Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No more calls!

In 1967 there was an announcers’ strike at ABC radio. My father was an account executive at KABC in Los Angeles, a talk station. Since management had to fill the air slots my dad got assigned the 6-9 pm shift. Thus “On the line with Cliff Levine” was born.

Back in those days talk show hosts didn’t have guests. They opened the phone lines and would field a steady stream of calls all day long. Just getting through to go on the air was a big accomplishment. The phone banks were always lit up. Dad couldn’t believe that so many strangers cared about his opinions. Who was he? he wondered.  I said, “You’re a person on THE RADIO.”

A recent study has revealed that very few people call radio stations today… for any reason.

Top 40 stations always had multiple request lines and many had interns answering the phones. Listeners were invited to call in requests. But today listeners are savvy to the fact that hardly any shows are live. They’re either syndicated (do you really think Ryan Seacrest is there in Kalamazoo?) or automated with voice tracks. Plus, who needs to request music these days? You have every song you want at your fingertips with Spotify or your personal playlists or any other online music streaming service. You’re going to call a radio station, make a request, and sit for an hour hoping you’ll hear your song? Even the nimrod who thinks Ryan Seacrest does broadcast every morning from Kalamazoo knows that’s stupid.

And folks aren’t calling talk radio hosts as much either. I can tell you this firsthand. When I would fill in at KABC a few years ago, it was usually the evening shift. I would follow Mark Levin, who is this obnoxious right-wing crackpot who sounds like Gilbert Gottfried but louder and more shrill. (How ANYONE ever let this guy in front of a microphone I will never know.) When I got on the air at 7:00 pm the phones were dead. And they would stay dead for at least a half an hour. I could have Jesus Christ as my guest in the studio and no one would call. Why? NO ONE WAS LISTENING.

Gone are the days when the host would just give out the numbers, say “what’s on your mind?” and the phone bank would light up like a Christmas tree. Now you often have to beg for calls. Many talk show hosts are not even taking calls anymore. They’re filling their show with guests.

It’s not as bad on sports talk radio. Those hosts, especially if they’re abrasive still get a fair amount of calls. Forget the state of the world, what are the Lakers going to do at power forward?

But even then – I hosted Dodger Talk for years and took listener calls after games. If the team was  losing I got a bunch of calls. But if they were playing well I often got zilch. And among the callers I did receive, at least half were regulars who called every night with the same nonsense.

None of this is surprising to me. Once upon a time the radio was the only way you could express your opinion to a wide audience. Now you have social media. Now you have Twitter and Facebook and any Cliff Clavin (or president) can broadcast his idiotic ill-informed opinions to the world. And unlike radio, there’s no screener. Or waiting time. Who needs radio?

And that’s the problem. Who needs radio indeed? The industry keeps putting out these studies that show that radio is stronger than ever. But anyone with a brain or ears knows that’s bullshit. Nero is just playing his fiddle. The lack of calls is just one sign. People are fleeing to their devices, internet stations, satellite radio, or just not bothering.

And instead of reacting to that and taking steps to stem the tide – like feature more local programming, spend money and hire personalities, not run 30 minutes of commercials an hour, not load up weekend programming with infomercials like “colon blow” – they’re clinging to these bogus surveys. And someday, maybe soon, their phones will stop ringing permanently.

44 comments :

Douglas Trapasso said...

Cliff Clavin on Twitter. What a disturbing idea . . .

Pizzagod said...

I agree-and I'd have to add that this is really indicative of the dumbing down of this country. Media darlings like Mark Levin or Alex Jones or others catering to the loons have just sped things along, because I sure don't want to listen to the vile spew, and while there is a Thom Hartman or The Young Turks, they're mostly on satellite or hard to find.

I always thought radio was more a part of life than television. You could have it in every room (I'm of that generation where there was one, maybe two tv's in the house) and it was in your car, and at work, and that was great. When I was in my teens I managed a pizzeria (natch) and I'd have the news station on all night at work, and at closing, and on the drive home I'd get to listen to CBS Mystery Theater.

Sure is different from today.

15-Seconds said...

Sadly, the answer to Stan Freberg's "Who Listens to Radio"? Is no longer -- "nearly everybody."

Classic commercials here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0C4e59yZExk

Gary Campbell said...

I am LIVE Saturday and Sunday 2-7pm on Go Country 105. And you can win cool stuff too!

Matt said...

I am a yooge college football fan. When they lose I listen to the postgame. If they win I don't.

Anonymous said...

Two notable points:
--I've read articles from Billboard as early as 1980 saying radio stations were not playing requests, that they used requests solely as research to make playlists.
--I comment on a radio forum, and brought up why talk shows don't take more calls. They said it was mainly a combination of poor cell phone quality (not a problem in 1967) resulting in hard to hear calls, and as you mentioned how uninteresting most callers were. Unfortunately, that makes most talk shows monologues by the host.

McAlvie said...

I was never a fan of talk radio shows. If there was an actual topic, it would sometimes be interesting; but for every interesting person there were 10 loudmouths or whiners who just wanted to sound important. Yeah, we still have those, and you'll note that the remaining talk radio formats are all about feeding that demographic. So is it any surprise, really, that listeners drifted away from talk radio?

Andrew said...

I listen to the classical radio station when I'm driving. They actually have a weekly show devoted to listener requests. They advertise the show with a classical music DJ (LOL) who has a very highfalutin tone. He acts like it's a really big deal that the radio station will field requests from us common folk. I always wonder who would send in a request to a classical station so that it can be played a couple of days later. Have these people ever heard of YouTube? Not only can you hear any piece you want, you can choose between 15 different interpretations. "I've never heard the version Lenny and the NY Philharmonic played in 2005. Let's try that one."

Glenn said...

I tried calling in to sports stations for a while. But I got tired of hanging on hold for 45 minutes, and getting on the air for all of 14 seconds. You get about 5 words out and the host either cuts you off or hangs up on you.

blinky said...

I think radio should try the old idea of a DJ who curates the playlist. I miss the days when the music was what the DJ wanted to play. It was like sitting in his or her living room and listening to their music.

Curt Alliaume said...

Warning: rant ahead.

I still love radio, and I've been an occasional caller to WGN, which is one of the last (almost) all live, all local stations. (Until Sinclair wins FCC approval and turns them into yet another all-right wing, all-syndicated station... but I digress.) Even WGN's personalities, however, don't always take calls, because (1) I suspect there aren't enough staffers to screen out the goofballs, and (2) even the ones who get through aren't always great on the air ("Get to the freaking point!"). It's easier now to direct listeners to a Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail feed, and read the best ones on air. (I remember listening to Tony Kornheiser's radio show 15 years ago when he had listeners fax in their comments - and how much smoother the show ran as a result.)

I will fight to the death for local radio - but there also has to be enough in the budget for the air personality, a producer, and a production assistant to take the calls. And I'm not sure that's going to happen.

Michael said...

Ken, I'm listening ....

Tom Lawler said...

One exception to this is a hybrid talk/classic hits station in New Jersey that is live and local 24/7 (no really...I used to do weekend overnights there when I was a baby DJ!). They still get lots of calls - but they haven't whored the station out with Colon Blow infomercials and syndicated claptrap.

I work in radio, and I hate that whenever someone criticizes the industry these nonsense Nielsen studies are trotted out to try and save face - I have two teenagers in my house (one 16, one 14) and neither have the slightest inclination to listen to terrestrial radio. Music? YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. News? Twitter or FB. Music discovery? Whatever their friends are sharing on social media.

Radio could heal thyself, but it would mean not deluding ourselves into thinking it's still 1987.

Thanks for the great blogs Ken!

Cowboy Surfer said...

Hi Dr. Crane

Do infants have as much fun in infancy as adults do in adultery??

...Hang up the phone Niles

Mike Bloodworth said...

If you want to contact a radio station these days they almost all say, Follow us on Facebook or Twitter, etc. If you don't do "social media" you're screwed. KRTH 101 here in L.A. still takes requests for their Totally 80's Friday Night. I tried to request "Valley Girl," but they didn't play it. Obnoxious, LEFT-wing crackpots are better?!? To digress for a moment, R.I.P. The Sound. They played too many of the same songs over and over, but they were still better than KLOS.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Good, sad post. I thought of two things -- the WKRP episode where they get Sparky Anderson (then manager of the Reds) to do a call-in sports show and nobody calls. And the end of my favorite rom-com FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, where Johnny calls a classical station to request "Clair de Lune," and it wafts over the sleeping city. Except I don't remember any New York station that took requests.

Andy Rose said...

I started working in radio 25 years ago. In all that time, I was connected to exactly one station that ever did a truly free-form request show (classic rock, and it was in the Saturday night "nobody's listening, so what have we got to lose?" time slot). The rest of the time, "requests" would only be played if they happened to coincide with what was already planned for the station's tight playlist (happened a lot). Or, if the DJ had a following, he or she might be allowed a little leeway with requests of approved recurrents. That was it. The rest of the callers would be told, "We'll see if we can get to it," and the request was forgotten as soon as the phone was on the hook.

The ironic thing is, while we had some callers request gold that we would have genuinely liked to play, the vast majority of callers we ignored were people who were asking for current hits that we had literally played only 10 or 15 minutes before. If we had listened to them, the station would have been even more repetitive than it already was.

As far as talk radio, the long-time viewpoint behind the scenes has been that callers are there to serve one purpose: make the host sound better. The idea of having a genuine conversation on the air is literally laughable. Screeners are not to put a caller on that would be a legitimate challenge for the host. So what you hear are either "dittohead" types, people serving up easy softballs to the host ("I don't know about you, but I really don't think Obama loves this country..."), or the occasional person who is opposed to the host's viewpoint, but is so dumb, nervous, or strident that it's easy for the host to mock. And it's not exactly a secret anymore that some of those "angry callers" are really plants.

Roseann said...

I listen to NPR about 8 hours a day. I never call in if the show takes calls.

Douglas Trapasso said...

This post reminded that for me, some of the most unintentionally laugh out loud moments on the radio right now . . . are the call in segments on C-SPAN. How these (almost always) unnamed hosts sit there and hear these wackos day after day without reacting takes a discipline I'm sure I don't have.

JW said...

I live in Dallas and the only time I listen to the radio is when The Russ Martin show is on in the afternoons. Doesn't matter what they're talking about, it's entertaining - I can get music anytime, anywhere - we listen to radio for the personalities. There is just not as much of that out there as there used to be. Sad.

Artie in Sin City said...

And that ABC station was TOP DOG in LA for a good long time...Ray Brem was The Best doing the allnighter...

VP81955 said...

To Tom Lawler:

Were you referring to WKXW in Trenton (aka New Jersey 101.5)? Excellent station -- listened to it for years when I was back east. It's probably best known around here as where KFI's John & Ken got their start (spewing much of the right-wing crap then as they do now), but don't hold it against the station.

Naum said...

For all my life, even as a kid, with transistor radio under the pillow, with volume turned high enough to hear but low enough so parents wouldn't detect.

But podcasts & Apple music subscription have supplanted radio.

Have a "Requiem for Terrestrial Radio" article in my head, waiting to be written -- but radio still could thrive -- if it was relevant & live & local focused. But that ship may have already sailed & it probably too late.

Mark said...

Phil Hendrie always had the best guests. Where did he find these people?

Mark said...

For years now, I've been searching YouTube for the Buck Henry sketch about the radio talk show where no one calls in. He kept desperately taking more and more outrageous positions, but the phone lines remained dead. The bit has become far more relevant in an age of trolling and click bait.

Sean French said...

In the light of the Weinstein affair, it might be interesting to take another look at one of your past posts. http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/writing-room-etiquette.html

Gary West said...

I stopped depending on radio for music when the iPod came out. You can get anything you want online for free. I figured I paid for songs since I was a kid - when 45's and 33's wore out, tapes and into CD's Think about it - how many times did you pay for a certain song over the years? Cassettes? It's amazing when you think about it.

Youtube is a goldmine - almost any single - stiff or hit is there.

We kinda of got ripped off way-back-when. 45's made in the USA were cheap junk - about a quarter of the plays you'd get off virgin vinyl 45's made in England. 8-Tracks were no better. Cassettes stretched over time. Digital became the brass ring for music playback.

Youtube is the new Music Power. Everything else - even Pandora - doesn't come close because you get to really choose your stuff.



YEKIMI said...

I was doing my favorite thing one night while driving, DXing AM stations [the usual ones I listen to AM740 out of Toronto and WCBS 880 weren't being very reliable for reception that night] and came across an overnight host taking calls, mostly talking about DJ nightmares [ya know, like going to the bathroom and in the middle of a #2 the record starts skipping] and he kept giving out the phone number to call and talk with him. For a about 3-5 minutes kept giving the number and apparently no one was calling so I figured "what the hell, I'll call and give him my DJ nightmare" Couldn't believe that, first off, the phone actually rang and they picked it up by the third ring. Gave him my DJ nightmare. After hanging up looked to see what the frequency was, turns out it was the 50,000 watt clear channel powerhouse WLS 890 AM. Even with it being sometime after midnight I thought it was a sad state of affairs that no one was calling a station that could basically be heard by half the nation.

The last station I worked in the mid 80s for was an AM station that had to cut the power down to 500 watts with a very tight NW to SE pattern so we didn't interfere with the two powerhouse AMs adjacent to our frequency. We literally got no calls when trying to give away some prize to the 10th caller or some such number. Usually just ended up making up some name and used the prizes ourselves. Heaven forbid we tell the person or business supplying the prize that no one called in to claim them. We figured they'd say "Then why the hell are we advertising on your station if you have no listeners?" and management was deathly terrified of them finding out. We did take requests [oldies format] and over time they quit calling because we didn't have their request in the library. Usually they were much older so we figured as the call ins dwindled, it was because they were expiring. [I ended up bringing in my own records from home because I had a bigger oldies library then the station and the station owners were refusing to spend any money on records. I should have seen the writing on the wall when they started doing that.]

Pat O'Neill said...

Another exception is Magic 98 in Madison, live every day, reasonable spotload and never colon blow.

Shaun S said...

Ken, Did you know Robert Guillaume? Benson was still being shown in Australia until very recently.

RobW said...

I assume Mark is winking at us with his question about Phil Hendrie and his "guests". For those who don't know, Phil had a radio show in which his assortment of regular guests would come on and spout the most outlandish opinions possible until some schmuck would call in, totally outraged and ready to take on the guest. The exchanges were often comic gold, because none of the callers were regular listeners who were in on the gag that Phil himself was doing ALL of the voices, and baiting the callers like crazy.
He's hasn't been on for years now, but I think he has a website where you can listen to some of his classic routines. Great material for long car trips.

VP81955 said...

2020 will mark the centennial of Pittsburgh's KDKA, the nation's oldest radio station. I simply hope someone notices.

Max Clarke said...

I used to listen to KFOG in San Francisco a lot. A great station.

On your birthday, if you were a registered Foghead, they'd sent you a video in which station staff members sang Happy Birthday. They ran a big party each year called KFOG KaBoom at Pier 30. Live music and then fireworks near the Bay Bridge.

A delightful lady named Rosalie had a Sunday morning show called Acoustic Sunrise. Some of my favorite music came to my attention on Acoustic Sunrise. It's still running, and that's after almost everybody at KFOG was fired. Rosalie is still there, fortunately.


KCBS is still very good for news. I listened a lot to KCBS during our recent Santa Rosa/wine country fires.

Ken's discussion reminds me of the movie American Graffiti, with Wolfman Jack narrating the movie through his comments as he played the music.

Gone.

Andy Rose said...

@YEKIMI: I grew up in a small town pre-social media where the local radio station was a pretty big deal. One of our announcers previously worked in a slightly larger market where people were already getting a bit jaded about radio. He marveled at the fact that at his old station, they would have trouble getting any calls for a contest with a weekend vacation, while our phones would consistently light up for a station coffee mug.

This station used a satellite music service at night with national DJs who would record local "liners" for us. One of those guys literally laughed out loud at me when he was told he would have to promote our weekly "lucky listener" cash giveaway, where the one-and-only prize was a $20 bill. (This was in 1993, by the way, not 1953.)

ScottyB said...

@Ken Levine: You're wrong on your characterization of Mark Levin. He sounds like Tim Kazurinski (once of SNL) with incurable and untreatable hyper-rage issues.

PJ said...

Hey Ken! Just curious...if the Frasier show was first airing today, would he still have been a radio host, do you think? Or would he have been given a different career? Podcast host, maybe?

YEKIMI said...

@ Andy Rose: Year ago went to visit my parents in the south and my dad was all excited because "We have Don Imus working at a radio station I listen to here!" Had to break the news to him that, No, he's not actually at the station, his program is syndicated all over the country. He's actually broadcasting out of New York [before he went and did it from his ranch.] I was sorry I said anything, it actually depressed my dad.

Same thing currently when I have friends rave about some DJ at a local station, I tell them it's a satellite-fed format. They get all defensive and say "How the hell do you know that?" Tell them, listen to the DJ. He'll never do the weather, he'll never give the time, he'll never give a traffic update and he will NEVER talk about anything local going on in the area. And if they give out a prize, they will NEVER give out the name of the city the prize winner is from or the call letters of the station she is listening to. They'll just say "Congratulations to Marty McDuckfart for being our grand prize winner of a decades supply of colon blow"

Joe in DC said...

Cracked recently posted an article that touched on a lot of your points, Ken.

<a href="http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-sad-realities-working-in-dying-radio-business/“>5 Sad Realities Of Working In The Dying Radio Business</a>

I don’t agree with all of it, but a lot of it rings true.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think small local radio still is a big deal in some places. In his series TRACKS ACROSS AMERICA, Billy Connolly stopped in a small town...Glasgow, Minnesota, I think...where the local station had a call-in swap show, basically Freecycle but on the radio. It was quite successful.

There are several things causing problem for radio besides those already mentioned (MP3 players and the ready availability of music libraries; corporate ownership that has blanded everything into sameness):

- Most mobile phones have the capacity to receive FM radio but most handset manufacturers disable it. There is a movement to get FM turned on in more handsets. Doing that would very likely boost listenership because...

- A lot of people listened to radio during times when they were moving around, usually in cars, and today's kids are much less interested in driving and owning cars

- The rise of podcasts to splinter the market into niches. Joe Rogan, who does insanely long interview/discussions with guests, gets 16m downloads a month. Which is a lot in internet terms but I'd have thought pretty small for broadcast radio.

wg

Rich said...

Ken -- I'm an ex-jock like you (KTYD in SB, then KMEL in S.F. circa1977-78, last gasp of free-form FM fun. Like many of your readers, I've given up on radio. My smartphone is my radio. I can play all the music I love in playlists I make myself, and download great podcasts, all without commercials.

That said, why don't we (the American people, who allegedly own the airwaves via the FCC) take radio back? Here's what I'm proposing:
1) LOCAL ORIGINATION -- Radio is a community resource. No satellite anything from everywhere. Each station locally owned, with 24-hour local staffing.
2) NEWS AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS -- Each station has to have a news an public affairs staff. That means if there's a fire in the community, people have a way of finding out what's going on. Yes, the Fairness Doctrine makes a return. What are people in the community thinking about? How can diverse people come together and solve community problems?
3) ONE OWNER, ONE STATION -- Nobody can own more than one station in any one market. That means each station has its own sales staff, and you have competition in a market.
4) BUY A STATION, KEEP IT FOR 10 YEARS -- No buying the worst station in the market, hiring an Alex Jones clone and flipping it after the next book.

Something terrible happened to radio starting with the Reagan years. Radio stopped being considered a community resource and became just another commercial entity -- an ATM machine for maga-broadcast entities. It doesn't have to be this way.

Any Senator or Congressman willing to propose this should call it "The Radio Renaissance Full Employment Act of 2017." When I worked in radio in Santa Barbara, the 12 stations employed about 180 people. Today its all owned by iHeartRadio. There's one sales staff of tree people. One station runs local news -- a guy in Dallas reading stuff off the Santa Barbara News-Press website. Take that 180 and multiply it by every city in America.

It's about jobs. It's about the community. It's about thinking about radio like the community library, rather than Wal-Mart.

MikeN said...

Mark Levin is on the air because he gets high ratings.
Wikipedia lists him at #8 in ratings, with I think XM excluded.
Talkers.com has him as #4 most important(NPRs high rated shows excluded).
His books are bestsellers, and don't seem as angry in tone.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

CBC Radio does that, more often than not it's music I haven't heard of before.

Chris Marrou said...

Maybe they can rerun the returns of the Harding-Cox election. It’s how they started.

Mark said...

Local ownership is about to get worse

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/10/24/the-fcc-just-ended-a-decades-old-rule-designed-to-keep-tv-and-radio-under-local-control/