On a recent conference call, Radio One Inc. chief executive Alfred C. Liggins III spent much of his time explaining to analysts how his large urban radio company could break the industry's sluggish boundaries.
"We're in the black people business," he said. "We are in the business of aggregating audience for this particular demo and providing content to them."
To prove it, he ran down the company's plans for next year, which include launching the first national talk radio network targeting a black audience. It is Liggins's latest effort to diversify Radio One from a pure radio company into a catchall for black consumers, who spend more than $750 billion a year. He hopes that strategy will mean growth for the 69-station company despite a national slowdown in the radio industry, which has been depressed for several years with competition from satellite radio, Internet radio and MP3 players.
Liggins has spent the last two years coming up with new ways for his company to reach black consumers. Last year, he launched TV One LLC, a cable network also backed by Comcast Corp. that is aimed at blacks. Earlier this year he bought a 51 percent interest in Reach Media, which syndicates the popular "Tom Joyner Morning Show" on about 115 radio stations nationwide.
The talk network is his current project.
"We think the market for talk is there," Liggins said. "There are tons of talk options for non-African Americans."
The network, which is still being developed, will air 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and include a political morning show hosted by Al Sharpton. Earlier this year Sharpton signed a deal to host a talk radio show for Chicago-based Matrix Media, which syndicates radio programs. But that show has yet to air, and Liggins said Radio One has locked Sharpton into a new agreement.
Brothers Doug and Ryan Stewart of "The 2 Live Stews" sports show on an Atlanta AM station will host the afternoon drive. Their three-hour show brings together hip-hop and sports talk. Liggins said he is still trying to negotiate deals with other talent and could not discuss the rest of the lineup.
Early next year he plans to put the talk network on some of Radio One's AM stations and try to sell it to other urban outlets not owned by the company. Liggins said he has not done any research to determine whether there is a market for such a national talk network for blacks, but the lack of black news programs convinced him there was room.
There are 2,179 news talk radio stations in the country. Their primary audience, according to radio research firm Arbitron, is white men. Only about 7.6 percent of talk radio's listeners are black.
Holland Cooke, a talk radio consultant for Cleveland-based radio consulting firm McVay Media, said those statistics are indicative of the lack of diversity in talk radio.
"I make my living advising talk radio stations, and I keep ending up in these meetings where everyone in the meeting is a white male 50-something-year-old Republican, and the reason we are having the meeting is that the [station's] ratings just came in and the only people who are listening are white male 50-something Republicans," Cooke said. "They can't figure out where the women and black listeners are."
Talk programming targeting blacks could fix that, Cooke said.
The talk network should also be good for Radio One's bottom line, analysts said. The company earned $61.6 million on revenue of $320 million last year. While its profit margin has been growing faster than the radio industry, company executives said on their recent conference call that they could not predict how long that will last.
"Radio is mired in a flattish growth environment, and people who say it is bouncing back, they are just wrong," said Chief Financial Officer Scott R. Royster. "That is just the reality of the situation." Radio One's stock price has dropped from about $19 last year to around $11.
Talk radio allows for more advertising than music formats, and Radio One also faces little competition in black-focused talk. Last year, Clear Channel Communications began airing a program called "Keep Hope Alive" hosted by Jesse Jackson. It airs in about 20 cities. Liggins said he hopes to sell his network much more broadly by going to stations in areas where blacks make up at least 15 percent of the community.
Wachovia Securities analyst Bishop Cheen said he thinks Liggins's talk radio plan will work. "He's trying to leverage his core skill set. He has [radio] talent, and he has content," Cheen said. "He also has a bunch of AM stations. He thinks he can serve literally hundreds of AM stations who want to reach the African American population."
Radio One began as one talk station in 1980, when Liggins's mother, Catherine L. Hughes, acquired WOL-AM. She changed the station's programming to talk and hosted a radio show. Now most of that company's radio stations are programmed with hip-hop and R&B music.
"Our company was built off of an all-talk radio station," Liggins said. "Now we are large enough that it makes sense to invest in this type of programming."