Monday, March 22, 2010

First installment of my coverage of the 2010 New Media Seminar

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine – a man ahead of his time

Former CNN anchor and now syndicated talk host Lou Dobbs, who delivered the annual First Amendment speech and urged people not to succumb to political correctness and not to tone down their remarks. Would he have approved then of my telling him I think he's full of crap?

Hosts from my 'hood – Bax and O'Brien of WAQY Rock 102

During the talk host rumble, Steve Malzberg of WOR (appropriately on the right) and syndicated host and actor Phil Hendrie frequently found themselves shouting over and at one another. Malzberg repeatedly called the president a "communist."

I really think liberal talk show shots liberal Randi Rhodes and Bill Preiss were genuinely appalled at times at what they heard from the conservatives on the panel.

Once again at the invitation of Michael Harrison I got to be the only local reporter, perhaps the only print reporter who attended his New Media Seminar, his 13th convention for the talk radio industry.

I love the medium and look back on my five years as a talk host – 1982- 1987 – very fondly, despite the low pay – $5 an hour and $1.75 per endorsed live spot. I was the house liberal and as it was during the Reagan years, I received the best hate mail.

My favorite endorsed commercial was for "Cold Stick," a plastic tube that you kept in the freezer filled with anti-freeze. When you had an attack of hemorrhoids you lubed it up and placed it for all natural drug-free relief. Really. I ain't making this up.

When done right local talk is a powerful and entertainment medium. The problem is the large corporations that have bought talk stations over the past 20 years jettisoned local talk for far less expensive syndicated programming. It was great to hear that stations with local talk are making money.

I'm putting together a video of the annual talk rumble, but now here is what I wrote for our newspapers:

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 host 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. Handel 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 the 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 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, Mass., 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 that 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 – where 10,000 people currently have their own talk radio program 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.”

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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