Friday, December 2, 2011

Media: Goodbye, KGO Newstalk 810

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There have been a lot of events in the past year or so since I ceased blogging regularly that should have brought me back to the keyboard for the hour that it normally takes to write a standard entry. Considering that this blog started with the 2008 Federal Election in Canada, it was especially hard to sit out the 2011 election, but my present employment had me in California for virtually the entire campaign, and besides time pressure, I did not wish to be commenting from a distance. There have been plenty of special events that I have attended, not just in my beloved Toronto but around the North American continent that warranted coverage, from a Maritime Festival in Seattle to scientific symposia in Montreal. There have been plenty of developments in United States politics on which I could offer a personality perspective that might be of value. There have been deaths, from Roger Abbott to Steve Jobs to Osama Bin Laden to Andy Rooney that I could have commented on. Yet, in the end, what has driven me back is the end of radio station KGO as we knew it.

It's not like those in the industry, or even observers like me, didn't see this coming. I've written about changes at this iconic radio station multiple times as the handwriting on the wall became more and more indelible, perhaps most strongly back in 2010 when Mickey Luckoff resigned. Yet, just because it isn't a surprise--the recent change in ownership to Cumulus meant it was only a matter of time--doesn't make it any less remarkable. As of Thursday, KGO ceased to be "Newstalk 810". It fired the majority of its talk show hosts (leaving only Ronn Owens on weekdays) and is now heading toward a news-based format with the new slogan, "The Bay Area's News and Information Station."

While it may not have technically been the first all-talk radio station, when KGO adopted a talk format in 1962--yes, that's right, almost 60 years ago--it was a pioneer that would change the industry. It came to not only dominate ratings in its home market of the San Francisco Bay Area, but to be a model for stations across the country, and it had remained a leader, really right up until now. While I had been introduced to the talk format on local stations in Seattle as a youth, it was tuning in KGO at night that caused me to really appreciate the potential of the format to inform and entertain concurrently and really justify radio listening as a background activity while doing other things.

In fact, it's not saying too much to say that KGO, along with other quality stations in the market such as KCBS and KQED, was a big factor in convincing me that I should go to college in the Bay Area, setting me on the life course that I am on now. Any area that could support such a good radio station and have such good callers to talk shows must have a population that was worth living amongst (a logic that I would later apply to Boston and the whole nation of Canada as part of my calculus in later moves as well, something that will never be repeated now).

While since leaving the Bay Area, my KGO listening over the Internet has been reduced to God Talk with Brent Walters and Brian Copeland on Sundays (which, ironically, continue onward--but nobody assumes they will survive the changes for long), there is no question that KGO has been part of my life since I was a youth. The end of KGO as a talk station means the end of what will stand as a significant era in my life, no matter how much longer I live.

Over on my web page about what makes a good radio station, after the 2010 update, KGO was the only talk radio station I felt was worth mentioning anymore. Now, there are none. There is no commercial talk radio station I find generally worth listening to anymore, anywhere in the world. Sure, there are individual programs out there, mostly on public radio, but no station cultivating quality talk programming as part of its identity. The genre of radio that once dominated my listening habits is gone, completely gone.

I will not argue that KGO had not become somewhat stale. It was easy to parody many of the hosts on their schedule (especially John Rothmann's penchant for political connections, Ray Taliaferro's mannerisms, and Dr. Bill Wattenburg's technological fixations). Their ratings had been falling for reasons besides new ratings technology. But, I would contend that the formula for making a great radio station has not changed. I happened to write my essay on the topic in 1998, but it could have been written in 1958, 1978, or now.

Instead, KGO's new owners want to take on market leader KCBS in news. It's folly. As much as I admire the San Francisco market, there's no way any new contender is going to beat out not just KCBS (which is on AM and FM these days) but also KQED, KALW, and KPFA on the public radio spectrum, where more and more people are tuning for news. In particular, they're not going to accomplish it on the limited budget that Cumulus will devote to the process. Making good radio costs money, partially for talent but also for operations, and owners don't want to hear that anymore. Instead, it's a race to reduce costs, leaving no product of any value. Some believe that KGO may fail so badly with an all-news format that its 50,000 watt signal may end up doing brokered foreign-language programming before long.

The argument has been made that what I would consider good radio isn't supported by markets. It is difficult to explain the health of public radio in light of that argument--more and more public radio stations are garnering ratings that would make commercial stations drool, and they find ways to raise money to pay for the programming that is accomplishing that. No, instead what we have is an oddly distorted market in which demand is very elastic and the suppliers can't seem to understand how the quality of their product impacts the demand curve--made all the more complicated by the fact that the customers are advertisers, not the audience immediately served by the product.

The commercial radio industry is broken, like many things in the United States. The end of KGO as a newstalk station demonstrates just how far it has fallen. I believe it is an unnecessary shame, and I will miss Newstalk 810.

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