Talk's Cheap

ONCE UPON A time, commercial radio worked like this: You paid the folks who ran a radio station some money, and they broadcast your 30-second message to thousands of people. Today, however, at some local AM stations, you pay them to broadcast a message that lasts thousands of seconds to about 30 people.

This form of programming is nothing new. For years marginal radio stations paid the rent with late-night or Sunday-morning preacher shows, which they aired for cash up front. Such was the origin of the now-infamous infomercial, as well as a more recent broadcasting twist called "brokered time."

The latest trend in AM radio, brokered time involves station management selling blocks of air time to merchants and entrepreneurs eager to promote a single product, service or company via something that's not quite a hard-sell infomercial and not quite a standard talk show. Although, we should add, some talk-show hosts are buying their own chunks of time, which they then program themselves--commercials and all--independent of station management.

Feature Also relatively new is the fact that infomercials and brokered-time programs have now crept into daytime, weekday slots on several local stations--something those dwindling few still committed to quality AM broadcasting consider a sorry trend. The air time is sold by broadcast bottom feeders who could care less about anything beyond profit margins.

Radio is obviously a business, but the licenses that grant access to a limited number of publicly owned airways were originally granted for performance in the public interest. While the Federal Communications Commission's mandate has been partially dismantled by Congress and the last several administrations, that fundamental premise still holds--even though several money-hungry stations continue to push the envelope.

In Tucson, the practice of brokering time is producing something very akin to vanity publishing in the print world.

Vanity publishing usually involves talentless authors paying special publishers to print the authors' poorly written novels, as opposed to real authors who get paid by publishers for their works. Like vanity publishing, vanity radio is usually not economically beneficial for those who pay for it. But pay they do, because it satisfies some pathetic psychological need.

MEANWHILE, THE NEED of many AM radio stations to come up with new and creative methods to raise cash continues to grow. That's because with 32 radio stations in the Tucson market, there are simply too damn many of them for all to prosper. Those stations are divided equally between AM and FM, with 16 each. And because their audiences are smaller, the AM stations are generally worth far less. There was a time when not all radios even had an FM band. Developed because of its superior music-carrying abilities, FM was still in the largely experimental phase in the 1950s. And when it finally began to gain popularity in the 1960s and early '70s, it was often necessary to teach people there was another bunch of radio stations there. Now there's a whole generation or more of younger listeners who don't even know there's an AM band.

Six of our local stations are non-commercial, two more are commercial-Christian format, and seven are Spanish-language, including one labeled Spanish-Christian. Seven are more or less rock-contemporary (all FM), three are big band-nostalgia (all AM) and two are country (one AM and one FM). That leaves five stations claiming to be all-news, sports and talk, all on the AM dial--KNST, KTKT, KTUC, KFNN and KMRR.

Talk radio rejuvenated AM radio some years back and gave many dying stations a new lease on life. Most talk shows are national and are delivered via satellite. Adding to their attractiveness for the AM bottom feeders is the fact that all but the top-rated talk shows--Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus and Howard Stern--are available for rebroadcast for nothing. The second-tier national shows make their money by selling ads with rates based on how many stations they appear on. Deals with local stations usually involve specifying how many spots are reserved for the national syndicator and how many can be sold locally.

As satellite technology improved to the point where those programs can be broadcast automatically, the temptation to "downsize" by eliminating personnel has gone a long way to eliminating the local talk-show host. With satellite programming a station could cut costs to the bone by dumping not only their local deejays and hosts, but the technical back-up folks as well.

And, with a few exceptions, they also seem to have dumped their audiences.

KMRR-AM was recently purchased by a couple from Chicago who have a second home here. The station currently runs satellite-talk programming, including Jim Hightower's populist-oriented talk show at 9 a.m. weekdays.

KFNN-AM is part of a "cluster," a group of stations owned by one company in a single locale, which includes FM music stations KMXZ and KKHG. Owned by the Milwaukee Journal, this station broadcasts mainly satellite news and sports. Management is considering bringing in a few local jock types to do volunteer sports talk, but industry insiders say there's no plans to pay for it--another spin on vanity radio.

KTKT-AM is part of another cluster including FM rock stations KFMA and KLPX. Owned by the primarily out-of-state Arizona Lotus Corp., it carries CNN news when the sales staff can't broker the air time.

The time runs about $125 an hour and up, depending on time of day and length of contract. Current buyers at KTKT include talk-show hosts Burt Lee and John C. Scott, as well as an assortment of business and ego-trippers ranging from a national coin dealer with a 1-800 number to a local homebuilder kissing up to his subcontractors and bankers by inviting them to be guests.

KNST-AM, part of the local SFX cluster that includes contemporary pop KRQQ-FM, rock oldies KWFM-FM, nostalgia station KCEE-AM and the national SFX chain that now includes close to 75 stations, is maintaining its basic lineup of satellite programming, including Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Limbaugh is the only satellite talk show for which the station pays a fee.

The only other satellite program rebroadcast in town for which a fee is paid is the Don Imus show on KTUC-AM, at $5,000 a month.

Until recently, KTUC was a mix of sports and satellite programs such as Dr. Joy Brown and Imus, as well as several local non-brokered talk shows, which included yours truly's (See sidebar). Unable to compete with rival KNST as a talk station, KTUC is now offering much of its time slots to anyone with cash. But the problem is that KTKT offers not only a much superior signal (10,000 watts to 1,000 watts) but an environment superior in other logistics, as well as true brokered time. KTUC holds some commercial time to peddle spots to national and other markets.

Failure to broker as much time as planned has caused KTUC to return to some form of local talk while they wait for more customers. KTUC station manager/part-owner Tom Hassey has been hosting his own talk show lately, adding another dimension to "vanity" radio. We're told there's a guy in Phoenix who lets his son do movie and book reviews, too.

THE ONLY LONG-term talk-show host a local AM station now actually pays to be on the air is Mike Gabrielson, whose popular Sports Talk With Gabe airs daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on KTUC. But Gabrielsom may be a dying breed: Radio pros question how long his reasonably respectable ratings can hold when he's wedged between infomercials and vanity shows. KTKT's numbers have slid by 40 percent since they began brokering time, and they didn't have that much for openers.

But good ratings, once the god everybody in broadcasting worshipped and sought, are no longer relevant to stations like KTUC and KTKT, which continue to convert their formats from all-news/sports/talk to brokered time and infomercial ghettos. When it comes to ratings, those buying air time to sell their own spots are on their own--most probably don't care.

At some point these stations will become nothing more than on-air bulletin boards.

NOW THAT THE FCC allows up to six stations in a specific geographical area to be owned by one person or company, instead of the former two, lots of folks are trying to figure out what to do with the poor-relation AM stations they bought as part of a package.

To these group owners the brokered-time concept offers many advantages. What they get from infomercials is simplification in administration, collection and sales. They no longer have to risk money on real programming while they're waiting to sell that station or stations for a profit--which is the only reason many owners are in the radio business. Creative programming designed to garner ratings so that ad revenue can be generated from the sale of commercials is far too risky for many, particularly in a community like Tucson, which is saturated with radio stations.

Conversely, once-salaried talk-show hosts like John C. Scott find great advantages in buying a time slot and creating their own financial destiny. As a successful entrepreneurial host, Scott makes out much better than he could under the old system because he's willing to spend a lot of time administering and selling. He's told friends he's doubled his income, which is reportedly now in excess of $100,000 annually.

"I had no choice," Scott declares. "There was no other place to go. I'm past the point of thinking about a bigger market like Phoenix or L.A. If you want to make 50 to 60 grand a year at this, this is the only way you can do it. Nobody in this town will pay you anywhere near that."

Scott says he pays KTKT $10,000 a month for the time, and that "anybody can figure out just by listening that we'll bill between $23,000 and $28,000 a month." He also says he pays his employees and other business costs out of that, which is why he runs lots of commercials, for which he's often been criticized.

"It's market-dominated--if not enough people listen to me, then businesses quit buying time," Scott says.

But Scott, and fellow KTKT entrepreneur/host Burt Lee, may be the rare exceptions. At least they're presenting genuine talk shows.

The rest of the local yak herd--from boring lawyers to sleazy mortgage brokers, from weight-loss pill-pushers to used-car salesmen--are hardly performing in the "public interest" the FCC was created to safeguard on the taxpayer-owned airwaves. Neither pride nor shame are now factors in what goes out over those airwaves. Any day now, we fully expect to hear some guy playing Sousa marches in his armpit. If you want to buy time for that, there's a station that'll probably sell it.

Part of the lack of embarrassment results from the fact that control over most of our local media is vested in out-of-state bean-counters. Along with Tucson's mediocre daily newspapers and all of our increasingly poorly run network television franchises, most of our radio stations are the property of out-of-state corporations. The suits overseeing news and editorial functions have no loyalty to this community and could care less about it.

Mediawise, life in Tucson is probably close to what life in some minor colony of any European nation must have been like at the early part of the century. The only real difference would be that the colonial governors sent to deal with the locals back then usually wore pith helmets.

That's certainly true of talk-radio stations. KNST is part of a cluster which is part of an out-of-state conglomerate, as are KFNN and KTKT. KTUC, along with its bilingual Spanish-contemporary sister station, is primarily the property of former Tucson cardiologist Chris Maloney, who now lives in New Hampshire.

The only locally owned station cluster is the group consisting of KIIM-FM, KCUB-AM, and KHYT-FM, which is owned by REX Broadcasting, a company controlled by Tucsonan Jim Slone. Slone's success--he billed about $6 million from KIIM alone last year--comes from his grasp of the notion that you can still make a helluva lot of money by producing a better product and selling it well.

FINALLY, IT'S HARD to put a real price on what a radio station is worth these days. Industry insiders agree any crummy AM station license is certainly worth at least a hundred grand. Building, fixtures, and equipment add to that, as does quality and power of the signal. One there was a formula for determining a station's value, based on volume of sales and other factors, that seemed pretty rational. That formula became meaningless in the '80s, when all sorts of companies that knew nothing about radio decided to diversify. They paid through the nose: Nationwide Insurance, or example, bought one pair of local stations for about $10 million, only to sell them back two years later to the folks they bought them from--for 50 cents on the dollar.

AM radio stations, regardless of the fact that nobody is listening to them and many are housed in grubby buildings running on archaic equipment, are still perceived by some as having great value. Many of today's station owners are holding onto their investments hoping for another bull market.

In the meantime, considering our community's large collection of suckers, today's station owner/investor can always pay the electric bill with vanity radio.

Confessions Of An Ex Talk-Show Host

Alone In The Audio Booth, Everyone Can Hear You Scream...

By Emil Franzi

Editor's Note: Emil Franzi, The Weekly's automatic weapons editor and token conservative, recently completed a stint as an AM radio talk-show host. You'd think he would have had enough opportunity for cathartic expression to last a lifetime, but no. Here's Uncle Emil's personal take on that quirky and controversial genre.

AFTER PROVIDING three hours a day of talk radio on KTUC-AM, I feel I owe those of you who listened loyally, those who called regularly, and those who were my guests and co-hosts this synopsis of six monumental--for me, at least--months in local broadcasting:

BEST MOMENT: When we discovered that our regular Friday afternoon presentation by the Humane Society had resulted in the adoption of a pot-bellied pig who was otherwise doomed. Susan Wilson of the Humane Society reported that we placed almost every animal--dog, cat, pig, rabbit--that she promoted with us.

WORST MOMENT: When my dear friend and producer Carole Heatley died of a brain aneurysm the first month. Carole, an animal lover with a great heart, would be delighted to know how many animals we got homes for because that part of the show was her idea.

GOOD MOMENT: When we all found out how spontaneously funny Tucson Weekly sports columnist Tom Danehy really is. The one-hour with Danehy, and Arizona Daily Star cartoonist Dave Fitzsimmons and Star editorial columnist Tom Beal was a high point in the show.

BAD MOMENT: When I was informed by station management that Danehy wasn't interesting, and I should interview more politicians.

MORE GOOD STUFF: I appreciated the opportunity to interview some truly great people--Larry McMurtry and Diana Osana, Michael Blake, Col. Walter Boyne, Tom Buehl, N. Scott Momaday, Glenn Boyer and Jane Coleman, Keith Brion and Russell Means, just to name some authors and entertainers.

ANOTHER REALLY BAD MOMENT: When I realized I was the only person in the building who knew who these people were.

WEIRDEST MOMENT: When the FedEx delivery guy pounded on the on-air studio door because we were the only people present in the entire building.

MOST DISGRACEFUL ACTIONS BY ME: The several times my frustrations with the crappy equipment exceeded my self-control and I blew my stack on the air. Sorry again, folks.

A MOMENT I'll SAVOR ALWAYS: When the Arbitron ratings revealed I'd increased the audience share over my predecessor and was enjoying much better numbers than his new show on another station--even though his new station had a much stronger signal.

MAJOR STINKO MOMENT: When it became glaringly apparent the station's sales people didn't have a clue about how to sell our higher-rated show.

MOST DISAPPOINTING REVELATIONS: First I discovered the supposedly all--news/talk station not only didn't subscribe to any news services like AP and UPI, but didn't even subscribe to a daily newspaper, thus forcing the on-air personnel to buy their own. That was equaled when I also discovered that no one in the station, including the people who were supposed to be selling it, regularly listened to their own product.

MOST CONFUSING TASK: Trying to figure out who the program director was at any given moment.

MOST FUN: Another tie: Tweaking loser local pols, and trashing the inept local media.

LEAST FUN: Trying to deal with a station management that was too stupid or neurotic to act in its own self-interest.

FAVORITE POLS: Most fun was Phoenix-area GOP Congressman Matt Salmon, who has the guts to tell it like it is and a great sense of humor. The brightest guy in D.C., in my book, is U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl. Regardless whether you agree with him, he never ducks a question and always seems to have a grasp of the subject. U.S. Sen. John McCain and Congressman John Shadegg were good interviews, too, as was the last Democrat with statewide standing, Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings. On the other hand, Congressman Ed Pastor was always unavailable for comment, so we quit asking.

Many locals were fun too, from Sharon Bronson, Molly McKasson, Elaine Richardson, José Ibarra and Raul Grijalva on the Demo side, to Dan Schottel and Linda Barber on the GOP.

MOMENT OF TRUTH: When I computed that the time involved researching topics to scheduling guests, plus the travel time daily to the station, not to mention the writing time lost in the process, meant I was actually making less than the minimum-wage kid answering my phone.

WHEN I KNEW I HAD TO LEAVE: When the sales director worried that the NBC news crew video taping my show's response to the missing A-10 (a segment that was carried by both NBC Nightly News and the Today Show) might disturb the lawyers making a Jacoby & Myers infomercial.

WHAT I MISS THE MOST: The ability to bring information to the audience, as well as the opportunity to meet and interview some truly wonderful people.

WHAT I WON'T MISS: The stress, having to invite guests to a grubby building, the depressing shabbiness of the surroundings, and the shoddy equipment.

WOULD I DO IT AGAIN? Sure, for enough money and the right time slot. Oh, and with a real support staff and functional equipment. TW

Photos by Lente S. Hancho

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