Friday, August 1, 2008

If you're talking about Talk Radio, better be sure you have your facts correct

There is a lot of furor lately about talk radio--or hate radio as critics from Nancy Pelosi to Delawareliberal would have it--and the fact that conservative talk radio is a three-hundred-pound gorilla in the marketplace that is stifling balanced coverage of issues and locally oriented public-service programming. This leads into issues of how (not whether, but how in the minds of talk-radio critics) the perceived imbalance between conservative and progressive talk can be corrected through the Fairness Doctrine or other regulatory strategies.

One of the sources often cited by critics is the study jointly done by the Center for American Progress and the Free Press entitled The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio [June 2007]. This report makes a number of allegations regarding this imbalance, a few of which are excerpted here:

As this report will document in detail, conservative talk radio undeniably dominates the format:

Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive.

Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.

A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such
as New York and Chicago.

This dynamic is repeated over and over again no matter how the data is analyzed, whether one looks at the number of stations, number of hours, power of stations, or the number of programs. While progressive talk is making inroads on commercial stations, conservative talk continues to be pushed out over the airwaves in greater multiples of hours than progressive talk is broadcast.

I'd point out (and I'll substantiate this later) that the idea that there can only be two forms of political talk radio--conservative/progressive--is a false dichotomy.

The analysis quotation at the end of the excerpt is really interesting, too. "No matter how the data is analyzed" is then equated with looking at "the number of stations, number of hours, power of stations, or the number of programs, which carefully overlooks the key variable that any industry insider would want to know: market share. Why is market share excluded? We'll find out.

First, let's return to the report for a couple more excerpts:

In a separate analysis, we compiled a list of all 65 news/talk stations in each of the top 10 markets in the country as identified by Arbitron’s Radio Market Rankings from Spring 2007 (See Appendix C). Total conservative and progressive programming was then tabulated for the 65 stations across all 10 markets.


In four of the top 10 markets, progressive talk is broadcast only two hours or less each weekday (Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta). [The attached graphic--which I cannot reproduce for technical reasons--shows Philadelphia as having 100% conservative talk and no progressive talk.]


As our data shows, the norm under the existing market structure is for radio station licensees to broadcast only conservative talk, a pattern that holds true for more than 90 percent of the stations examined (236 stations out of 257).


Simply reinstating the Fairness Doctrine will do little to address the gap between conservative and progressive talk unless the underlying elements of the public trustee doctrine are enforced, in particular, the requirements of local accountability and the reasonable airing of important matters. The key principle here is not shutting down one perspective or another—it is making sure that communities are informed about a range of local and national public affairs.

Finally, here's the study data for Philadelphia:

Philadelphia, Pa

Station name/Location/Owner/Format/Signal Strength/Frequency/Conservative Hours/Progressive Hours
KYW-AM Philadelphia PA CBS Radio News 50,000/1060 0 0
WNTP-AM Philadelphia PA Salem Comm Talk 50,000/ 990 24 0
WPHT-AM Philadelphia PA CBS Radio Talk 50,000/1210 16.5 0
WYSP-FM Philadelphia PA CBS Radio Talk 16,000/ 94.1 0 0

The reported total is 40.5 Hours Conservative Talk; Zero Progressive Talk

Let's deconstruct this a bit.

First, according to the study, this data is drawn from the Spring 2007 Arbitron ratings. Truth in advertising: I haven't been able to find the Spring 2007 Arbitron ratings for Philadelphia on the net. I have found all the 2006 and the 2008 rating through June. The trends, however, are pretty clear, and I have high confidence in the information I'm going to give you here. But if you can find 2007 and it's significantly different--let me know.

Contrary to the Center for American Progress report, there are not four talk or news/talk format radio stations impacting the Philadelphia market, but seven. In other words, the CAP report ignored 43% of the talk radio stations in the market in asserting that conservative talk dominates the market. This seems a little problematic, and it gets worse when you actually look at the stations--both included and excluded.

KYW and WYSP are both irrelevant to the issues, as the CAP report tacitly acknowledges. Neither airs political talk radio as defined by the report (and WYSP has since dropped its talk format in favor of a rock format).

That means that the CAP report is basing its entire case in the nation's fifth largest radio market on two stations only: WPHT and WNTP, and both carry large amounts of conservative talk radio (but the percentages reported by CAP, as we shall see, questionable as well).

What about the stations ignored?

WHYY--an NPR affiliate that features significant progressive news and talk

WKXW--a New Jersey station featuring local talk that penetrates the Philadelphia market

WOR--a New York station featuring conservative talk that penetrates the Philadelphia market

WURD--a Philadelphia station highlighting itself as a Black progressive talk station

So, first let's look at market share from the Spring 06 and Spring 08 Arbitron ratings

Station/Spring 06 market share/Spring 08 market share
WPHT 3.3/4.5
WNTP 0.7/0.8
WHYY not listed/2.9
WKXW 1.0/1.1
WOR not listed/0.2
WURD below 0.1/0.2

So, first let's note that political talk radio, while it is a big format, it's not exactly dominating the radio airwaves. Combined, talk and news/talk radio stations in Philadelphia at its best has only a 9.7% market share in the City of Brotherly Love. Which means that 90.3% of all radio listeners ARE NOT LISTENING to any talk radio of any kind.

Now, back to the CAP Report and conservative talk.

I'd argue that WOR [the NY station] should be excluded as an outlier. WURD, on the other hand, has a steadily growing audience, and WKXW is just over the river in NJ and outpoints local conservative talker WNTP consistently in every poll in 2006 and 2008. Likewise, there's absolutely no reason to exclude WHYY, which has the second-largest market share of any news/talk or talk format station in the market.

Go visit the websites for WURD, WKXW, and WHYY.

WHYY appears to carry 4 hours per weekday of talk shows, all of which would be rated Progressive by the CAP report, for a total of 20 hours of Progressive Talk per week.

WURD appears to carry about 8 hours per weekday of talk shows, all of which would be rated Progressive by the CAP report, for a total of 40 hours of Progressive Talk per week.

WKXW is more difficult, having a local-oriented format that includes cooking and relationship shows, but my best guess is that at least 6 hours per weekday could be considered conservative talk radio by the CAP report, for a total of 30 hours of conservative talk radio.

Thus, if I were doing that analysis, unlike the CAP report, I would have listed the balance of conservative/progressive talk in the Philly market this way:

WPHT 16.5 hours Cons/0.0 hours Prog
WHYY 0.0 hours Cons/20 hours Prog
WNTP 24 hours Cons/0.0 hours Prog
WKXW 30 hours Cons/0.0 hours Prog
WURD 0.0 hours Cons/40 hours Prog
Total 70.5 hours Cons/60 hours Prog

If you eliminate WKXW and consider only Philadelphia licensed stations, then the totals change to 40.5 hours Conservative and 60 hours Progressive.

If you go by market share (using the 2008 numbers that give WPHT its highest market share) you get

Conservative talk stations (with WKXW): 6.4%
Conservative talk sations (without WKXW): 5.3%
Progressive talk stations: 3.1%

In other words, the CAP study suggesting that the dominance of Conservative Talk Radio in the Philly market is 100%-0.0% is (to use a technical term) full of shit if not an outright conscious distortion of the facts.

Moreover, it is fascinating to note that the CAP Report specifically lists Michael Smerconish and Dom Giordano (both local WPHT hosts) as Conservative. And both men are, by self-admission, politically conservative. However, to liken Smerconish and Giordano to Hannity, Savage, or Dr. Laura is simply ludicrous.

Both Smerconish and Giordano regularly cover local politics from all perspectives and almost always carry both liberal and conservative guests. [Listeners who only know Smerconish from his fill-ins for Glenn Beck or Bill Reilly should realize that his own show is quite different when unconstrained by the existing formats of the others.]

That's where the extreme lack of nuance on the part of the CAP Report comes in: if you're not progressive you can only be conservative or undefined.

And where does that leave self-proclaimed moderate Anthony Mazarelli who is now doing the evenings for WPHT that Dom Giordano used to host? Dr Maz represents--in purely political terms--a pretty significant swing back toward the center for the biggest Conservative Talker in Philly.

My point is this: as I have shown here, the CAP Report data for Philadelphia is highly suspect (and that's the nicest thing I can say about it). I lack the local knowledge to do similar research on LA, New York, or Chicago, but it certainly gives you pause.

Maybe conservative talk radio hosts aren't the only ones presenting their version of the truth without too much concern for objective data. Maybe there needs to be a Fairness Doctrine for industry research, or at least a mandatory, government-regulated fact check (snark) before these so-called public interest groups start hawking their opinions and Statist solutions as fact.

Oh, by the way, Michael Savage is still an a**hole.


Waldo Lydecker's Journal said...

I have a simple solution to the conservative talk shows. I don't listen to them. Neither do I listen to anything more "progressive" than NPR. Air America is as big a snooze of repetitious, self-righteous bores as anybody on the right.And if I stumble across something I disagree with, I hear it ot and disagree some more.

Anonymous said...

One fact dominates them all....

Which means that 90.3% of all radio listeners ARE NOT LISTENING to any talk radio of any kind.

So if 4 out of 10 are conservative... the means 96% are not listening to conservative radio..