Seminar reveals future of talk radio

Talk how host Al Franken was one of the many industry figures who attended the seminar.
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

NEW YORK CITY In the near future, you may have more than your favorite music on your Apple IPod or other MP3 player you also might have your favorite talk show as well.

And talk shows will also be coming to your FM dial.

The present and future state of the talk radio industry was discussed in depth at the eighth annual New Media Seminar in New York City last Friday and Saturday. Presented by Springfield-based Talkers magazine, the trade publication of the talk radio industry, the two-day event was attended by several hundred corporate executives, programmers and on-air personalities.

Talkers estimates that there are over 4,000 people on the air in this country with some sort of spoken word or talk program. In the Springfield radio market, there are three stations, WHYN AM, WMAS AM and WHMP AM with a political/ social talk format and one with a sports talk format, WNNZ AM.

With more and more younger people turning to the Internet for news and information, industry analyst Holland Cooke urged the audience to offer their shows as MP3 files on their web sites.

Cooke asked the audience to consider how many IPods and other MP3 players they see being used. These people are not listening to radio, but to their own selection of music, when and where they want to, he said.

Cooke explained that radio programmers should see the popularity of IPods as both a threat and as an opportunity. MP3 players are both "time-shifting" and "place-shifting" devices. Like VCRs and TiVOs do for television, MP3 players could allow audiences to listen to a radio show when they like. Unlike those audio devices, MP3 players are portable as well.

There are no Federal Communications Commission rules about "podcasting," noted Cooke. Anything could be discussed and marketed to a specific audience.

There are already people producing their own amateur podcasts, he said, offering them on their own web sites for downloading. Cooke said the quality of these broadcasts varies and one commercial radio station, KYCY AM in San Francisco, is now broadcasting nothing but submitted podcasts. Whether or not the podcasts have found a general audience is too soon to tell.

Cooke believes that every professional host should consider making their broadcasts available for this new medium.

On another panel, it was noted there are now one billion cell phones worldwide that can play podcasts.

Talk has become a preferred format at many AM stations with music having long since moved to the FM frequencies to take advantage of stereo broadcasting and better sound reproduction, but now many FM stations are establishing talk formats, as discussed at one panel at the conference.

The reason for the change in programs is to capture listeners who are tired of the music stations that have similar play lists or formats. Ross Rollins, a host on FM station WTKS in Orlando, FL, described how his show started out as a paid advertisement for his party store heard on the weekend. It evolved into a comedy and talk program that became so popular it was moved onto the weekday schedule and is now a ratings champ.

Mancow, a host on WKQX FM in Chicago, was also on the panel. His show has attracted the listeners who would have normally listened to Howard Stern and is about to be syndicated nationally.

He noted that too many stations in the same area decide to feature the same artists and listeners tune out.

The future for AM radio, according to Jack Swanson, the program director for KGO AM in San Francisco, may be in foreign language and religious broadcasts.

The value of local versus national programming was also discussed at the seminar with former Springfield talk host Dan Yorke, now at WPRO of Providence, stating that his listeners' response to his station proves a good local talk show can draw more listeners than a nationally syndicated show. Yorke said that one problem is that program directors have "lost their courage" in wanting to find and support local hosts.

Yorke's statements were backed up by research presented by Cooke that what people like most about radio is local content.

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