Radio Industry’s Fake Outrage Over KGO

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People are outraged.  People are sad.  People are in shock.  People are now, finally, speaking up over the execution of one of America’s former great and “heritage” stations, KGO-AM in San Francisco.

Why now?  What happened last week to KGO has been happening to radio stations, personalities, talk hosts, support personnel and news staffs for the past 20 years.  Formats changed, jobs eliminated and for KGO, through regulation, an AM broadcast band brought to a point of uselessness.   Yet, few have spoken up, including you.  Why is that?

Many blog comments, predictably pointing fingers at Cumulus Media, the corporate owners of KGO, include how the poster “loves radio” and how “radio is their passion.”  Really?  Where were you when the National Association of Broadcasters (N.A.B.), the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.), Congress and President Bill Clinton almost mortally wounded radio in 1996?  Where were you when your colleagues were being laid off the past two decades?  What about the recent foolish plans to save AM radio through so-called “revitalization?”

Why so quiet radio person?

Are you believing tranquility within your company will keep you hanging on to your job a few more months? Of course, if you’re honest you know the ultimate fate coming your way and sadly coming the way of most radio people.

Why so quiet radio industry trades?

Many industry newsletters and trade publications are nothing more than mouth pieces for corporate consolidators and remain silent because of a display ad or two purchased from these companies.  That ad buy comes with an understood price.  Silence.

Ever notice when someone is promoted to a job overseeing multiple markets, now doing the job of three, four or more people, one rarely hears of those being displaced?  Why is that part of the story being ignored?

Tranquility.  Speak nothing of what is really happening.  Keep the status quo.

First some hard truths.

KGO has been on its knees for years, even back in the ABC Radio days.  Citadel and now Cumulus Media are just owners who inherited a problem created decades ago.  KGO should have made strategic changes and focused on new generations of audience then, but it didn’t.  They remained focused on an aging audience of Grandma and Grandpa, while ignoring the generational changes happening in San Francisco area.

Hey. Where did all those “youngsters” come from in Silicon Valley?

The future audience was obvious, yet it was ignored.

KGO kept those ratings up and its #1, 12+ ranking, while its 25-54 audience, the future audience it needed, dwindled to embarrassing low levels. Its cumulative audience was dropping, but as long as Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t get the walker moving to change the radio station, KGO’s time spent listening or TSL kept its total audience shares up.

The end has been coming for 20 years or more.  KGO may have been #1, 12+, but 25-54 it was ranked number 10 or lower in dairy ratings.

Then the ratings methodology changed from diary to Arbitron’s (now Nielsen’s) PPM.  KGO, still a market leader in total audience share, declined to a rank of number 20 or lower in the 25-54 demographic it needed.  The station was now unsellable.

Claudia Lamb, a former employee at KGO, wrote an excellent piece about the station’s death (as she called it).  She says at one point KGO was showing a profit of $5 million.  That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s not.  Not in the 4th largest radio market in America.  Once Cumulus Media bought Citadel, fresh from its bankruptcy, that $5 million profit wasn’t enough money to keep its lenders happy.

KGO died a death by a thousand cuts over two decades or more.

Now, it’s about a new generation of talk, which is rather laughable.  The day starts with a syndicated morning show from Sacramento, Armstrong and Getty.  They’re above average radio talent.  But, are they better than The Today Show, Good Morning America, Morning Joe or Fox and Friends?  No.  It’s those shows that are the real competition for KGO now.

And what’s the real future of KGO’s new generation of talk as Cumulus Media puts lipstick on this pig?  The website revealed the important programming after last week’s culling.  Paid and brokered weekend shows to pay the power bill.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 11.27.09 AMI’ve written a lot about the future of talk radio.  If it doesn’t change and change quickly, its end is coming. There is no future focusing on an aging audience of Baby Boomers, as KGO tragically found out.  The future only exists with younger generations, with hosts speaking with them about their concerns, interests and lifestyles.  This is not a story specific to the news/talk format either.  It’s a cautionary tale for all of radio.

The story of KGO’s end is about poor strategic planning in the 90’s, poor planning for a change in rating methodology in the 2000’s and now poor planning for its future.

KGO’s sister stations, WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago are both in the same ratings shape.  What does the future hold for these stations?  Many news/talk stations are considered “heritage” and there in lies the problem. “Heritage” looks back and has only one meaning.  It means “old.”  There is no future in being “heritage” of anything.  By definition, being “heritage” prevents you from looking forward.

If you find yourself working for a “heritage” news/talk station and the ratings show few people under 60 listening, what does the future hold for you?

KGO just showed you.

  27 comments for “Radio Industry’s Fake Outrage Over KGO

  1. April 4, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    Made a similar point in my column Friday:

    We weren’t silent.

    • April 4, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      Perry, you are never silent. You are one of the forward thinkers and voices advocating change! That is something I very much admire about you. I hope you’re doing well. Darryl

      • April 4, 2016 at 9:04 pm

        As are you. I love that you’re on this- I was feeling a little alone amidst the mourning… Thanks!

      • April 5, 2016 at 12:30 am

        So what might this mean for the pride and joy of Cincinnati and iHeart Media, WLW?

      • April 5, 2016 at 12:43 am

        KGO was the WLW of the west. WLW evolved over time. I have said many times, WLW will be the last AM station to go down.

    • John Davis
      April 5, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      Perry, I’ve been reading you for a long time (and agreeing with you, for that matter). My thoughts:

      1. Talk radio for 25-54 year olds isn’t dead. It’s just happening down the hall from many of these same heritage stations at their sister sports talk stations. To the guy listening to KNBR, KGO is the station is father (and grandfather) listens to. So we do have a decent idea of what works, it’s just that those shares and billing is happening on a different signal in the cluster.

      2. KFI seems to be doing a lot of things right. Not everything they’ve done has worked, but it’s a station that sounds like LA. And that’s the key. It’s not “rock & roll imaging” as others have opined. You can put whatever imaging you want behind a host, but if their show isn’t relevant and doesn’t connect, it doesn’t matter what bumper music you use or witty stagers you write. Be your audience, your town. It’s more difficult than it sounds, but the fundamentals have never really changed.

      KGO will not be the last heritage station that gets blown up, and this lineup may not last. But unless the future of AM is brokered/ethnic, it’s time to try something new. If what you’re doing isn’t working, what do you have to lose?

  2. R. Scott
    April 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    With all due respect to Perry, you write a column, you’re not that well known or high profile. The former Philly jock sets the tone and content of the site, it is what it is. All Happy talk all the time. Not your fault, okay, but the reality. The other online trades are pretty much press release platforms, no more no less. Then there is the guy yelling “fire” each day on the other side of a pay wall. Not much in between, but I digress.

    I agree with most of the piece, But you failed to blame Cumulus for the move to compete with KCBS more directly in 2011 instead of re-focusing the station. We have a lot of myopic media consultants who constantly talk about reinventing talk radio, yet recycle the same ideas over and over to no avail (see what I did there).

    Here’s the reality we have some 35 year old Ops manager with serious Top 40 and AC skills, programming the News-Talk in the absolute most clueless way. Promos not updated-check. Various feeds running at the same time-check. Sloppy or dated traffic and news reports-check. Payday Saturday programming (infommercial marathons) check. Except in some isolated cases the format is dead. KGO prediction 2.1 6+, 20th 25-54.

    • April 5, 2016 at 11:33 am

      To be mildly fair, Cumulus’ hands were tied in the odd news block arrangement, with Ronn Owens’ talk show as the lone holdover. As it turned out, Ronn made his contract as such that he COULDN’T and can’t be removed unless Cumulus is willing to buy his whole contract out, which is apparently cost-prohibitive.

      None of the other pre-2011 era hosts had that provision, and it short-circuited Cumulus’ attempt to move Ronn to KSFO afternoon drive last week.

      • Name
        April 10, 2016 at 11:34 pm

        Replacing a boring mush headed ‘thirdway democrat’ with get rich quick 24 advertising wouldn’t increase listener/audience counts.
        Maybe by next year, KGO will be just another creflo dollar siren (broadcaster).

  3. April 4, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    Darryl, you (and PMS) both have said it well. You’re not alone.

    You posts reminded me of the thoughts shared by others, over the world’s history:

    “ First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    There is this sense in all of us to think we might be different, we might be spared. Only we aren’t different and we won’t be spared, it is just not our time. Not our moment. Till it is.

    Radio was overtake by people who had no interest in its future, only making money now and then moving on to the next fertile field to acquire-grow-harvest and do it all over again.

    The perfect timing radio enjoyed when TV came into existence – transistor radios, car radios, baby boomers – is not to be as the IoT (Internet of Things) comes into disruptive dominance. Radio so needed strategic planning 20 years ago. But as George Carlin once said about the people in control, “They have a big F*CKIN’ PLAN and you ain’t in it.”

    So where do we (K)GO from here?

  4. April 4, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    So its not just in Merry old England this is happening? But despite obituaries being read over the radio coffin for the past 20 years, it is still thriving over much of Europe, and despite all the competition from new media, such asd social media, and TV so easy on phones, radio’s audience has dipped by only 10%. Sure, it doesnt take much money here (less than $900 million a year for the whole of England) but the listeners still love it.
    Great report Darryl.

    • April 5, 2016 at 3:13 am

      WLW made the changes they needed to make to attract a younger audience in the 80s. Largely the same crew wasn’t able to perform the same magic on WGN in 2010 or so. 20 years ago was almost too late for the KGOs of the world. Nobody has the answer to bringing younger people to talk radio as we know it because there is none. Podcasting may be the “talk radio” of the future.

  5. April 5, 2016 at 1:30 am

    Excellent column, Daryl. I owned an AM/FM combo in Lima, Ohio from 1986 to 1997. We turned our little 250 AM station from oldies to news/talk because, back then, there was no future in music on AM. Instead, we did a four hour local news block in morning drive, modeled after the big city all-news stations, followed by a two hour live, local talk show hosted by Easter Straker, a local broadcasting icon for 50 years. She interviewed local people and national personalities. Her show was always sold out, at premium prices.

    We did hop onboard with Rush Limbaugh in the afternoon and ran live national talk shows in the evening from NBC Talknet. On Saturdays we had a local sports talk program hosted by the local TV station sports director.

    We did live remote broadcasts from schools, churches, county fairs, car dealers and anyplace else we could think of. We put on special events, like an annual Rib Cook-Off (your old pal Gary Burbank was a judge one year), a Business Expo, a Food Show, a Health & Fitness Expo and many more.

    In other words, we were an active and vital part of the local community. We did it on shoestring budget, but we got it done–and listeners and advertisers showed their appreciation by patronizing our sponsors who, in turned, increased their advertising on our stations. Twenty years later, the formula for being a successful broadcaster hasn’t changed all that much, but the methods and the programming necessary to create and hold a desirable audience most certainly have. Maybe when IHeart, Cumulus and all the other big boys finally give up the ghost, local people in all those markets will pick up the ball and actually do local radio the right way–with the local part.

    • April 5, 2016 at 5:14 pm


      Thank you for the thoughts and also for reading the blog. I really appreciate it. To your point, radio must be “locally relevant” and a reflection of its market. Addressing the concerns of its target audience and providing a voice and comfort when needed. That is part of what is missing today. Turning radio into a simple commodity verses a product involved in a person’s life.

      I agree. There are many that would like to pick up that “ball” and do radio again.

      Have a great week.


    • Jody
      April 5, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      I could not agree with you more. Local radio is not local if it’s micro-managed from some corporation 3500 miles away.

  6. April 5, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Back in 2010, Corus Broadcasting took not just one, but TWO 50kW Montreal AM clears silent (CINF 690 and CINW 940). For all intents and purposes, they simply turned off the lights and walked away.

    THAT is Cumulus’ endgame for KGO, WLS, WABC and KABC… they’ll never admit it, of course.

  7. April 5, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Reblogged this on artversnick and commented:
    As usual, Darryl is “dead-on” with his thoughts.

    • April 5, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      Hey Art. Thank you so much for the thoughts, comments and for reading the blog.


  8. Jody
    April 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    As someone who worked for the “legacy” station since the days when it pulled 10 share rating in morning drive, I have witnessed the demise of the station and the industry who follows it. Why? Because KGO is owned by one of the four companies now controlling over 90% of the industry. That alone is something that should scare the bejesus out of baby boomers, millennialist and everyone in between, before and whatever generation comes next… No one entity should have such control of the 4th estate. As KGO goes so does the industry: it’s the tail wagging the dog, the dog wagging the tail and the orifice that connects the two,” but at least there is some relief that comes from there. No such thing is going to ever happen at KGO because of who the ownership is. A company whose name is so apropos. Their unknowing of the medium, the markets; as they’ve showed over and over again by killing all the other major radio stations they own. (KABC, WABC, WLS and WMAL) I see the scenario playing over and over again in preparation for what’s about to come, bankruptcy. They will go before a bankruptcy judge show them all they have dome to try and cut costs but despite all they will tell the court they could not meet their obligations and file for bankruptcy. The final chapter in killing KGO began to play out in 2011. That’s when Cumulus announced it was rebranding KGO as “news and information,” and moved from a news-talk format to a primarily news format. The company fired all but one of the regular M-F talk hosts and instead expanded its news operation.
    I wanted to hear the “new” format and was listening to Justin Wittmayer as Ronn Owens first guest who said that there are glorious days ahead with the “NEXT GENERATION OF KGO,” and the new format.
    What is new about a format that played out in San Francisco when Justin was still a baby or even been born yet. This format has been brought back in San Francisco over and over again since the early days of radio. Don Sherwood, called, “The World’s Greatest Disc Jockey,” is credited for starting it all. Carter B Smith along with twosomes Frank Dill and Mike Cleary whose Dilll and Cleary show on then NBC Radio network’s KNBR was number one in AMD for a long time. Then came others like Gene Nelson, Dr. Don Rosre and Alex Bennett. KGO Became famous when the New-Talk format was introduced by legendary programmer Jim Dunbar, who eventually led the starship station’s morning drive news block.
    This move by KGO and Cumulus is nothing more than a last gap by those local managers who are still taking orders from Atlanta until the nation’s second largest broadcaster is enveloped in bankruptcy They’re trying to hold on to their job, no matter what the cost to others or consequences.
    There is no question as to where this is all leading to. Why did Cumulus bring in a person to run the company with no knowledge in broadcasting and whose last claim to fame was the deep cuts in head count at the company that eventually filed for bankruptcy. I made recommendations to managers from as far back as when KGO was owned by Cap Cities and as one on air staffer once told me. The company is living off of its legacy, They don’t need to pay for “research”

  9. April 6, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    This all needed to be said – the article and these follow up comments.
    Heritage is backward focused and there’s nothing backward about a medium that continues to grow total audience. It’s the reason I’m glad to be in this segment of our industry – working for a mobile medium, that delivers a qualified audience, and isn’t so cluttered that you don’t know where/if/to whom your message is being heard.
    Radio has been its own worst enemy in regards to self-talk, but for those informed among us, we are versed in the reasons radio remains viable and how it delivers value to commerce.
    Great discussion all.

    • April 6, 2016 at 9:59 pm

      Thank you Melanie. My radio favorite is when a “rock station” claims to be “heritage.” Rock music and “old” don’t go together, you know? Have a great week. Darryl

      • April 12, 2016 at 9:13 pm

        Hi Darryl and thanks for your comment. Sorry I’m just seeing it now. I stopped blogging for years and they’ve changed the navigation, so I didn’t realize.
        Well, I’m a hip hop fan and apparently too old for some blood donation screen, as I learned a couple of days ago. So you never know! Thanks for chiming in the conversation.

  10. April 6, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Some of us have spoken, vociferously, for years. It’s usually those of us already let go by corporate blood-letting. The fraction of people still in the building, especially the abused back office staffs? They have bills to pay. So, rather than focus on amount of outrage, let’s focus on saving radio. Starving iHeart and forcing them to sell radio assets to people smart enough to get local talent back in the game is a start. If it’s not already too late.

  11. Stacey Cohen
    April 7, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I think Darryl is pretty much right on. This didn’t happen yesterday it happened 20 years ago with consolidation. It happened with the invention of technology. Automation became one of the first demises.You can bitch and moan and hide behind the office planters, but it has been coming for a long time. It has been a slow progression of buying to many stations not enough money to support having local so they used syndicated talent and with that came local jobs as well as the fall of the roll of the programmer who was an artist that had the job of painting pictures.

    We can cry and scream and blame corporate and the fact that companies THOUGHT they saw an opportunity to make money, but haven’t seemed to figure out being local and focusing on the here and now is what is really important.Everybody likes to talk about themselves and if you transfer that thought to a community it is the same idea. There are many reasons it has been dying a very slow painful death with careers being butchered left and right.

    BUT… Like anything what can we do to save it? Is it over? Do we just cover each signal with a white sheet and say RIP. There are soooooo many creative minds, I think there has to be some integration and some way to use these signals and blow life back in. So I agree a discussion needs to be had at the NAB people need to talk instead of figuring out how to survive in this jungle of red and black wires that carry a voice we need some ideas on how to thrive. AND QUICK… I’d like to get back on the air.

  12. April 7, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    Daryl: You’re on spot as always. But, a station has to be more than Sportstalk, as WLW proved though, as you have noted, they’re developing hardening of the artery’s like other AM’s. Not to mention an increasing liability as the debt of iHeart grows and grows. Surely younger people would listen to talk programming if it was about THEM, their interests and their local area. I am a big proponent of local radio. But I’m not afraid of computers if they are used correctly. Not every station is a 50,000 watt monster. Local stations in those small towns can’t afford to operate live 24/7 anymore. But they CAN have local people and local programming for most of the day.

  13. June 2, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    I needed a cheap car radio for my fifteen-year-old Acura (I’m not proud, it still runs and I still love the car). I was surprised at the number of cheap Chinese radios now for sale on eBay that are actually pretty good for what they are. The sound quality is actually pretty decent, unlike the sound quality of cheap radios 20 years before.

    I was even more surprised that I had to scrutinize each listing very carefully. Why? Because more often than not the radios they were selling were FM only radios. AM radio is truly dead.

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