Hi there. Me again. It's been a while, I know - life's been intervening, as it sometimes does.
But the news breaking tonight about Rush Limbaugh changing stations in Philadelphia deserves some comment and explanation, and I'll try to offer some cogent thoughts right over the squiggle...
1. This is a "BFD," but not exactly in the way it first appears.
Over in StuHunter's rec-listed diary, there's celebration going on, and it's not entirely unjustified.
WPHT is an important station in a big market, and it's certainly a good thing that Limbaugh's venom will no longer be spilled there.
But from my vantage point inside the radio industry, I think there's something else at play behind the scenes. Here's why: first of all, WPHT is owned by CBS, which is a massive player in American broadcasting but not a huge player in talk radio. CBS tends to move in a different, less-controversial direction in its spoken-word programming. It's known for its all-news stations (WCBS and WINS in New York City, WBBM in Chicago, KCBS in San Francisco) and its sports talkers (WFAN in New York, WSCR in Chicago, WJFK in Washington).
CBS owns only a handful of stations that do political talk: in fact, I think it has had only four stations carrying Rush. (In addition to Philadelphia, that's KMOX St. Louis, KXNT Las Vegas and WTIC Hartford.)
So what happened here? Did Rush leave WPHT, or did WPHT leave Rush?
Nobody's saying, but I have a pretty good hunch: I think our pressure made CBS uncomfortable with Rush in the long run. This is the same company that's still smarting a little bit from the Don Imus "nappy-headed hoes" mess a few years ago, and its natural inclination is more toward the moderate flavor of Michael Smerconish than the nastiness of a Limbaugh or Savage. Heck, CBS even owns a progressive talk station, KPTK in Seattle.
I think WPHT's contract with Rush was close to expiring, and I would not be at all surprised if CBS told Premiere, Rush's syndicator, that it wasn't going to renew at the hefty price Premiere (part of Clear Channel) surely wanted.
Philadelphia has never been a market that's taken kindly to out-of-town talkers. It wants to hear local voices, and Smerconish has been quite successful for WPHT, probably more so than Rush.
It also didn't help that WPHT is the radio home of the Phillies, and Phillies day games preempt Limbaugh. At some point, that situation had to give -
2. Another player enters the market
...and fortunately for Premiere, it had somewhere else to put Rush.
You probably haven't heard of "Merlin Media." Nobody did until last year, when former Clear Channel head honcho Randy Michaels (and thus Rush's former boss, at least for a little while) got some venture capital behind him to start buying radio stations in big markets. His new Merlin group bought FM stations in Chicago and NYC and flipped them to all-news...and has watched them go just about nowhere in the ratings.
Merlin is buying a station in Philadelphia from Family Radio, the "world is about to end" gang from California that ran through something like $50 million of its listeners' money promoting last year's apocalypse-that-wasn't.
Don't read anything into the fact that the station, now known as WKDN, has been a Christian signal. Merlin is buying it as "a stick" - just the transmitter and license, no studios, no programming. Think of it as a lot in a nice neighborhood, and now it's up to Merlin to demolish the shack that's been sitting there and build a McMansion.
Having learned its lesson from its NY and Chicago failures, Merlin is apparently looking to do something different in Philadelphia...and lucky for it, it walked into a situation where Premiere wanted (needed?) a new home for Rush.
I'm fairly certain Merlin is paying Premiere much less for Rush than CBS did. Michaels is known for driving a tough bargain in business, and it certainly saves some face for Premiere to be able to claim a new affiliate for Limbaugh - on FM, no less - than to face the negative publicity that would come from Rush losing Philadelphia entirely.
3. Moving Rush to FM is a crapshoot.
There's some discussion over in StuHunter's diary about the relative merits of the WPHT AM signal versus the 106.9 FM signal.
I could get very technical here about watts and antenna height and so on, but suffice it to say that both WPHT and the new 106.9 Rush signal are what we radio people call "full market" - anywhere you go within the area that Arbitron designates as the "Philadelphia radio market," you should be able to get a reasonably strong signal from either WPHT or 106.9.
WPHT is a 50,000-watt "clear channel" AM station, which means there are very few other signals on 1210 at night and thus WPHT can be heard all over the eastern US and Canada after dark. That doesn't help Rush, who's on in the middle of the day when AM signals don't travel the way they do at night. In fact, WPHT has some known technical issues having to do with the conductivity of the ground around its transmitter site in Moorestown, New Jersey that make it harder to hear in some parts of suburban Philadelphia than it should be.
106.9 (which will probably get new call letters soon) will be moving its transmitter from Camden, New Jersey to the middle of Philadelphia. It may not go quite as far out as the 1210 signal, but the only thing that matters to station owners is the ratings within the local market.
It's not universally true that "AM always goes farther than FM," or vice versa. There's a whole black art to figuring out where radio signals travel and why, and the magicians who know how to do it well are few and far between. (Randy Michaels, who runs Merlin Media, is one of them.)
So leaving the signals aside, what should be your takeaway from Rush moving stations? Simply this: trying to build a new station around Limbaugh is far from a sure thing, especially in a fairly blue market like Philadelphia.
In Boston, Clear Channel pulled Limbaugh away from his longtime affiliate, WRKO 680, and put a new signal on the air, WXKS 1200, calling it "Rush Radio" and trying to brand the entire station around its star. It was a colossal flop. Surprisingly few of Limbaugh's listeners followed him up the dial to "Rush Radio," which quietly changed its name to "Talk 1200."
Philadelphia's 106.9 will be in the same position: it's a frequency nobody in Philadelphia knows about, and so Merlin will have to build an audience from scratch.
And while it's true that FM generally draws a younger audience (and thus more attractive to advertisers) than AM, just putting Rush on FM doesn't automatically translate to more or younger Rush listeners. He's a grumpy old codger, and he gets grumpier and codger-ier by the day. There's nothing magical about being on FM that will change that.
4. Which is why Merlin will want you to get upset.
Randy Michaels lives on controversy the way Rachel Maddow lives on infrastructure, or the way Keith Olbermann lives on fighting with his bosses.
He trails controversy behind him wherever he goes. He wants protesters complaining that he's carrying Rush. He wants them as noisy as possible, and he wants to make sure the TV stations and newspapers are out there covering it.
What he does not want is to have his new station get completely ignored. That's his worst-case scenario: Rush's ratings flatline, nobody's paying attention to the station, and in a year or two 106.9 changes format and he's dealing with unhappy investors.
We can help make that happen, too.
Bottom line here?
5. Rush is slowly becoming marginalized.
Emphasis on "slowly," because as I've been saying from the start, Limbaugh's not going to disappear overnight, especially with the support of Clear Channel's own powerful stations.
If Clear Channel owned talk stations everywhere in the country, and if it could still sell top-shelf advertising on all of them during Rush (an increasingly doubtful proposition), Premiere and Rush would have nothing to worry about.
Clear Channel's own stations don't cover the entire country, though, and the weak link is becoming increasingly evident - the other companies that run Rush affiliates are having a harder and harder time making the numbers work.
It's CBS now, but it will be Cumulus when that company's contracts to carry Rush are up in New York and Chicago and Dallas next year. Will Merlin's New York and Chicago stations pick up Rush if WABC and WLS don't renew? That's what Premiere may be banking on, but it depends somewhat on how the Philadelphia experiment works.
Understand: everyone here wants to save face. We're not going to get the schadenfreude of a press release in which a WABC or a KMOX announces "we're dropping Rush because his ratings are in a freefall, we can't sell ads and Premiere wants to charge us an arm and a leg."
No, it will happen the way it's happening now in Philadelphia, as "America's Anchorman" finds his bully pulpit slowly eroding from under him as his biggest affiliates peel away and he ends up in more marginal parts of the dial...with the real comeuppance arriving whenever Rush's fat contract with Premiere is up in a few years.
He may still be on the air, somewhere, but Rush will never see another $50 million contract. If there's a "BFD" out of today's news, that's it right there.