News, Talk and Sports are the formats saving AM radio in the 1990s. FM's superior fidelity not only makes it better for music, it makes it better for the human voice as well. However, because broadcasters use FM primarily for music, AM has been able to carve out a niche for itself with formats that are not dependent upon high fidelity.
There are several formats that fall into the News/Talk category. They include: All-News, News/Talk, All-Talk, and Sports-Talk.
The concept of talk on the radio is not very revolutionary. Early broadcasters discovered that by putting telephone callers on the air they could create programs. In fact talk was among the experimental programs aired by Charles D. "Doc" Herrold and his students in San Jose, California in 1910. In the 1950s the telephone system underwent an upgrade. With the improved sound quality of the telephone, many adult stations began airing two-way conversations in an effort to boost ratings. People like to hear themselves.
The first station to air All-Talk was KABC in Los Angeles in 1960. The All-News format followed soon after in 1961 when Gordon McLendon started XETRA. "Extra" (taken from the old newspaper term) as the station was called broadcast from Tijuana, Mexico on 690AM a "Mexican clear channel." (These stations operated at extremely high power and were referred to as as "border blasters.") XETRA's signal reached into Los Angeles. With McLendon's arrival, Top 40 XEAK, the "Mighty 690" became "X-TRA News Over Los Angeles." The station later moved to 1090AM. McLendon later tried another talk format KADS, Los Angeles in 1967. The all-classified-ads format. It lasted less than a year.
McLendon's all-news format however, did catch on. In 1964, McLendon brought the format to WNWS ("News") Chicago. A year later the format came to New York in April 1965 when WINS owned by Westinghouse left the top40 ratings war with WABC and WMCA and converted to the All-News format. KYW-AM also owned by Westinghouse Philadelphia also became all-news in 1965. WCBS-AM launched a nationally oriented all-news format using the resources of the CBS network in 1967.
The News/Talk hybrid first appeared on KGO in San Francisco. The format schedules blocks of news and talk.
KABC Los Angeles became one of the most listened to stations in the market. The all-talk format was a top performer in other markets as well. In 1978 talk became a national phenomenon, with a local feel. Mutual Broadcasting put WIOD-AM Miami talk personality Larry King on the national network. The all-night talk show became a national success. It began on 28 stations and by 1990 was on 300 stations. The program was later moved to 3pm - 6 pm. King gave up regular duties in 1994 to concentrate on other activities including his CNN program.
Talk received a major boost in 1982 when WABC in New York left the top 40 format to pursue talk. Talk programming was now supplied by three major networks, Mutual, NBC and now ABC. By 1990 ABC began putting major celebrities behind the microphone. Tom Snyder and Sally Jesse Raphael became major host on ABC's Talknet.
They were followed by Rush Limbaugh the conservative talk host who broadcasts noon - 3pm from the studios of WABC-AM in New York. Limbaugh's show is distributed nationally by EFM Media to 600 stations via satellite. EFM Media was founded by Edward R. Mclaughlin, the former president of the ABC radio networks. EFM has been acquired by Premiere Radio Networks part of Clear Channel Communications. Premier also syndicates Dr. Laura. Prior to Limbaugh's program, midday had always been the province of the local stations.
Talk is primarily an AM format however several national programs are heard on FM. Howard Stern's program originates on WXRK-FM in New York and G. Gordon Liddy's program is broadcast from WJFK-FM in Washington, DC.
The Sports-Talk format began appearing in the late 1980s when WFAN began broadcasting the format. WFAN promotes itself as "The Fan." Emmis Broadcasting originally purchased WHN-AM 1050 and changed the call letters of that station. Later when the company purchased WNBC-AM 660 it moved WFAN to that clear channel frequency. It was soon joined by WIP in Philadelphia and other stations in markets throughout the country. In addition ABC a major owner of ESPN, launched the ESPN sports radio network during the 1990s.
The popularity of talk, sports and the all-news format have revived the AM band. During much of the 1980s, AM stations suffered. By the start of the 1990s many of the AM stations that had dropped both in revenue and ratings had rebounded. In 1991 WFAN was sold to Infinity Broadcasting for $70 million, a record price for a stand-alone AM station. In addition many AM stations have been able to cut costs by using nationally syndicated satellite programming.
All-News stations tend to air news in extended sweeps in much the same way that music stations air music. Twenty-minute news blocks are fairly standard. The news blocks are broken into various segments, such as traffic, weather, financial, sports and local and national news. WINS in New York uses the slogan, "You give us 22 minutes ...we'll give you the world." The liner was created by Ken Draper at the Westinghouse station KFWB in Los Angeles, and was subsequently adopted by Group W's WINS New York. Twenty two minutes was once the average commute time.
Other stations use shorter news blocks with commercials interspersed. Because all-news is a spoken format, commercials are not the deterrent that they are in music formats. These stations still break news into blocks. Commercials are heard between the segments. For example they will air national network news, break for a commercial and then continue with local news, break for another commercial and follow that with sports.
The announcing style in the all-news format is authoritative and informative. At one time newscasters did not deliver commercials. This is changing at many stations. In addition some national news personalities now deliver commercials. Examples are commentators Charles Osgood and Paul Harvey, who deliver spots and endorse products.
Commercials are either presented in spot sets or in scattered placement depending upon the station's policy. At one time it was standard practice that newscasters did not announce commercials. Many stations continue a strict ban on news people doing commercials. Other stations have a more liberal policy, while still others will allow personalities to do commercial but won't allow reporters or anchors to do them. Commercials in the all-news format often use music beds.
Features are an integral part of news programming. Some stations schedule program elements at specific times during the hour. For example, traffic on the nines, indicates that at nine minutes past the hour, 19 minutes past the hour, 29 minutes past the hour, 39 minutes past the hour, etc. the station will air a traffic report.
Additionally, all-news stations air long form features such as "The Wall Street Report", programs on politics, sports, science and countless other topics of interest to listeners.
All-News radio does have jingles! If you think they do not ask someone to sing, "K-Y-W news radio 1060". This along with theme music, bumpers and stingers provide these stations with an excuses to play music and lighten the mood.
All-News stations compete with other formats that attract adult listeners such as talk, sports and AC. These stations tend to gain listeners during emergencies or long running stories that are attracting the audiences attention such as the OJ trial or White House scandals.
Deregulation and the Communication Act of 1996 have left these stations well positioned for the future. As other stations have cut back on their news, these stations have become a major source for information.
Interaction between the host and the listener is what makes talk radio. There are a wide variety of styles. Some programs select topics and then open the phones to the listeners. Others rely on the interaction between listener and expert with the host serving as moderator. Still others allow listeners to interact with celebrities.
Talk radio stations use a variety of ways to attract listeners. Some programs are designed to inform, others to titillate and still others to shock. These stations do not mind is you vehemently disagree with the host as long as you listen. In many cases an angry audience is a good audience because it will tune in longer.
There are a wide variety of talk announcing styles. Some announcers are combative and abrasive, while others become buddies to the listeners. Some programmers theorize that conservatives make better talk hosts than do liberals. It's believed that liberals are too "PC" and don't engage the audience. Currently the more successful national hosts, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Dr. Laura Schlessinger fit that mold. However, Mario Cuomo, feminist Gloria Allred and former New York City mayor Ed Koch are enjoying success in major markets.
Talk radio like the all-news format is less effected by commercials than are music formats. Unlike newscasters, reading and presenting commercials is a regular part of the function of talk hosts. Some stations choose scattered spot placement, while others cluster commercials to allow for talk sweeps.
FeaturesThis is a features intensive format. Talk radio changes by topic, daypart and other factors. It is difficult to tell basic programming from features.
JinglesTalk radio including sports talk uses jingles to spice up the format. (JAMS has online jingles for stations that can be downloaded.)
In many markets listeners have a variety of talk radio stations from which to choose. In addition to competing with each other, talk competes with all-news, AC, Nostalgia and other formats designed to attract adult audiences.
In 1994 Joe Mathis of Benchmark Communications described the format's future.
In addition to specialized talk formats like sports, talk has also diversified to meet the needs of ethnic communities. WLIB New York is a a talk station serving the African American community.
Talk should be around as long as people are interested in exchanging ideas and using radio as the public forum by which to exchange those ideas.
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Petrozello, D. (Oct. 10, 1994). "AM savors sound of success." in Broadcasting and Cable. (pp. 45-47.)
Ditingo V. M. (1995). The Remaking of Radio. Focal Press: Boston.
Mike Lundy via e-mail.