The story broke last week…
…and as you might expect, it went viral.
A woman from the Dallas area, Brandy Bottone (pictured), was pulled over by the police last week. Why? She was driving by herself in the HOV lane. In Dallas, that's a $275 ticket.
It might have been a great story. If radio covered it.
But how many stations and radio personalities looked at the story, and chose to leave it on the cutting room floor because of the potential controversy it would stir up among the least tolerant cumers?
Welcome to Radio 2022, where only conservative talk stations would dare to go there.
I also noted there's not a GoFundMe page to help Ms. Bottone pay for that ticket and any legal fees incurred if she chooses to argue it in court. Under “normal” circumstances, that might make a great bit.
But these are not “normal circumstances. Far from it.
In last year's AQ3, radio's only research study dedicated to air talent, we asked this agree/disagree question:
“I'm concerned about covering topics that may offend certain members of the station audience/my audience.”
It will come as no surprise to you that women on the air and personalities on music stations are most hesitant to include stories that might upset or rile the cume. AQ4 launches tomorrow, and this question will be repeated for tracking purposes. My expectation is the results here in 2022 will resemble this chart – or perhaps, might even discourage talent and their PDs to shy away from anything that might cause turbulence.
Here we are at the midpoint of the year, and once again, politics is in the air.
Many states still have primaries coming up in the next several weeks. And the midterm election will be here in the blink of an eye. Analysts estimate that before all is said and done, nearly $8 billion will end up being spent during this cycle. Television stations, as always, will reap the benefits as they always do. But broadcast radio is also in a position to take in mountains of cash, especially based on the results of the 2020 election.
I blogged about this on several occasions back in 2020 as Joe Biden utilized radio rather extensively two years ago in his run against Donald Trump. It appeared to work – he got elected, after all – but not across the board. Despite placing substantial buys on Latino-targeted stations, the Biden campaign fell well short of its goals with this community. And according to a recent story in the New York Times, his credibility gap with that community has only widened.
As we head into yet another volatile political season, it's clear there will be no shortage of taking stands – controversial ones – during radio station stopsets, that is. That's the place when multiple commercials will likely be political ads for incumbents, up-and-comers, radicals, hardcore conservatives, progressives, and every proposition imaginable. But only a handful of music radio stations will actually speak out on those same issues during the other 50 minutes (give or take) an hour).
Except on conservative talk stations, of course.
Last week, The New York Times ran a controversial story breaking down “misinformation” on these radio stations, and how it goes unaddressed by anyone – the FCC, companies that own these stations, etc.
The story – “On Conservative Radio, Misleading Message Is Clear: ‘Democrats Cheat'” – by Stuart A. Thompson beaks down how some stations all over this country are unafraid to take controversial stands, especially when it comes to the Trump playbook: the election was stolen, the other party rigged the election, etc. You know the tropes.
And commentators on MSNBC, CNN, and in papers like the Times and the Washington Post lament how so many Americans buy these arguments – lock, stock and barrel.
I think the answer's simple:
Despite it's sagging engagement and influence in many quarters, radio – especially of the conservative talk variety – holds sway with millions of Americans.
Better put, it is their army of personalities, from Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Ben Shapiro on the national level, as well as scores on local stations from sea to shining sea whose microphones still very much matter.
Here's the money quote from Thompson:
“Radio remains perhaps the most influential conduit for right-wing thought, despite the rise of podcasts and social media. Tens of millions of people nationwide, especially older Americans and blue-collar workers, listen to it regularly…Talk radio is also uniquely difficult to analyze and harder to moderate, because the on-air musings from hosts usually disappear over the airwaves in an instant.”
So why doesn't it work both ways?
It sure does on cable news, where you don't need a scorecard to know where Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN stand politically. When asked why there isn't the liberal equivalent of Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Dana Loesch on AM and FM radio stations, pundits will tell you the uprising and vitriol that would come spewing from the other side would be tsunami-like. Or that liberals just won't listen to talk, even if it supports their politics.
Yet, somehow on television and in print, it works just fine. Same with the late night hosts, many of whom have been pointedly critical of the MAGA crowd and its leadership. Kimmel, Fallon, Colbert, Oliver, Noah, Bee, and others pull no punches in their monologues and bits. Or SNL.
While Bill Maher may be shifting his political venom, he has historically sarcastically blasted the entire spectrum on his “Real Time” commentary show. No matter what he says, viewers are still subscribing to HBO (and now HBO Max). In fact, even in a more competitive video streaming environment, their numbers are impressively rising.
How do left-wingers in other media pull it off, but never on commercial radio? I have had this conversation with many bright radio people over the years, and some say the late night crowd and political humor shows have great writers, legions of talented people who can write witting jokes, one-liners, and bits. But somehow all those local conservative hosts make out just fine without great writers or even skilled producers. Their ideologies carry the content.
Some will also point to the failure of Air America as proof positive liberals won't support radio with a firm left-leaning position. If you remember, that network was positioned as radio's antidote to Rush.
Air America had a six-year run (2004-10), and some shows attracted 1 million+ listeners each week. Hosts included talented people you've heard of – Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, Ron Reagan, Jr., and even Marc Maron. The talent was there, but the network had all sorts of off-the-court issues, including financial setbacks.
But many have concluded that Air America's inability to sustain itself is proof positive liberals won't support a radio product. Back in 2019, I watched Randy Michaels address the “Talk Show Boot Camp.” Many credit Randy with creating the conservative talk model in Cincinnati.
But he made the case that a liberal product ought to work just as well. It just happened to be a a better fit for southern Ohio (Kentucky) listeners back in the day. Still, the crowd watching Randy speak was primarily made up of older white guys – the same demographics that have made talk radio in the U.S. what it is today.
And that bring us back to Music Radio Programming 101 – the part of the content strategy that dictates avoiding controversy at all costs. The conventional wisdom is that American society is so polarized that consumers don't listen to the radio to engage in political discourse. Instead, they tune into music radio stations for escape – to get away from the crossfire of anger and finger-pointing.
Some might also say that's what NPR and public radio are all about. And while it is abundantly true its audience has a hard left lean, programs like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” and hosts like Terry Gross and Steve Inskeep go out of their respective way to remain centered, fair, and nonpartial.
Does it work? Of course, that's in the ear of the beholder, but stylistically, public radio personalities and conservative talk hosts couldn't be further apart on the presentation spectrum. You'd never mistake Dan Bongino's style for Peter Sagal's snark (host of “Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me!” and pictured here).
But at the end of the political day, does it matter? What's the cost of music radio avoiding controversial topics? And if personalities on rock or AC stations ventured into some of these issues, what would be the cost?
Right now, two of the biggest – and most controversial issues – are on the tips of many tongues. At coffee shops, bars, card games, and barbeques, people are talking about abortion and guns. Why on earth would anyone on the air at a music station wander into these war zones?
Well, for starters, a majority of Americans are pretty clear about their feelings. Unlike many controversies that are divided right down the center, there are clearly majorities lined up on both issues:
So, what's the problem? Program directors of music stations are understandably hesitant to allow these conversations on the air. In spite of their currency and timeliness, personalities and their stations that have created no expectations for this type of content would most likely be disappointed if they started now. In these cases, it is hard to justify a 180° turn from talking about the Rolling Stones to Roe v. Wade.
All these decisions should be done in concert with the station's core team, and in many cases, ownership. There's a lot on the line reputationally, as well as with revenue. These are highly nuanced calculations that require research, in-depth brand knowledge, and a deep understanding of the audience.
That was why I sat up when I saw a suprising story about a Classic Rock station in Boise, Idaho – 96.9 The Eagle. Actually, the story appeared in two very different publications, the Idaho Statesman, the main newspaper in the state, owned by McClatchy. And the Eagle story was also covered by LGBTQ Nation, a site that's been in operation since 2010.
What's the story all about? This:
As Statesman reporter Michael Deeds notes, the Eagle appears to be your standard issue Classic Rock station – rock girls front and center on the station homepage, Bob & Tom in the morning, and core artists that include Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Queen.
But for the last two years, KKGL has changed out its regular logo on June 1st in honor of Pride Month. In a fire engine red state like Idaho, you can only imagine the breadth of reactions – many of them negative.
And in response, the Eagle fired back with this message on Facebook:
In case you're wondering, that defiant post has generated more than 4,000 comments along with nearly that many shares.
Given this is the second year in a row KKGL has taken the same stance, you won't be surprised to learn their Facebook page has amassed nearly 387,000 follows and close to 380,000 likes. That's well more than twice as many Facebook fans as any rock station has in New York, L.A., and Chicago.
(I would be remiss if I didn't let you now the spring Nielsen book ran until June 22.)
I am not neither criticizing nor am I endorsing the Eagle's tactics or their commitment. I don't know their brand equity or their relationship with their audience. But I do admire their spirit and their courage.
Should your station or leading personality undertake something similar?
Yes. No. I don't know.
There is no pat answer, especially if taking a stand about the issues of the day runs counter to what your audience expects from you. On the other hand, could you cover a story like the pregnant woman in the HOV lane. Maybe you can. But it still needs to be well-played. Does it become a punchline, a jump ball, or something else entirely?
In other words, this type of content requires quite a bit more forethought and prep than another round of “Second Date Update.”
So proceed with caution…much caution. And maybe at the end of the day, you're better off doing “War of the Roses.' There's no shame in that.
Knowing yourself, knowing your station, knowing your audience.
These are the content building blocks that will either greenlight content or shut it down.
But I do believe this….
The broadcast radio industry – especially on the other side of the talk coin and on music stations – has left audience and money on the table. Other media prove there's a “there there” each and every campaign and election cycle.
We are only becoming more politicized as a society, like it or not.
That's something to talk about.
Thanks, Dave Beasing.