September 2006

What would help is intelligent talk - but would it "rate" with advertisers?

What would help is intelligent talk - but would it "rate" with advertisers?

Talk - common perceptions: Are they correct?

Regularly we read in American media about the failure of "liberal" or "progressive" talk and the success of "right-wing talk" on radio but it is nearly all comment with a political agenda, generally crowing from the right about their success whilst decrying the chances of success for the first whilst on the other side decrying the qualities of right-wing talk and hand-wringing about the need for - but fears about the potential success of - the latter.

The announcement this month that Arbitron is now to rate non-commercial stations may well put a different perspective on the matter in that should public radio broadcasts be shown to be up there in the ratings with commercial offerings, the arguments will be against a background of more evidence and less bias.

The potential effect.

The results of those ratings will have a speedy effect if it is shown that public radio talk rates up with the ranters as perceptions of what the audience want will have changed. That, however, may not have that much effect on commercial stations should the demographic that public radio appeals to is shown to be predominantly elderly in that this demographic is considered less attractive - presumably they spend their money more carefully, even if they have more, and are less swayed by trite messages and images.

Thus successful public radio that appeals to the elderly is likely, in our view, to attract sponsors and underwriters to public stations - maybe taking some funds from commercial ones - but not change talk on commercial radio.
If however public radio talk were found to have significant appeal to the desired younger demographic then we foresee more likelihood of changes in commercial radio.

To begin with it will diminish the perceived value of the partisan ranters - most of the right-wing talk hosts in our view being in this category as are many Air America hosts. It will thus strengthen those on right and left who offer a more considered viewpoint - ones who spring to mind from limited listening include Bill Bennett from the right and Ed Schultz from the left.

Likely effect on programming.

The effects on immediate perceptions will take a while to be translated into programming changes whilst the bean-counters get out their calculators, work out how much money is at stake and what changes would cost and, probably even more significant to begin with, how far tinkering with the existing can allow them to avoid any major changes. That would be part of an evolutionary progress rather than revolutionary change but the end result could still be similar.

From our initial headline it will be clear that we regard much talk as anything but intelligent and to those who would disagree, we suggest recording some programming and then researching the topic that was under discussion: We would expect that this will produce a much better informed listener, one who is more sceptical of the pronouncements of oracles whom even a little knowledge will show to be either ignorant or wilfully bigoted or both.

Even without people going to the trouble to do research - something we consider valuable in itself anyway - should programming start to swing away from the strident to the more considered and allow intelligent consideration of more than one option as opposed to simply leading to party-partisan and strident propaganda, the changes will have been valuable.

And if there is little change?

Even if little changes, either because ratings show that not enough people want to learn and challenge their prejudices but would rather have them confirmed by listening to the like-minded or because the finances of change are not attractive, nothing is lost.

At the same time nothing is gained. That would in our view be both a pity for any society and a shame for one that terms itself a democracy.
We rather hope that the ratings do show a greater audience for more considered and less strident talk and maybe even lead to some changes in approach from various hosts.

The overall effect of including the non-commercial in the ratings whatever the end can but be a plus in giving people more information on what they should base programming decisions - and if you don't like the results you either have to accept that as the current reality and try and change things or do an ostrich act.

Roll on the inclusion of satellite in US ratings!

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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