Lend them your ears

Radio is thriving with controversial talk shows, the more extreme the better

Attention is better than invention. That's largely the trend in radio syndication today as stations and syndicators opt for more-extreme versions of controversial radio personalities.

As radio executives begin filling New Orleans for the National Association of Broadcasters Radio Show, they're likely to agree that the biggest splash these days comes from Opie & Anthony, whose success in Boston and then New York put the show on the syndication road via Westwood One, which reportedly pays its two raunchy talk jocks $30 million for three years. Likewise, Infinity Broadcasting may be close to signing raucous Chicago personality Eric "Mancow" Muller to a syndication deal.

But those radio personalities are largely extreme mutations of Howard Stern and Don Imus. Industry executives say radio lacks the kind of breakthrough innovations that broadcast networks have conjured up with reality TV (stolen from Europe or MTV) or, to a lesser degree, game shows (reinvented or stolen from England).

"Stations looked at the success [of Stern], and they saw their music audience was dropping off. So how do you do more of what Howard is doing?" asks Premiere Radio Senior Vice President of Programming Gregory Noack.

"Sadly, conformity is the big trend," says radio consultant Holland Cooke. "Shows viewed as cutting-edge, younger and hot degenerate into a couple of Beavis and Butt-head guys chortling at what each other said."

Cooke believes syndication needs fresh female personalities. Dr. Laura Schlessinger's popularity is waning (her short-lived TV show probably didn't help), and some programmers say she's past her prime.

Right now, stations are finding that extreme talk cuts through the clutter. So talk hosts whose style is way over the edge are this year's flavor.

"A good host is one who is opinionated, no matter what the opinion is," Westwood One's chief executive Joel Hollander says.

While other forms of talk radio skew older, extreme talk reaches a desirable 18- to 34-year-old male demographic. Opie & Anthony
plays on 22 stations, mostly in large cities, but radio execs believe the appeal extends to Middle America.

"Opie and Anthony say the things guys are thinking but can't say. They can play anywhere," said Pat Paxton, vice president of programming at Entercom, the fifth-largest station group.

Hollander's Westwood One, which is managed by Infinity Broadcasting and falls under the Viacom Inc. umbrella, has the lock on extreme talkers, syndicating Opie & Anthony, Don & Mike, Imus, and Tom Leykis. Separately, Infinity also syndicates Stern.

The industry's other major suppliers, Premiere Radio Networks (owned by Clear Channel Communications, the country's largest station group) and ABC Radio, have big-name political, advice and commentary shows. Premiere syndicates The Rush Limbaugh Show
and Dr. Laura. Earlier this summer, Premiere signed Limbaugh to syndication's richest contract, an eight-year deal worth a reported $250 million, plus a $35 million signing bonus.

ABC's franchise personalities include radio legend Paul Harvey, sports columnist and author Mitch Albom, and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity. Hannity got his radio start on ABC Radio's New York station and, last week, ABC signed him to a five-year syndication deal. He will begin a radio show heard on six ABC-owned stations on Sept. 10.

Hannity's path is common. Syndicators often use local affiliates as a farm system to develop new talent. Both Albom and Hannity spent several years on ABC flagship stations, and Westwood One did the same thing with political pundit Laura Ingram. ABC, Westwood One and Premiere have an advantage over smaller independent syndicators, such as United Stations, because their affiliations with station groups provide a natural outlet for testing programming.

What alternative approaches might bubble up? Consultant Cooke points to Vancouver, B.C.-based Rhona Raskin, a syndicated writer and radio host who advises listeners on relationships, love and sex. "She's Dr. Laura without the snarling. She's like a non-judgmental older sister." Raskin's evening show is syndicated by Talk America on about 100 stations in the U.S. and Canada.

"What's missing is the opposite of Rush," Cooke muses. "A she, not a he. Engaging, approachable and not condescending."