26 February 2010

Think Locally, Listen Nationally: Tumult in Talk Radio

Glenn Beck has a home again in New York's Capital District. Readers will recall that the radio idol of many Tea Partiers lost his spot in my area when the company that owned his station changed the format from talk to simulcast music. That decision provoked a protest outside the station office, compelling management to explain that ratings and expenses forced them to switch formats. At the time, I assumed that someone would snap up the rights to Beck, and the deed has been done. Ironically, it's been done in a way that will probably provoke more protests while possibly repeating the error that cost Beck his last local home.

WGY, which already carries Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, has picked up the Beck program. To make room for Beck, the station has fired a popular local talker, Al Roney. Ironically, in light of Beck's prestige among Tea Partiers, Roney was a major local publicist for the movement and a prominent presence at local Tea Parties. So far, the move has angered more fans of Roney than it has pleased fans of Beck. You can see their reactions in the comments section of the article I've linked to.

If you think about it, there's no reason for anyone to think that sacrificing Roney to gain Beck is a fair exchange. As many of the comments note, Beck's fans can see him on Fox News and on the Internet, while Roney's only home, for all intents and purposes, was the local radio station. Roney's fans presumably don't object to Beck getting back on local radio, but feel that it shouldn't have been at Roney's expense. They want local talk, conservative or tea-partyish, that's relevant to New York State and the Capital District -- material that Beck obviously can't provide.

Some observers see the turnover as a typical move on the part of WGY's ownership -- Clear Channel. This much despised entity is supposed to be dedicated to as much nationally syndicated content and as little local content as possible, for reasons of expense if not also to use the syndicated talkers to lay down some kind of national ideological line. This presumed strategy works on the assumption that the national talkers are the main attraction for any local station. But the local radio market seems to expose flaws in this strategy. Despite having Beck in its lineup, WROW had to abandon talk in part because much of the local talk audience had followed a popular local talker from WROW to another station. That's why Beck was available in the first place. By sacrificing another popular local talker for Beck's sake, Clear Channel could well repeat the mistake, especially if Roney turns up at another station. WGY can't necessarily depend on loyalty to its syndicated lineup of talkers. As the comments note, fans of Limbaugh can listen to him online, while fans of Hannity can watch him on TV as well. The only audience truly captive to radio, apart from technophobes and the very poor, are the people who like to listen to talk in their cars. But would they rather listen to a local or a national talker? There's no automatic answer, since some local people probably are obsessed with national politics to the exclusion of local concerns. Nevertheless, localism appeared to win one round in my locale, and the next round is about to start.


Anonymous said...

I think it would be a wise move on the part of local public radio to scoop up Roney. They are already mainly a talk format during the day and it might garner them some support from the right as well as showing that public radio, at least, is willing to be bi-partisan. Either way, it does a little more damage to the credibility of corporate-owned media among the right-wingers. Maybe it could be used as leverage to break up the clear channel's near monopoly in this area.

hobbyfan said...

WGDJ (formerly WQBK-AM) is Paul Vandenberg's new home, and as this game of musical chairs continues, Roney will go there next. His departure leaves WGY with just their morning show (Don Weeks, a local icon) as the only locally produced product they have during the day, insofar as I know, on weekdays.

Don't we all wish that syndicated radio meant a reincarnation of classic old time radio?

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't listen to radio, but if I did, then the answer would be a resounding NO!