Traditional Talk Radio Fading Out Corporations Seek Greener Formats (October 27, 1990)

If it seems quieter in South Florida, it is. Fewer people are yelling at their radios, and fewer talk show hosts are screaming back. This week’s demise of news-talk programming on WNWS (790 AM) ends an era of issue-intensive, English-language talk radio in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market.

WIOD (610 AM) remains, but the hosts on that station favor entertainment, gags and banter over serious topics. Listeners who want to debate issues with expert guests must turn to national, satellite-broadcast talk shows, those few that remain.

About five years ago, four English-language news/talk stations — WIOD, WNWS, WGBS and WINZ — fought, clawed and spat for the Miami-Fort Lauderdale AM market. Now, there is no more radio war: WINZ went all-news, WGBS just plain went.

Gloomy pundits say we have become a nation of apathetic busybodies: We don’t vote. We don’t listen. We don’t care.

Others say it’s just a phase.

“There’s always a market for great talk. There may be no market for mediocre talk,” says Steve Kane, a veteran South Florida talk show host who, after a year’s hiatus, will bring his bombastic issues-heavy show to WFTL (1400 AM), essentially a Broward-only station, on Nov. 5.

But radio experts say the decline of hometown talk radio — hosted by personalities who know local politics, issues and concerns — is nationwide. It’s a side effect of a new generation of out-of-town corporate owners.

“We’re seeing cost-conscious owners look at the bottom line with a big microscope,” says Tom Taylor, managing editor of the industry trade newsletter Inside Radio. “They want the biggest return for their investment.”

Al Rantel, former morning host on WNWS, says Jefferson Pilot, the station’s Charlotte, N.C.-based owner, “was obviously not committed to doing talk radio. When you don’t promote and you don’t do the kinds of things you have to do to win — and you don’t want to win — then the returns start to diminish.”

WNWS represents the second talk radio format abandoned by Jefferson Pilot in the market. After its news/talk format failed on WGBS (710 AM) in 1985, the company sold the station to Miami- based Mambisa Broadcasting and moved its format to WNWS. Mambisa changed WGBS to WAQI-Radio Mambi, a Spanish-language talk station.

There’s another kind of commitment — “the kind of commitment that you have when you’re dealing with controversy,” Rantel says. Corporations have to be willing to stand behind hosts when the community protests their shows.

Rantel cites the example of Jack Thompson, the Coral Gables attorney and anti-obscenity activist, who complained to Jefferson Pilot about topics on Rantel’s show.

“Whenever I did anything on the air that was sexually oriented, he would send a fax up to Charlotte and there would be hell to pay in Miami,” Rantel says.

When Thompson attacked WIOD, Rantel notes, that station’s parent company, Cox Broadcasting, stood its ground.

Rantel says WNWS’ new format of nostalgia hits — delivered via satellite from a company in Colorado Springs, Colo. — is the “nice, cheap, simple, uncontroversial format they wanted.”

Jefferson Pilot, because it allowed Rantel and other hosts to bid farewell on the air Thursday, “is a class operation, but they don’t belong in talk radio, and I hope they never do it again,” he says.

Beyond the controversy, talk radio is expensive to operate. After stations sign lucrative contracts with hosts and pay news gatherers, they sometimes find that ad revenue runs short.

And then there are demographics surveys, which tell stations what age groups are listening. AM-band stations generally attract 54-and-older listeners, less desirable to advertisers than younger people.

If you want to find a different consumer, radio insiders say, you change the product.

“Traditional” talk radio is passe, says WIOD’s Neil Rogers, who hit a ratings gusher of young listeners in 1986 when he made his style less topic-intensive and more titillating.

Issues-heavy talk “is history. It’s burned out,” Rogers says. “Too many of the same old topics and same old callers.”

Not necessarily, says WNWS General Manager Dennis Collins.

“What we’re seeing is that the marketplace said: ‘We are not as interested today in the kind of talk that you do as we were four or five years ago,’ ” Collins says.

But at the same time, Collins says the competition — not just from radio, but television — has increased. Listeners who used to get their fix from radio can tune in Donahue, Sally, Oprah and others — not to mention cable talk shows.

So, radio stations “have got to be better than ever,” says Inside Radio’s Taylor, who adds VCRs and rented movies to the list of listener distractions.

“Radio just has to create — like television, like any medium — better programming.”

By Juan Carlos Coto  Copyright (c) 1990 The Miami Herald