From AJR,   October 1993

Radio Opts For Talk, News Takes A Walk   

King, Stern, Limbaugh, et al., are drowning out serious news.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

Although there are more AM and FM stations than ever, the audience is fragmented. Thousands of stations are struggling to survive. That has led many stations to devote less time to straight news and instead turn to local and syndicated talk shows to fill their schedules.

The concern of journalists is that talk shows are largely entertainment, not news.

Rush Limbaugh and Larry King are probably the best known practitioners. Although both deal with political and social issues – and sometimes generate headlines – they are essentially entertainers.

Many other talk show hosts are former disc jockeys now spinning words and opinions. Some, like "shock jocks" Don Imus and Howard Stern, feature vulgar insults and sexual comments.

Then there are the dozens of local talk show hosts who often are major celebrities in their home towns. Their programs may be serious and informative like the popular afternoon show in Boston conducted by Jerry Williams. Or they may attract large audiences with outrageous commentary.

The move toward producing local talk shows, or airing such syndicated programs as Limbaugh's and King's, has meant less time for news – and less need for staff. In the past 10 years, many stations have cut back or eliminated news, particularly on the AM spectrum. Some 4,000 radio news jobs have vanished in the last decade, according to studies conducted by professor Vernon Stone and sponsored by the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation and the University of Missouri.

In Indianapolis, WIBC-AM was for years the number one station with a robust, highly respected news department. However, as its ratings declined management began tinkering with the news. Three years ago it had a news department of nearly a dozen. Today, its staff is down to five and news coverage has suffered.

"WIBC was the station for news throughout most of Indiana, but no more," says Steve Hall, broadcast columnist for the Indianapolis Star. "Oh, you can still turn to 'IBC in times of crisis, like when a tornado hits. But, you just don't get everyday news anymore, like what's happening at city hall or the police blotter type of news."

To better compete against a country music format and a popular morning drive-time comedy team on local FM stations, WIBC switched to an all-talk format last January. It's a mix of local and syndicated shows, tilting to the political right and including Rush Limbaugh.

"The talk format is cheap," says longtime radio news executive Frank Barnako, now with USA Today Sky Radio, a news service for airplanes. "Talk radio has been around for years. But it's satellite technology that has made talk radio so hot. Now, national shows such as Limbaugh, Imus and Stern can be economically delivered anywhere by satellites. In some cases, it may be more profitable to carry a syndicated show than a local one, depending on how much a station has to pay for the syndicated program."

Tyler Cox, operations manager at WBAP-AM in Dallas who has helped run news-talk stations in Sacramento, Boston and Washington, maintains that "talk can be done efficiently and effectively without hurting or cutting back on news. Talk and news can complement each other, but stations that do talk without much news are probably not the news information leaders in their markets."

Not only are talk shows crowding out news, some purists fear that the worst elements of talk radio are spreading rapidly into the newscasts that remain.

A former news director at a station once respected for its coverage cringes as he recalls meetings with managers who wanted to "contemporize" the news.

"They hammered away at me about why we did business news, saying nobody cares," says the ex-news director, who asked not to be identified. "They wanted to hear more news about Jay Leno and less about the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center."

Wayne Vriesman voices the same complaint. "Too often stories are being selected to entertain and titillate," says Vriesman, vice president of radio for Tribune Broadcasting and chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters. "That type of newscast may fascinate a portion of our audience but the newscast neglects the important news of the day..."

Fortunately, there is still a lot of traditional, no-nonsense news on the radio. All-news stations continue to thrive in most metropolitan areas, and just about every American town has at least one station committed to serious, straight news.

What's troubling is that the continued proliferation of talk radio and its focus on entertainment may persuade more and more stations to de-emphasize, or eliminate, serious news in their quest for higher ratings. l