Radio execs hear that audiences respond to local programming

Rock 102's Michael Baxendale and John O'Brien were among the presenters at this year's New Media Seminar in New York City.
Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs
March 24, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- At the 13th annual New Media Seminar, conducted March 19 and 20, radio show hosts and programming executives debated whether or not the local talk show host was a dying breed.

According to William Handel, the talk host who dominates the ratings in the Los Angeles, Calif., market, the era of local radio personalities discussing the local issues that affects audiences is at an end.

Every speaker didn't embrace Handel's assertions, though, as many of the attendees believe the survival of the medium is embracing locally originated programming.

Talkers Magazine, the trade magazine for the talk show industry which is published by Longmeadow resident Michael Harrison in Springfield, presented the two-day convention.

In the Greater Springfield area, the stations follow a national model of having local morning hosts followed by syndicated programming. Bill Dwight at WHMP has the only area weekday standalone talk show from 9 to 10 a.m.

Handel said, "It's sort of rough to see an exciting medium disappear before our eyes."

Handel said it is too expensive to operate a station with all local programming.

"To have all local programs is simply an impossibility," he added.

The practice of stations accepting paid infomercials -- something many speakers said was becoming more and more common -- marks the "death knell" of radio, Handel said. He called the doctors, lawyers and others who buy a half-hour or hour of time to tout their businesses as "egomaniacs" who leave radio when they find the lengthy commercials are not making money for them.

Part of the problem is that radio stations no longer have local or regional ownership as they once did, he explained.

"The mom and pops chose good radio as long as they were making a good living," he said.

"When done right local radio works," Handel added.

Handel's conclusions were refuted by a panel of local talk show hosts from around the country in a spirited discussion led by former Springfield talk radio host Dan Yorke, now a fixture at WPRO in Providence, R.I.

Yorke went down the line of hosts quizzing them about their effectiveness as "revenue agents" who actively work to bring revenue into their stations.

"You should not get before the radio [microphone] if you can't sell," Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels and a long-time New York City talk show host, said. Sliwa is currently heard over WNYM.

Michelle Jerson, who has a relationship advice show on WKXW in Trenton, N.J., spoke of not only meeting with sponsors to help close ad deals but also arranging for special events such as cruises that bring money into the station.

Yorke and the panel noted their local shows actually sell more local ads for their stations than nationally syndicated programming such as that of superstar Rush Limbaugh.

The hosts also attested to the strength of local radio hosts. Larry Young of WOLB in Baltimore, Md., noted his station has the reputation of being the audience's watchdog in city hall.

Heidi Harris of KDWN in Las Vegas, Nev., recounted how she effectively questioned claims made in ads for Sen. Harry Reid's recent reelection bid. Harris, and other hosts at the seminar, said news sources come to local radio talk show hosts because of the decline in the reporting of local news by daily newspapers and television stations.

Throughout the two days, speakers urged seminar attendees to embrace the new technological tools the Internet offers them. Holland Cooke, an East Longmeadow native and a radio consultant for McVay Media, presented a list of opportunities for radio hosts from podcasting to blogging to using services such as YouTube and creating products to sell from with no inventory to buy.

Vic Capone, a spokesperson for Apple, noted he doesn't listen or watch anything in "real time." He uses iTunes to download movies, music, television shows and radio podcasts and said the millions of iTunes downloads attest he is not the only person with this habit.

Other high tech services the broadcasters heard about included Paltalk, which allows hosts to stream video from their studios and manage text and chat rooms with members of their audience for immediate feedback, and the Tricaster, a mini-television control board that radio hosts are using for the easy production of video.

With the opportunities offered by Web services, such as -- at which 10,000 people currently have their own talk radio programs with only a computer, some kind of microphone and an Internet connection the question is how to attract listeners to a show or host.

As many of the speakers said, ultimately it all comes down to the broadcasting talent of the host, understanding his or her subject and more importantly, the needs of the audience.

Laurie Cantillo, the program director for WABC in New York, said for a station to succeed it "must be great all the day."

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