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Rock to talk.

Indiana AM radio saved by the gift of gab.

AM radio was once the province of mile-a-minute disc jockeys spinning everything from the Beatles to the Archies. Then along came the superior sound of FM, and Baby Boomers deserted AM in droves.

Did AM radio stations roll over and die? Some did, but others have found new life. Commercial radio's original band is alive again with exciting, emotional hosts. But this time the fare isn't bubble-gum music. It's talk.

Listen to Stan Solomon on WIBC-AM in Indianapolis grouse about last spring's tax proposals from Gov. Evan Bayh. Listen to WBOW-AM in Terre Haute cover the flooding in Western Indiana. Listen to callers on Mark Boyle's "Sports Daily" on WNDE-AM in Indy skewer Colts quarterback Jeff George. Listen to a clinic on WGL-AM in Fort Wayne on how to tell if your spouse is cheating.

Yes, Indiana has the gift of gab.

And as AM stations switch over to the format of radio built around news and talk, highly desirable listeners are coming back to AM. Station owners and managers look for advertisers to come back to AM, too, perhaps to save the medium from extinction.

Moreover, the new talk-radio audiences are younger and more affluent. They are adults in the prime of their buying years, often with successful careers. These are key ingredients for many a successful advertising campaign.

Shelly Johnson, group media director at Keller-Cresent Co. in Evansville, likes the talk-radio format. A newcomer to Indiana, she used to work in Iowa, buying talk-radio spots across the Midwest for a major fast-food chain.

"Once you get a news-talk station and put it on the air, and you give the local community two hours in the morning of news, weather, sports--you know, information--a lot of people will turn to that," Johnson says. Moreover, in the past few years, talk radio has become chic for the upscale crowd. And thank heaven for it, say many station managers.

A mixture of news, talk, sports and community information is helping South Bend's WSBT-AM, Indiana's oldest radio station, climb back up the ratings charts. Jack Swart, manager of the 71-year-old station, says the 2-year-old talk format does much better than a music format would against FM radio. "We had suffered some serious decline here," Swart says. "We had some erosion going on. We were able to put the brakes on that and recover."

Just how important is talk radio? And what can it do for the advertiser? Take a look at some numbers, at the history of AM radio and at the possibilities for change.

"Talk radio has become a staple in the diet of about one in six Americans," the Times, Mirror Center for The People & The Press reported in a major poll about talk radio issued in July. The survey by the California-based organization found that one in six adults regularly listens to telephone talk shows about current events, issues and politics. Another quarter say they sometimes listen. Indeed, one in four adults had listened to a talk show the day Times Mirror called or the day before.

And talk about impact. Political observers say the heat that talk-show hosts and their telephone callers generated may be responsible for pressuring the Clinton White House to dump Zoe Baird and go slow on gays in the military. In 1990, many observers credited talk-show-encouraged phone calls to Capitol Hill with convincing members of Congress to halt a pay raise for themselves.

AM radio has been looking for a way to recover from the exodus of Baby Boomer listeners for years. One solution floated in the 1980s by stations such as WIBC was AM stereo. It didn't fly, and AM listeners continued becoming older--and less attractive to advertisers.

The big change, the catalyst for talk radio, has been a brash former disc jockey named Rush Limbaugh. Armed with wit, a hard-right point of view and a charming bravado, Limbaugh found the big time in the studios of WABC-AM in New York in 1988. When syndicated, he became a national hit.

Chris Wheat of WNDE brought Limbaugh's show to town early on but lost it this year to a competing offer from WIBC. He says Limbaugh revitalized talk radio. "The talk format a la Larry King became very old," says Wheat, the general manager of WNDE and its sister station, WFBQ-FM. "I'm talking about interviewing Rosemary Clooney. Young people just didn't care. What Rush Limbaugh brought to talk radio was the youthful image of talk that made it enjoyable to listen to the show."

Limbaugh immodestly (but perhaps truthfully) calls himself "the world's hottest talk-show host." He tells his listeners he operates "with talent on loan from God." His audience has been estimated at 2.4 million people, and he disshes out Reaganomics and a hard-right brew of family values and anti-feminism. Yet he uses rock 'n' roll for his stations breaks and theme music.

Limbaugh made talk radio sizzle, but there are many other shows syndicated on the air now, many of which debuted before Limbaugh. Other big hitters include G. Gordon Liddy's virile conservative and moral views, financial tips from Bruce Williams, health with Neil Myers and lifestyle talk from Sally Jesse Raphael. Liberals and libertarians have hosts--such as Alan Colmes and Gene Burns--on some Indiana stations.

But it's Limbaugh who figured out how to draw listeners in the middle of the day. Remarkably, the listeners are predominantly men, and while many are in their 40s and 50s, many more are in their 20s.

"You don't normally think of buying men at the middle of the day," says William F. Perkins, president of Perkins Nichols Media of Indianapolis, one of the largest buyers of air time and print advertising space in Indiana. "Rush never forgets he's an entertainer."

Anything that helps AM radio is welcome. While some AM stations, including at least one in Indiana, shut down in recent years, stations fluent in talk are going up in ratings, not down. Ask Perkins, who calls up Arbitron ratings numbers off his desktop computer. In the past year, since switching from a full-service format to news-talk, WIBC has traded many older women listeners for younger men. WGL-AM in Fort Wayne attracts men in midle years, too. Other Indiana stations show nudges in the same direction, though with varying degrees of success.

Two Hoosiers banking on talk radio are Connie and Frank Kovas of Fort Wayne. The station they own, WGL-AM, has been all talk for 10 years. Frank Kovas moved to Fort Wayne from Chicago and tried an all-news format at first, but it didn't work. He quickly switched to all talk and became a pioneer in the format in Indiana.

"We had news-talk back when it was a lot of doctors, psychologists," Connie Kovas says. "Talk radio has evolved a lot in the past few years and Rush Limbaugh has had a lot to do with that. It's issue-oriented, but it's also lifestyle-oriented. I think it has a lot of appeal to the yuppie generation."

To attract advertisers, talk-radio stations built on the strengths many of them already had. Their ratings may have been, down, but they often had the best radio news departments in town. And they often carried college and high school sports.

To that, they added talk shows and phone-in shows aimed at much the same listeners. True, according to the Times Mirror study, talk-radio listeners and phone callers (a very small subset of listeners) often tend to be skewed toward the Republican party and conservatism. But why not? The affluent and successful people in talk radio's target are group and gender are the same people most attracted to the GOP during the Reagan years.

That's especially true in Indiana. "Here, if you're not programming to conservatives, you're missing the majority," says Tom Durney, general manager of WIBC.

So talk radio may sound ideological. But it's really just doing its job to attract an audience. "This business is strictly about deliverying audience," Perkins says. "Who's got the audience? And, how much does it cost?"

According to market research conducted for the Radio Advertising Bureau of New York City, a third of talk-radio listeners are college graduates, a quarter are professionals or managers. They are more likely than members of the general public to drive leased cars, take domestic business trips, travel internationally, buy personal computers, own mutual funds worth more than $10,000 and take adult-education courses.

Don Davis, owner and manager of WGAB-AM in Newburgh, just outside Evansville, says, "In medium markets like ours, we have a fairly strong, loyal following. You have a lot of doctors, lawyers and salespeople who are in cars."

If you listen to WIBC, which made a splash and stirred controversy in Central Indiana with its switch to talk, these are just the sorts of people you hear targeted in advertising. "Talk radio has lowered the age of the average listener," says Durney. "Advertisers want radio and TV to reach adults 25 to 54." Yet more than 60 percent of WIBC's audience was 55 years or older when Durney arrived less than a year ago.

Durney says his job isn't to create a bigger audience for WIBC, though he certainly wouldn't object to that outcome. His main goal is to shift the audience to demographics more attractive to advertisers, raise ad rates and rake in more revenues.

Talk radio offers several upsides and one big downside for advertisers. For those with strong stomachs, the upsides outweigh the downside.

One advantage is the age and gender of the listeners. Another advantage is the nature of the experience of listening to talk radio. "I think that news-talk is involving. It's more fore-ground than background," says Johnson of Keller-Cresent. "What I mean by that is that as a listener I have to listen to news-talk, as opposed to easy listening, which is back-ground. You may not realize you have an easy-listening station on."

In this turned-on, tuned-in environment, lots of things seem to sell well. Broadcasters across the state report that automobiles, periodicals, sporting events, office services, furnishings, workplace services, computers, banking, insurance and vacations sell well on talk radio. Endorsements by talk-show hosts work especially well, but sometimes limit the frequency of those ads to just one or two per hour.

"It's an excellent vehicle for automobiles of the larger variety," says Ken Brown, general manager of WBOW-AM in Terre Haute, which competes with WTHI-AM for Western Indiana and Eastern Illinois talk-show listeners. "Talk radio doesn't mean anything to anyone who doesn't give a damn about what's happening. It's a good vehicle for business-to-business advertising."

Says Swart of WSBT, "Anybody who is looking for something that leans a little more to the male and decision-maker type will sell well on talk radio. When you're in the middle of the day, and Limbaugh is on, we find that there are a lot of CEO types who listen to the program. We have had so many renewals of ad purchases, because people have found that advertising works on our AM radio station."

What's the one downside to talk radio? It's the very thing that attracts many listeners, namely its power-charged controversy. "Local advertisers have a great tendency to be responsive to public opinion," says Perkins. "A few postcards and phone calls can do it." Nontheless, he says he buys WIBC in the afternoon for Steak n Shake, to promote dinner trade in the restaurants.

Not only controversy but touchy subjects may offend the sensibilities of an older business owner or manager who is reviewing a media-buying plan. "The subject of condoms in schools may be a subject than an over-50-year-old is uncomfortable talking about." Wheat says. "So, the person making the buying decision may have to overlook that."

If controversial topics are uncomfortable, just keep your eye on the ball when planning an ad budget, Wheat urges. "Remember," he says, "what you're buying is an advertising vehicle, which is meant to deliver customers to your door. What's being said as part of that is kind of irrelevant. The advertiser has to overlook that and say, 'Is he still delivering the kind of audience I want?'"

Beyond delivering a good audience, is talk radio good for Indiana? It may grate on some nerves, but if kept in perspective, talk radio has some social pluses to offer. For starters, it keeps people tuned in to the news. It also keeps listeners tuned in to their communities.

Even the heat of talk radio has to be kept in perspective. For example, talk radio may not be representative of the nation--an important fact to remember when tuning in. According to the Times Mirror survey, while 61 percent of Americans have listened to talk radio at some point, only 11 percent report having ever attempted to call a talk show. Only 6 percent have been on the air. And only 3 percent were on the air in the past year. Those who do get on score more conservatively in the poll than Americans across the board.

This skew to the right is good for business, but it scares some people in Congress. In a move that opponents charge is an attempt to rein in the popularity of Limbaugh, the legislators are considering imposing anew the Fairness Doctrine, requiring balance in the discussion of political affairs. The longtime requirement was axed by the Reaganera Federal Communications Commission. Owners and managers of talk-radio stations are dead set against bringing the Fairness Doctrine back.

"If they're successful, they'll have mandaed Limbaugh out of business," says Surney of WIBC. "Then you'll have to wonder about the difference between us and the Communists."

Still, listening to "The Stan Solomon Show" on WIBC, it's easy to forget that talk radio is a business. The ultra-right Solomon derides liberlism, feminism and homosexuality, and implores people to lobby for changes in local, state and national government. He's even set up his own political-action committee to promote that change, beginning with a battle against Indiana members of Congress who supported the Clinton budget. Listeners, says Durney, "believe it's a crusade. They believe it's time to stop the liberals. They want to stop people who they think are leading us to oblivion."

But is this really a crusade for WIBC? Durney answers: "I run a business. Stan runs the crusade." His command to Solomon: "Get us a big audience" -- within bounds of taste.

Says Brown of WBOW in Terre Haute: "Believe me, radio stations are in it for one thing. Not who will broadcast the liberal or conservative point of view, but who will draw an audience. We need the numbers."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Media & Marketing; how Indiana AM radio stations survive
Author:Davidoff, Douglass
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Long-term marketing.
Next Article:Sleeping well.

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