Saturday, February 10, 2007

It's Been a Rough Year for Liberal Talk Radio

The past year has not been a good one for liberal talk radio. In the past 12 months, the format has seen a loss of 15 stations reaching a potential 13.6 million radio listeners. During this same time period, only two stations reaching 625,000 potential radio listeners started carrying the format.

So that means from February 1, 2006 to February 1, 2007 lib talk saw a decline of 13 radio stations or 20% and a decline of just under 13 million potential radio listeners or 16%.

In addition, during the past year, the lib talk format was also weakened by the Air America Radio bankruptcy, paltry ratings growth. (Conservative talk ratings were actually down by 3.7% over the past year,) and a "hands off" management style by station owners, especially Clear Channel, which has been cutting operational expenses and firing employees all over the country as they prepare to take the company private.

From April, 2004 when AAR started national program distribution until February, 2006, the lib talk universe grew from 0 to 64 full time stations -- that’s about 3.2 new stations per month and potential listeners grew from 0 to 82 million -- that’s about 4.1 million new potential listeners per month. However, since February 2006 it has been mostly downhill for lib talk.

Our analysis only identifies "full time" lib talk radio stations. These are stations that offer three or more liberal talk show hosts on weekdays and are operating in markets rated by Arbitron. The vast majority of these stations are Air America Radio affiliates. (Only three of these stations – WWKB, in Buffalo, KPHX in Phoenix, and KSAC in Sacramento do not offer any AAR programming.)

We define potential radio listeners as the number of people age 12+ who are able to listen to the stations on their radios. For example, Arbitron claims that there are 7,612,100 radio listeners in the Chicago market. Our analysis determined that only 4,000,000 of these listeners are able to tune in to Chicago’s lib talker WCPT (and only until the sun sets in the Windy City)!

We have also made an evaluation of how the loss of coverage has effected the lib talk ratings. We have determined that the loss of coverage has resulted in a 12% ratings decline. The reason that the loss of actual listeners is smaller than the loss of potential listeners is that most of the stations that dropped lib talk over the past year were under-performing.

This analysis does not include the performance of about a dozen full time lib talk stations that operate outside of all measured markets. It also does not include the performance of talk hosts on what we call "hybrid" stations – those that schedule two lib talk hosts on weekdays and "marginal" stations that offer one lib talk host. Most of the marginal lib talk stations are carrying Fox Radio talkers, which include their liberal punching bag, Alan Colmes. There are 31 hybrid stations and 118 marginals.

It goes without saying that full time lib talk stations are markedly inferior to most of the primary conservative talk stations operating in the same market. While the top conservative talk stations reach 100% of potential radio listeners in their primary market; the average lib talk station only potentially reaches 79%. Also while the average conservative station has measurable ratings in 2.1 adjacent markets, the average lib talk station only reaches 0.1 adjacent markets. In addition about half of lib talk stations have significant signal quality issues. For example, 55% of them are daytimers, which means that they literally go off the air at sundown and at least a dozen others have to significantly lower their power in the evening. Ironically, this is often done to accommodate the more powerful conservative news talker in the market.

In a follow up story, we will attempt to do a more complete analysis of the ratings recorded by lib talk stations since the launch of the format in April, 2004. We want to wait until the new owners take over at AAR and until the effect of Franken’s departure has been determined. We continue to have doubts about whether Thom Hartmann will be the permanent replacement for Franken’s slot.

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