This is going to upset some “journalists,” but it’s true. Every word. Backed up by massive amounts of audience research.
American media, of all sorts, from the oldest —newspapers, then the first broadcast platform of radio, through network television and cable, and into the hundreds of social media platforms—all of them pursue customers, upon whom advertising revenue depends, with a precision that is sharpened by an ever accumulating pile of research data.
Almost every major talk radio host knows their “core demographic,” and they also have research into the wants and needs of those listeners. I’m blessed to be an AM morning drive host, 6-9 AM EST, and my core audience —aged 35-64, usually on their way to work, educated with disposable income—want to know “breaking news,” followed by national headlines and news of the world. They are deeply interested in the 2018 elections. They want data. A pre-market market update is necessary, but they mostly want news. A lot of it. Delivered at the speed of coherence.
They love a diversity of voices, a kaleidoscope of points of view, but all “credentialed,” from the Washington Post’s Chief White House correspondent Philip Rucker to his counterpart at the New York Times’ Peter Baker, From Politico’s Eliana Johnson and The Hill’s Amy Parnes to the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker, Axios’ Mike Allen, columnist Salena Zito. Authors are welcome, and elected officials as well. But genuine journalists like Robert Costa, Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper and Margaret Brennan are valued because they are perceived, at least by most listeners, to be smart and informed. And fair. They may have a point of view, but at least they know the complexities of every issue. They are constrained by fairness. It is the essential “must have.”
My program and others like it reach millions of people over a month, and until the rise of the legion of Alexas and Echoes and other home devices, it was primarily a car-bound audience. Now these devices have brought me and my colleagues to the kitchen counter and the den. We are competing with cable —all day long. It is a sea change, little noticed outside our research departments. Talk radio has moved from the car into the home and audience. “Alexa, play Hugh Hewitt,” and my most recent snow appears. We news people —real news people—are going to win. Because as we are faster. And we are fair. We sort, categorize and prioritize. Cable is as slow as geological time by comparison. Layers must be pushed through. TelePrompTers must be loaded. We on the radio, we happy few, we change with the updates on a dozen screens from the major papers, to Drudge, and of course Twitter.
Prime table cable news evolved in almost the extract opposite direction of AM drive time talk radio. The big three pursued their niches with a relentless focus that assuaged and reinforced the needs of their “cores,” the needs not to be informed but to be assured. My audience is going to work, alert and by necessity obliged to be on top of events. Their audience is getting ready for bed, ready to be spoon fed an assurance that their core beliefs are shared…at least by someone.
The consequence is that nighttime “personalities”have become labeled as participants in the media wars, opponents or allies of the president of course, but with the audience as well. CNN’s Jim Acosta, most famously, is understood by fans and critics alike as simply a backbencher on the blue team. There is hardly a cable personality who isn’t categorized.
Most talk radio afternoon and evening hosts are the same. They have audiences drawn to a steady diet. The driving home-bound, like the getting-ready for bed folks, know what they want. Like restaurants, these shows serve up predictable fare, if more or less tasty given on any given day.
The nightly cable news is, for the most part, dead as “news” as a result. It’s entertainment programming built out of the bones of reporting. It’s a hard reality for people who understand themselves as journalists first to accept. But whatever they think they are doing, they are actually performing.
The consequences for real news are awful. Nobody wants to be part of a script from the State Department talking about the imprisonment of Pastor Brunson in Turkey. You can almost hear the clickers turning away. Cover the Fed? Aargh. Please, don’t tell me about the F-35, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine, or the elections in Pakistan. Talk about off-off-Broadway and the summer stock of “news.” Can’t we referee Michale Avenatti screaming at Allen Dershowitz about invitations to parties on Martha’s Vineyard? Can’t we please spend more time on Trump?
WWE met cable news long ago, and the two merged. It’s a money thing. But Alexa is going to save us. Really.