Monday, March 27, 2017


There is no doubt that news and talk radio is now enjoying an abundance of listeners. Last week, Nielsen Audio released a report – Diving Deeper Into PPM’s News/Talk Surge [link] – that examines the similarities and differences between the performance of commercial News/Talk stations and noncommercial NPR News/Talk stations.

Nielsen says the surge is unusual because listening to News/Talk stations typically drops back to normal listening levels after the November elections. Not now. The news is being driven by a President who seems to thrive on conflict, bravado and insults. The result is “must hear,” “must read,” “must watch” and “must comment” reporting that draws listeners like rubberneckers driving by an accident. Regardless of viewpoints, this is HOT media and it is likely to continue.

Nielsen looked at the performance of 66 noncom NPR News/Talk stations and 205 commercial News/Talk stations using February PPM data. About two-thirds of commercial News/Talk stations are actually all-Talk, featuring opinionated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh.  The other third are either “weather and traffic” stations such as 1010 WINS and KNX, or full-time news stations like WTOP.

According Nielsen’s analysis, commercial News/Talk stations have a significantly larger AQH Share of the overall audience than NPR News/Talk stations. Commercial station listeners tend to be older than noncom listeners. Both commercial and noncom News/Talk stations are seeing audience growth but the pace of growth for NPR News/Talk stations is greater.

Noncoms do better with Millennial-age listeners (18-34) than commercial stations.  Overall, the older a listener is, the more likely they are to listen to commercial News/Talk programming.


Nielsen is about measurable metrics, not about content. In strategic terms, commercial and noncom News/Talk stations are almost completely different.

On the right is a chart showing hour-by-hour programming on WUNC (NPR noncom) and WTKK (Commercial Talk) during Monday – Friday, 6am to 7pm, hours when the most people hear radio. WTKK is owned by iHeartMedia and has a schedule that is typical of commercial talk stations.

The entire 13 hours of programming on WTKK are talk shows. On WUNC, 10 of the 13 hours are newsmagazines. WUNC has 3 hours talk and interview programming.

All of the shows on WTKK are built around opinionated hosts. All of the shows on WUNC are assembles with a handful of hosts who are more prominent than others.  The emphasis on WTKK is opinion.  The emphasis on WUNC is most often fact-based reporting.

All four hosts on WTKK are older white men.  On WUNC there is a much wider diversity of ages, gender and backgrounds. The only things the two groups of stations have in common is that they are based on the spoken word.

Differences between WTKK and WUNC are perhaps best illustrated by the bio of WTKK “morning man” K. C. O’Dea on the station website [link]:

K. C. O’Dea
KC is a fifth generation cattle rancher from Wyoming, making him the obvious choice to talk about all things alternative rock. 

[O’Dea got] a few part time shifts between classes at a local alternative rock station he eventually started working for local concert venues as a stage hand. 

[He likes] exploring the latest restaurant or brewery, checking out all of our awesome music venues, and shamelessly claiming it’s all research when the boss asks why your eyes are bloodshot.

To me, this sounds like news according to Beavis & Butthead. There is nothing wrong with that.  My point is that the appeal of commercial and noncom News/Talk in very different.


While I was doing research for the story above I came across an interesting commentary in the Seattle Weekly [link] about “the maddening allure of KIRO radio.” KIRO is one of the nation’s leading commercial News/Talk stations.  They have hired public radio folks to host shows – Luke Burbank comes to mind.

This paragraph echoes what I said above:

The guiding philosophy of [KIRO] 97.3 FM can be summed up as this: Don’t be boring. There’s a word that gets used around the station, “stentorian,” and it’s a bad one. It’s how people describe what KIRO doesn’t do, which is to simply read people the news over the radio in the voice of a practiced broadcaster. It’s an approach meant to reflect the modern state of the news on a medium – FM radio – that is decidedly old-school.

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