Cool Reception for Conservative Radio

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

After conservative radio pundits encouraged opposition last month to the immigration bill that was before the Senate, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was moved to declare, "Talk radio is running America."

It is not, however, running Washington.

With the exception of Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk-radio hosts have struggled for years to find a wide audience on the local dial. While Limbaugh's afternoon program remains popular on WMAL (630 AM), not many other conservatives' programs have.

Latest case in point: WJFK (106.7 FM) yesterday dropped Bill O'Reilly's nationally syndicated show, "The Radio Factor," and replaced it with a sports-talk program hosted by Jim Rome. O'Reilly, an avowed independent who takes many conservative views, occupied a two-hour afternoon slot on WJFK.

The popular Fox News Channel TV host never attracted much of a radio following in Washington -- in the most recent ratings period, his program had about 1.2 percent of the audience. But then, neither have many other conservatives, whose programs are popular in many cities but barely move the ratings needle in the Washington area, the nation's eighth-largest radio market.

Such radio stars of the right as Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage at times have literally had no ratings in Washington, as measured by Arbitron. That's partly because those hosts are carried on WTNT (570 AM), a station that has a weak signal, no local programming and little promotion. Last month, for example, the Clear Channel-owned station attracted an average of just 0.5 percent of the listening audience.

But another reason is that political talk in Washington isn't particularly popular, period.

The most popular political-talk station in town, WMAL, finished 11th among all stations in May. In addition to Limbaugh, whose show aired opposite O'Reilly's, WMAL carries conservative talkers Sean Hannity in the late afternoon, "The Grandy and Andy Morning Show," and Chris Core in late mornings.

"Washington is an unusual talk market," says Jim Farley, who oversees programming for all-news WTOP and news-and-talk Washington Post Radio. "In most other cities our size, you have two competing right-wing stations. . . . Political talk radio just hasn't gotten the same traction here."

That's not a comment on the politics of the listening audience, says Farley: "It's not that we're a liberal town." By comparison, Seattle and San Francisco -- two famously liberal areas -- have popular conservative stations. And "Savage Nation," the radio show hosted by Savage, who was once fired by MSNBC for making anti-gay slurs, is a perennial hit in the Bay Area.

Sometimes, though, it takes more than a strong personality to make a show work, says Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers, a magazine that covers talk radio.

A strong signal and strong lead-in programming also help, he says.

O'Reilly's program was out of step with the rest of WJFK's lineup, which includes the humorous Junkies morning program, "The Opie & Anthony Show" and "The Don and Mike Show" -- all of which mock politics and politicians.

O'Reilly also had the misfortune to be up against Limbaugh, whose program is typically among the top three on the air when it airs from noon to 3 p.m.

Weak signals, of course, can do in liberals as well as conservatives. WWRC (1260 AM), which offers "progressive talk" featuring liberal hosts such as Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz, has smaller ratings than even WTNT. WWRC's audience is so small that it hasn't shown up in Arbitron rankings in years.

Chris Berry, president and general manager of WMAL, says there's nothing particularly unusual about Washington and political talk radio, except that "people in D.C. are smarter" than talk audiences in other towns. "In Boston, Chicago, even L.A., it's more emotional," he says. "In D.C., people really do know the issues."

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