New Formats Give Life to State and Local Issues
February 16, 2010
The microphones are powered up and the lights are glaring as the program host nods to his political guests. He welcomes them, one by one, to what he describes as a “Today Show-like” studio with large windows looking out to the street — and from the street to the live performance inside. As each guest echoes a morning greeting to the host, the cameras zoom in for close-ups.
Sounds like pretty standard television fare. But what’s different about this morning show is that everyone is wearing large headsets and speaking into large table microphones generally reserved for use on radio. But then, this is a radio show first and a television show second — one of several dramatic changes affecting coverage of politics and public policy issues in the capital city’s radio market.
Radio shows on TV, cross-pollinating radio shows and newspapers, and abandoning the AM talk band in favor of Internet streaming are all happening to political and other coverage coming out of Lansing.
The legendary beating that mainstream, “traditional” media took in 2009 is well documented when it comes to the newspaper industry. But radio wasn’t immune, leading several veterans of the medium now working in the Lansing market to try something new to connect with audiences, keep their medium relevant and reach beyond the capital city.
Michael Patrick Shiels’ show can be heard on WJIM 1240 AM and also viewed, because it’s simulcast on the local FOX television station.
Walt Sorg’s AM Lansing isn’t available on AM anymore, because he’s moved to TalkLansing.net, an online streaming radio venture he started with Chris Holman and Jim Fordyce. It went live on February 15.
And Kyle Melinn and Berl Schwartz host a talk show on 88.9 FM that’s driven directly by their stories and columns in the City Pulse newspaper. Melinn describes their one-hour weekly show as focusing on the paper’s two primary areas of interest: government and political news, plus “artsy, human interest stories.”
“Lansing is a tough market for talk radio,” said Melinn, who also is the editor of MIRS (Michigan Information and Research Service), a subscription-only daily newsletter on state government activity. “People often equate radio with music and escape and fun. Public affairs shows are important to get people to think about what’s going on out there, but it’s a challenge to make them fun at the same time.”
TalkLansing.net’s Holman is no newbie when it comes to radio or starting a media-related enterprise. A business-focused talk show host himself for 14 years, Holman is well known for his civic and entrepreneurial activities. The founder of Greater Lansing Business Monthly, he also serves as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s small business advocate and will host a show on TalkLansing.net.
You can bet that if Holman thinks there’s a reason to take local radio to the Internet — and a way to profit from its success — then there probably is.
Besides, Sorg has four decades of experience in AM radio and state government, and he says he can see the handwriting on the wall.
“AM radio’s lifespan is very limited. Radio has to evolve,” said Sorg, who started in the business covering Capitol politics in the late 1960s. “AM radio technology is antiquated and dying. There’s very little ‘local’ left in local radio anymore because everything is going regional or national.”
According to the report “2010 State of the Media” by Internet software firm Vocus, revenues for radio dropped approximately 15 to 20 percent in 2009. Those losses played a role in approximately 10,000 jobs being lost nationally in the radio industry last year.
Melinn, Shiels and Sorg agree that technology has played a role in reducing radio’s strength as a medium overall, but say there are some bright spots.
“The audience is even bigger for talk radio now,” said Shiels, who once was the producer for Hall of Fame radio personality J.P. McCarthy in Detroit. “People can get their music anywhere now — they aren’t so reliant on FM radio like they were in the past. But on the AM side, we have personalities, and local personalities at that. You can’t just push a button on your computer and get that.”
When Shiels moved to his storefront studio on Michigan Avenue, a short walk from the Capitol, last year, FOX 47 came calling.
“They asked to simulcast the show, but I didn’t want to just put cameras in the studio and shoot a radio show,” Shiels said. “That would be pretty boring, so we use lots of graphics and video and we move the cameras around.”
For his show, Sorg said he’s looking forward to the new frontier of streaming audio in a landscape unfettered by government regulations and censorship.
“We’ll self-censor, and as long as the listeners and advertisers are happy, that’s all we need,” Sorg said. “There’s a feeling of freedom that provides that is amazing. There are no rules — I’m making this up as I go along.”
In addition to webcasting live via Internet streaming, Sorg’s talk radio “station” also will post podcasts of the various shows and interviews, just as Shiels and City Pulse on the Air do on their websites.
“More people probably listen to our show at the City Pulse website than on the radio,” Melinn said. “The cross-marketing is important. Folks are a bit more selective of what they listen to. With Pandora and XM/Sirius satellite radio and mp3 players you can plug into your car…there are just so many different ways to listen to stuff. But if we’re able to get someone’s attention with a teaser, maybe that’s helpful in both directions.”
It’s the technology advancements that have Sorg and his partners — and their supporting advertisers — thinking they are on to something big.
“Not everybody will be ready to make the jump [from radio to Internet], but the audience we’re looking for is ready,” Sorg said. “They already have the equipment they need, and many business people [who commute] have been complaining about the lack of a signal on AM and not being able to hear our shows for more than a few minutes each morning.”
TalkLansing.net will have streaming apps available for mobile listening on smartphones and, of course, they are planning on attracting listeners all day long on home and work computers.
“Technology is quickly coming into cars as well,” Sorg noted. “Ford and Hyundai have a major push to have Internet-capable cars and the others won’t be far behind. What changed radio forever was when automobile manufacturers started putting FM radios into cars. Now they’re putting computers into cars.”
But there’s more than technology needed to get listeners for a show. The personalities and content are what people are looking for, Sorg and Shiels agree.
“I’m friendly to everybody and I let everybody have their piece and say what they want to say,” Shiels said. “What I really like about our show is that I’m not cynical and I’m not an angry American. We have fun with the politicians, but we’re not mean to them. You can be informed and entertained at the same time in a positive fashion.”
Shiels’ show is also broadcast simultaneously on 11 radio stations across Michigan. The only market he’s absent from is Detroit. With a more statewide audience, Shiels’ show takes on a more regional flair than Sorg’s does. Sorg believes his tighter market is a plus for drawing in his new audience. Ironically, while web streaming gives Sorg and his partners a potential global audience, they say it also enables them to concentrate on local coverage and beat competitors who have moved increasingly to syndicated programs.
“There’s a real need for local information for local listeners,” Sorg said. “People are thirsting for something to listen to that is relevant to their lives and, hopefully, that’s what we’ll provide.”
Sorg complains that much of the radio content on AM and FM is now “controlled by national consultants” and “has no relevance to people.”
“I’m really gratified with the response from advertisers,” Sorg said, noting that nearly every one of them is following him from WILS AM 1320 to his online endeavor. “It’s a little bit of blind faith, but the reality is that local radio hasn’t existed in radio for a long time.”
Jack Ebling, a former colleague of Sorg’s at WILS, agrees there’s a need for more “local” in local radio, but says he’s nowhere near ready to abandon the AM frequency band. Ebling, a former newspaper sportswriter, author and publisher of a new sports magazine — in addition to being a political junkie — hosts the only local afternoon talk show in Lansing and co-hosts a sports show Saturday mornings with Tom Crawford.
“There is a tremendous, underserved and untapped demand for local radio,” said Ebling, who has done a daily show on 1320 AM since 2006. “That’s what radio was supposed to be originally. One of the shortcomings of local radio is that many stations have abandoned local radio to parrot the same thing.”
A couple of local personalities have been on the radio in mid-Michigan and the Detroit market talking politics, but have since exchanged those efforts for guest-host spots or commentaries that run on other shows. John Truscott, owner of the lobbying/public relations firm John Truscott Group, used to take part in a weekly panelist program on WWJ in Detroit. Bill Ballenger, a former state senator turned pundit and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, had a once-per-week talk show on public radio WKAR AM in East Lansing for nearly 12 years before it died out.
“We made news every single week that we did the show,” Truscott said, noting that his panel of hosts — two Republicans and two Democrats — often had soundbites from their show’s guests air on WWJ’s news broadcasts. “When you’re dealing with public affairs, I think your audience is probably fairly narrow anyway. But this next election is going to be bottom-up from the grassroots and not top-down where the media tell you what to think.”
Ballenger agreed with Truscott that there’s a thirst for political and government information that’s growing. His other work, which includes a lot of time writing, made producing and hosting a weekly radio show too much of a burden, he said.
“Walt Sorg and Michael Patrick Shiels are true radio people — that’s what they have always done best,” Ballenger said. “I’ll continue to treat radio as a sidebar, but I honestly don’t think that radio as a purveyor of political news has to do anything beyond what it’s doing right now. There’s always a huge audience out there for it, drive-time or otherwise. It will survive when everything else fails.”
“We have very loyal listeners,” Ebling said. “The audience is fragmented now because there are so many different options. But for some people, we are their conduit; we tell them what’s happening. TV stories are short, newspapers have shrunk — we offer them something between soundbite journalism and the hour-long interviews on NPR.”
Ebling said the biggest fault with radio is that it hasn’t promoted itself enough.
“1320 has a new transmitter with a much stronger signal,” Ebling said. “We’ve been heard as far away as northern Indiana and the Upper Peninsula. I think we are still building a base.”
Ebling noted that the younger generations today really aren’t aware of what’s on AM radio, although they are “less likely to listen to a public affairs show anyway.”
The folks who do listen to Ebling’s show, and those of his counterparts, are the “movers and shakers and opinion makers,” Ebling said.
Those movers and shakers may listen to the national shows with their ideological head banging, but if they want their chance to be part of the action, they need to reach out to the local shows — and they do.
Ebling said local and state officials reach out to local radio because they’re likely to get a fairer shot at getting their message out.
“I’m trying to provide some balance — it seems there are an awful lot of conservative-oriented talk shows,” Ebling said. “I’m trying to provide an informational approach instead of preaching and screaming. I think Lansing is an information city and people appreciate being informed about all sides on an issue.
“I certainly think there’s a place in this community for moderate or progressive talk radio,” Ebling added. “My political views are often restrained on the air because I’m trying to present information and not convince people. If I’m listening to national talk radio all day, I’m going to hear the same philosophies and the same ideas spouted over and over by different voices. Whether I agree or disagree with what’s being said, I’d never sit and listen to the same thing presented over and over and over.”
While Shiels would disagree with Sorg that his show isn’t local to Lansing, he does preach from the same hymnal as Sorg and Ebling when it comes to casting a wide demographic net and not leaning too far left or right in mid-Michigan.
“We have college students, moms and elected officials listening. We talk politics, entertainment, sports, news and lifestyle,” Shiels said. “We try to leave out the boring parts of life. If it’s the kind of thing you are going to talk about when you get to the office in the morning, that’s what we want to talk about.”
Sorg said people won’t hear any “right-wing or left-wing hate shows” on his stream. “This is a very left-center community and we have to respect that huge center that hasn’t been served by local radio playing national shows,” he said.
Shiels agrees that people want to move away from the partisan bickering heard on the national shows.
That’s why, when he has a politician as a guest, “I try to ask questions you might ask if you ran into them at Troppo [a fashionable downtown restaurant] rather than some loaded question from a political interview,” Shiels said.
“When we opened the new studio, we had the governor in and she brought me a housewarming present. It was a plaque that reads, ‘Good morning, let the stress begin.’ When I sit in this chair in the morning, I feel like I’m pushing the gas pedal on a car. I think, ‘I’ve got to get this going’ and I try not to waste people’s time.”
AM’s fate depends heavily on the shows it offers, according to Ebling. The sports show he and Crawford do on Saturday mornings draws a good crowd that likes to spend time with the hosts.
“Our Saturday morning has a time-spent-listening of two hours and 15 minutes, which is astronomical for this city,” Ebling said. “That’s an appointment — it’s a destination for them on Saturday morning.”
Ebling echoed Sorg’s and Shiels’ sentiment about listeners needing a local connection to be drawn to a show regularly.
“When you do away with local talent and local information, there is no reason to have a connection,” Ebling said. “It’s not that you don’t care what happens nationally or internationally, but you’re most impacted by what happens within a 20-mile radius — and that’s what local radio has gotten away from.”
Whether it’s through your car speakers, your TV speakers or your computer speakers, the local talent in Lansing is going to be running a serious race for your attention and your time in 2010.
“We have regular local guests and there is a familiarity there — but part of the excitement is that day to day we could be talking about anything,” Ebling said. He noted that he recently had Christopher Knight — The Brady Bunch’s Peter Brady — on his show because he’s the new host of a television show for the Michigan Lottery. “If something is a part of your world, we want to be a part of it.”
Part of the attraction for local radio is getting the news and views with a fair shake, according to Shiels, who added that he makes decisions about his show based on “what J.P. McCarthy would have done in any situation.”
“We have an unspoken reverence for him on my show,” Shiels said. “His way was always to take the road to quality. We try to get the right person involved in the story. And with his reputation, everyone knew they were going to get a fair shot. ‘No agenda,’ would be the number one thing I took from him, because that’s why people trusted that he’d be fair to them.”
Appealing to a local audience is never easy because in every community there is a diversity that runs deep, as do the emotions for what’s happening in someone’s hometown. But if you spend any time talking with local radio talk show hosts, you’ll soon discover there’s a special drive to succeed that keeps these guys talking into a microphone.
“Everyone has an agenda. Mine is encouraging ideas,” Sorg said.
Let the stress begin, indeed.
Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. He is the communications administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan and an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.