Local Listeners Tune Out Talk Radio

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

What a difference an election makes. No, we're not talking about the fortunes of a rich and powerful democracy. This is about talk radio. And even in the nation's capital, post-election, people seem to have had their fill of politically oriented talk on the airwaves.

The latest quarterly audience ratings spell it out: Local talk stations -- both on the right and on the left -- saw their audiences dwindle during the January-March period, according to Arbitron Inc.

WMAL-AM (630), home of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other mighty righty talkers, was one of the big losers in the latest survey. WMAL lost nearly 30 percent of its core audience (adults ages 25-54) from the preceding three months, when the election was the dominant story. What had been an up-and-coming station a few months ago (WMAL ranked 11th among all stations during the fall) is now a middle-of-the-pack afterthought (it tied for 16th in the latest survey).

"For those of us in news and talk, there's nothing like an election," says Chris Berry, WMAL's president and general manager. "It's like the Super Bowl. For us, the Super Bowl wasn't in January; it came in November."

WMAL was at least able to record some ratings. Two of its AM talk competitors, WTNT (570) and WRC (1260), barely registered. WTNT -- which features conservatives Laura Ingraham and Joe Scarborough -- captured an average of just 0.5 percent of the Washington area's 2.3 million adult (25-54) listeners; it finished in a tie for 26th. WRC, which turned to a liberal talk format in January by adding Al Franken and some of his "Air America" crew, was nowhere to be found. It captured less than 0.1 percent of the audience, too low to be counted.

What happened? "It's a good question," said Bennett Zier, regional vice president of radio giant Clear Channel Communications, which owns WRC and WTNT. "You would think that 90 days after an election, a lot of topics would still be very [hot]. . . . People are very passionate, but it's difficult sometimes to tell where that passion is."

Another possible theory: Conservative talk, the most popular kind on the radio, has long been driven by a passionate "us vs. them" underdog mentality. In case you missed the last election results, conservatives now dominate national and state politics. With fewer "thems" to bash, right-wing ranters may be finding it harder to maintain their traditional put-upon posture.

The big winner in the ratings released yesterday may have been WJFK-FM's "Junkies" show. The four-regular-guys-from-P.G. County program moved from morning drivetime on the defunct WHFS in mid-January to a midday slot on WJFK. Result: The Junkies more than doubled the station's midday rating, taking it from 15th during the time period to fourth among adults 25-54, behind urban music stations WHUR-FM and WPGC-FM, and soft-rock WASH-FM.

Among adult men -- their natural audience -- the Junkies were tops in the time period, with ratings shooting up 111 percent. "We're happy people are finding us," said J.P. Flaim, one of the foursome.

In fact, those numbers could be a prelude to a fat payday for the four lads, if not a wholesale realignment of Washington's morning radio market. The Junkies' contract with Infinity-owned WJFK is up in October, just a few months before Infinity will be stuck with a huge hole in its morning drivetime lineup with the scheduled defection of ever-popular morning man Howard Stern to satellite radio. Can you say Junkies in the early a.m.?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company