The Incentives that Drive Talk Radio Demand Large and Consistent Audiences
Radio talk shows are designed to reach the broadest possible audience, and to maintain that audience for the longest possible time.
- Larger audiences attract higher advertising rates, all other things being equal, because advertisers generally wish to reach the largest possible audience. Since advertising time during any given program is a scarce resource available to advertisers, larger audiences generally attract higher advertising rates.
- Sustained audiences (measured in terms of "time spent listening" or TSL) are a holy grail because most advertising is scheduled per hour. Most talk programming contains up to fifteen minutes or more of advertising, spread out over three to five commercial breaks each hour. Since advertisers doesn't know during which of the breaks their messages will be played, they will tend to favor shows during which larger shares of the audience listen for longer portions of the hour (thus maximizing the probability that the audience will hear their message).
Most talk shows are three hours long, and air five days a week. Thus, most hosts spend 15 hours a week actually broadcasting their shows. Assuming that most hosts will devote a standard 40 hours to their shows and show-related preparation ("showprep"), just 25 hours remain after on-air time for showprep and other obligations.
The amount of time that can be devoted to showprep is thus a limited resource, like any other. Assuming that the host's 40-hour work week is allocated completely to either on-air time or showprep (a very generous assumption), the host spends 25 hours on showprep for every 15 hours of broadcasting, or just under two hours of prep to every hour on the air.
By comparison with similar jobs, this is a very low ratio of prep to delivery:
- Television reporters and photographers may easily spend an hour gathering footage and preparing stories for each minute used in a broadcast-ready report.
- University professors are told to prepare lectures well in advance, including facts, examples, and sample questions -- as well as to rehearse their lectures in advance. Professors are ordinarily responsible for classroom lecture time of 12 to 16 hours per week, or roughly comparable to the on-air requirements for a talk-show host. For both professor and talk-show host, contributions from the audience cannot be relied upon for either quantity or quality.
The preparation-time difference between lectures and talk-show programming emerges after the first use of the lecture material. Once written, a lecture can later be changed, adapted, or re-used in full, while a broadcast is only good once -- it has no shelf life.
Political opinions need not be researched nor be particularly well-informed. In fact, an individual with a special gift for inductive reasoning (or simply the gift of gab) can stretch discussion on a single opinion for hours on end.
The dominance of opinions on talk programming is especially compounded because most hosts try to remain consistent in their opinions over time, so as not to alienate their core audiences. Thus, the same core arguments on which one argument may be made are often extended to new subjects on later dates.
The Incentives to Maintain an Opinion-Based Industry Are Very Large
In a democratic society, an extraordinarily high value is placed on winning public opinion over to political causes. Political movements are willing to expend considerable energy and resources to supply prepared opinions to "opinion leaders" like talk show hosts in the form of talking points, white papers, and interviews, since the return to investment can be quite high when measured at the ballot box.
Furthermore, it's dangerous for any individual host to stray from political opinions into other topics: One can face commercial libel suits for discussing business firms in an unfavorable manner, but political speech receives extraordinary protection under the First Amendment. Thus, it's possible for a host to opine more vigorously (and sometime more viciously) about politicians and political movements than about businesses or products. Politics and political opinions are fair game under almost all circumstances.
Advertiser choice is a matter as well: Even when libel isn't an issue, talking about subjects like business may risk alienating existing advertisers, who may threaten to withdraw their business. Political advertising, though, is nearly bullet-proof; no matter how much an individual candidate is disclaimed on the air, candidates rarely advertise outside of election season. Moreover, because candidates for office simultaneously experience a significant increase in demand for advertising time (since they're all trying to get elected at once), they tend to pay more for advertising than regular commercial advertisers who don't have biennial or quadrennial election seasons.
Conclusion: Listeners Can't Escape the Dominance of Opinions
Because the systemic economics of talk-show broadcasting strongly favor opinion-based programming, listeners can expect to hear more of the same from talk programming indefinitely unless significant changes disrupt the existing relationships behind the scenes.
This understanding of how the supply of time available to prepare the amount of material demanded by audiences has broader application as well. Among other things, it helps to predict that the more public radio budgets are cut from government funding, the more the political right will tend to dislike the broadcasts.
As budgets shrink, an increasing share of the resources used in public radio will be spent on opinion-related programming, which will only serve to reinforce perceptions among the right that public radio programming has a leftward bias. This particular feedback loop will certainly serve to be particularly amusing fodder for those who understand the market forces behind it.
Similarly, while the advertising incentives are different for newspaper advertising, the content bias is equally significant for editorial writers and print columnists. The trend toward leaner newsroom staffs in many news organizations may cause many newspapers to exhibit the same bias in favor of opinion-based content in the near term.