Special Report: Radio: Stern gives medium needed shot in the arm

Also in this report: * Radio review to signal new era: Broadcasters urging CRTC to rethink rules on station ownership, to help put industry on more profitable footing * WCB uses radio to make impression: Safety promotion on local rock...

Also in this report:

* Radio review to signal new era: Broadcasters urging CRTC to rethink rules on station ownership, to help put industry on more profitable footing

* WCB uses radio to make impression: Safety promotion on local rock station targeted young workers p.30

* MobilTrak gets T.O. trial: New measurement system scans frequencies of passing cars p.33

David Bray is senior vice-president, creative/media director with RadioWorks, a full-service radio ad agency/consultancy. For this special report, we asked him to offer his take on u.s. shock-radio king Howard Stern’s invasion of the Canadian airwaves. Stern’s syndicated morning show began airing on Montreal’s chom-fm and Toronto’s Q107 in September.

It’s about 8 a.m. on a bleary September morning in Toronto. I’m walking the hallowed halls of what is still one of Canada’s finest station facilities – a radio wonderland built by then-General Manager Don Shafer, back in the heady days when Q107 was doing about $15 million in billings annually.

Something very different is happening in the control room this morning. There is no music. There are empty chairs where old friends used to sit: Jesse & Gene, Scruff, Brother Jake, John Gallagher, Donna Saker. Today, there’s just a disembodied voice echoing up from New York, while a lone operator sits at the control board.

As the voice rails against French Canadians, and declares Canadians to be nothing more than wannabe Americans, I pause to ponder the implications of this latest turn of events.

How will advertisers respond to Howard Stern’s highly publicized invasion of the Canadian airwaves? Will consumers buy in? Will Canadian stations have to import talent to solve their ratings problems? Will the crtc shut him down? Does tough talk hit harder than rock?

The analyst in me responds: I’m sure Howard Stern will shore up the core male 18-34 listenership of both Q107 and chom-fm. His confrontational approach can be invigorating. There will be a good deal of sample tuning from other demographic targets. Initial reports had Stern delivering better than 20% of all in-car tuning his first few days on air. Preliminary bbm numbers are also encouraging; we’ll know more come the release of the fall survey.

Was he worth the reported $250,000-$300,000 paid by each station? Probably. The press coverage that the stations have received is undoubtedly worth much more than their investment. A number of advertisers have proven more than eager to climb on board for $225-$250 per 30-second commercial, even without benefit of hard numbers.

Rumors and controversy run amuck. One lobby group is reportedly trying to take action against all the companies that advertise on the show, for associating themselves with un-Christian behavior (or some such thing).

Insiders, meanwhile, speculate about how other stations will combat Stern’s popularity. Is chfi-fm’s cuddly Don Daynard about to become foul-mouthed? I don’t think so. Let’s be realistic. Radio has enjoyed a lucrative fall season. Competitive stations like chfi-fm and chum-fm are sold out. They will continue to out-deliver the upstart Stern in their core demos. Why would they respond with any format shifts?

At the same time, Stern will generate new tuning from heretofore disenfranchised or disenchanted listeners. So radio gets a pr shot in the arm. Everybody wins.

Some critics are asking: Is Canada so lacking in talent that we have no choice but to import morning-slot fodder? The question misses the point. Howard Stern is a unique property – a freakish phenomenon who just happens to emanate from the u.s. Tuning in is a little like watching a grisly accident: fascinating, but also a little unnerving. Listeners will always respond hungrily to the latest happening, no matter where it comes from. The next may well come from Canada.

But what of the content? All that sex talk and bizarre discussion (a recent show featured one person eating chocolates from another’s butt-crack) is relatively harmless – akin to sniggering adolescents getting hold of their first dirty magazine. Racism and hate-mongering, however, is another matter.

While Stern certainly has a right to his point of view, it is a sad commentary that so many listeners applaud his intolerance. He plays on prejudice by suggesting that all French-Canadians should be sent back to France. He contends that everyone should speak English (which he claims is the language spoken by the majority of people around the world). He accuses Canadians of secretly wanting to be Americans.

What should the response of advertisers be? Will consumers avoid those that advertise on the show because of their connection (albeit slim) to Stern?

It would be unreasonable to contend that advertisers bear a moral responsibility for what the unpredictable Stern may or may not do on a given day. Moreover, people tuning in to Stern generally approve of him, which creates an enviable advertising climate. If anything, in fact, the most off-putting aspect of the show is not the content, but rather the commercial breaks, which can run as many as 18 ads in length. Do we really believe that listeners will stick around through all of that for our ad, when it may number 14 of 18?

Stern’s popularity also raises some questions about Canadian content.

It is a troublesome fact that this u.s. import remains the hottest new thing on the Canadian broadcast calendar. Younger listeners (12-34) tend to be somewhat less local or regional in their listening habits and preferences than older audiences. The fact that Stern’s show originates in the u.s. makes no difference whatsoever to young people seeking out the next big thing.

Cancon requirements for music programming have unquestionably been beneficial to homegrown artists. But it would clearly be difficult to legislate Cancon for talk radio in the same way.

As to the question: Does tough talk hit harder than rock? These days, the answer seems to be yes.

Rock music once awakened our senses and shook our sensibilities. But those same tunes are now being played in elevators and supermarkets as mood music. There are few broadcast outlets in this country for breaking vital new music. Instead, stations rely steadfastly on the tried and true – comforting, but not exactly rejuvenating. It is in this atmosphere that talk has blown away classic rock.

It’s 8 a.m. on another bleary morning. I’d like to go back to sleep. But I think it’s too late for that.

If you wish to forward thoughts or inquiries about this article, David Bray can be reached at (416) 469-4645, by fax at (416) 469-4798 or via e-mail at dhb@passport.ca