to be his biggest blunder in passing the Telecommunications Act. Prior to that point, one company could own no more than 40 radio stations and no more than two A.M. and two F.M. stations in any one market. But afterward, all restrictions were lifted. Radio stations were bought out and bought out again at a frenzied pace until only a few media giants owned nearly everything the radio market could provide. The biggest, of course, was ClearChannel, whose solid commitment to conservative-only talking heads has been nothing short of legendary. A market which was free only in the barest possible sense went to completely locked in only a couple of years. Plus, to add insult to injury, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed hucksters to peddle bogus products such as penis-enlarging pills and breast-growing creams – all without fear of any prosecution for perpetrating a public fraud!

Rush Limbaugh and his ilk now had every orator’s greatest wish: a completely captive audience. If you were a commuter, and you just happened to have your dial on the same radio frequency you’d been using to listen to your favorite sports team, you were guaranteed to be subjected to his mad opinions. To escape, said commuter had to take his/her attention off of the road for a time, and they’d only sometimes bother – which was the point. All insanity, all the time, and limited means of avoiding it.

All this, and the ratings themselves are a lie. Rush Limbaugh supposedly has a weekly listenership of 14.75 million. But is this accurate? Not quite, because if one person listens to one small segment of one broadcast on one day, that counts as a “weekly listener.” How big a percentage of Rush Limbaugh’s numbers are hyper-inflated by this simple fact? Quite a few, I would imagine. Sean Hannity, who comes in at almost exactly 14 million himself, is almost certainly the beneficiary of this phenomenon, as his show airs at exactly the time of the afternoon commute, when automobile listeners might be too lazy to change over the dial to another station.

Here’s the real crime of radio ratings: National syndication guarantees a high listenership. In other words, your radio show will artificially appear to be popular if it is aired on 400 radio stations instead of 40, or 200 instead of 20. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the beneficiaries of this artificial inflation. Their national syndication has been making their crap look good for nearly 20 years, now!

The bogus nature of radio show ratings is further emphasized by the #3 radio show in America, namely, NPR’s Morning Edition. It comes right after Rush and Sean with 12 million listeners. But Morning Edition, for all its benefits, is rather dull. People so prefer dull and truthful to exciting but wing-nutty that it actually competes in a truly free market!

All three of these shows are buried – yes BURIED! – by the highest rated radio show in America, which is America’s Top 40 Countdown. It leads the pack by a ridiculous margin at 20 million listeners weekly. But remember, this radio show is only aired ONE day per week, NOT during a commuting time, and competes head-to-head with church and NFL football!

In case you need further proof of how radio ratings lie, consider this: ClearChannel was in financial distress back in 2008. Yes, the free market dictated that ClearChannel’s all-conservative media format could not make enough money to survive! So what happened? Well, the company was purchased in a leveraged buyout between Thomas H. Lee Partners and – yes – Bain Capital! Mitt Romney had long since left as CEO of the company, but conservative interests still ran it, and they were not about to let the Oligarchy of A.M. talk radio slip away! Heavens, a liberal might actually sneak onto the airwaves and do well! We just can’t have that, can we?

Could a liberal do well? I argue, yes! An experiment in liberal media (Air America) using a new format known as Satellite Radio, did not do so well, both because it was too new a format and because liberals simply do not like ultra-leftist opinions unless they are on television. MSNBC was already on the rise, and liberals already had Jon Stewart and the balanced approach of NPR. There simply wasn’t enough of a market. But the failed experiment did show that liberal talk show hosts could succeed. It launched the career of Rachel Maddow, and catapulted Al Franken right into the Senate. It has power, and potential. Look for its return!

In past blog posts, I have argued for a return to the Fairness Doctrine. Yet I now feel that I must publicly rescind that position. The unfair advantage of conservative talk show hosts being able to artificially look popular through forced national syndication under the protection of ultra-conservative CEO’s is being undermined by the Internet. Podcasts, iPods and satellite radio have ripped the monopoly right out of the hands of the wealthy. Just look at the success of the Thom Hartmann Show, and you’ll see. The revolution happened, the Bastille was stormed, and the zoots didn’t even notice! Besides, ClearChannel bottomed out financially once, it will do so again and again until there are no more rich-bitches willing to shell out the money it takes to bail Rush Limbaugh's syndication out.

In the meantime, Rush can continue to fool himself about how popular he thinks he is, even though his numbers have stayed around 14 million over the two decades he’s been on the air, during which time the U.S. population more than doubled. Yes, in the midst of a growing populace, he has remained stagnant, and is dining off of nothing more than the ashes of his past success. Well, I say, bon apetit, you fat, irrelevant fuck!



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