The WPHT Merry-Go-Round

by Steve Bryant

Archived here from the Message Board.

Steve is a former host on the popular QVC network and is as interested in talk radio as the rest of us are.  Steve now no longer needs to work and fills up his time writing books and lyrics.  Some of his material is featured elsewhere on this site.

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Page created, May 200


The WPHT Merry-Go-Round -- Steve Bryant, talk host, musician, QVC alumni 14:09:20 05/10/02 Fri
I have lived in the Philadelphia area most of my life. Since my teen years, I have been a student and fan of talk radio, especially WCAU-AM (of course, now WPHT). Like most talk radio enthusiasts, I “mourned” when it became WOGL and WGMP. No one cheered louder when it returned to a talk format as WPTS and then (six weeks later) WPHT.

But now…as it has lost half its ratings in about a year, I have to speak up. History is repeating itself. Here are a few observations from someone who could give you chapter and verse about Philadelphia talk radio from 1965 through today. (I even listened at night when I was working in Atlanta from 1977-1985.)

The history of Philadelphia talk radio has proven that syndicated talk, with Rush Limbaugh being the sole exception, doesn’t work well in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a unique market, unlike any other major city. In essence, it is a major market city with a small market heart and soul. Philadelphia likes local people. Most Philadelphia radio hosts who were on the air in the 1960’s are still on Philadelphia radio today (the ones who are still alive). That is a rare occurrence for any market.

And now with the addition of Bill O’Reilly, WPHT will be non-local for 12 out of the 18 prime listening hours (6AM to Midnight). But what about Michael Smerconish? Hasn’t he come from another planet (Doylestown?) to fight for truth, justice and the American way? (Sorry, the thought of him in blue tights and a cape is too much for anyone to contemplate.)

The return of Michael Smerconish reminds me of the early days of Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. When Leno’s ratings were a disaster, NBC made overtures to David Letterman, asking him if he wanted to host the show. Although Dave was anxious to fulfill his lifetime dream of hosting the Tonight Show, I read that his associates advised him that the show was now damaged goods. He wouldn’t be taking over the Johnny Carson show; he would be hosting the Jay Leno show that was failing in the ratings. It was damaged goods. David decided not to take NBC’s offer and Jay, with the help of the NBC/GE juggernaut, has managed to win the ratings battle at the present time.

Michael S. is taking over a time slot that is now “damaged goods.” Jeff Katz (I’m married, I have a son and I bought a house…and that’s pretty much it) has done so much damage to the slot that it will be difficult to recover. I’ve never been a Michael S. fan, but even if he were the Second Coming, as many believe, he’d need a host of heavenly angels to recover that slot. Plus, aren’t most people just starting their drive home at 5:30? Especially his audience, the cigar smoking, tomato throwing, BMW driving ilk?

Also, Philadelphia is a city that skews a little older than most. If this weren’t true, then WPEN (the “old fart music station”) wouldn’t be # 4 overall in the ratings. In their long histories, WCAU and WWDB both made the mistake of going for younger, ”more affluent” demographics and both literally lost their shirts doing it. As a programmer, I’d rather have a group of high-end auto dealerships, jewelry stores, etc., as sponsors than a spate of low-end retailers and health care companies. Can Michael S. bring them back? Sure! Right after he feeds thousands with one tomato and a bag of cashews from the Head Nut.

Additionally, “Hot-Talk” is dominating the younger talk radio demographic. Don and Mike, Opie and Anthony, et al, are leading this (what I believe to be short-lived) “charge.” Hosts like Glen Beck are a bit like “Hot Talk Lite.” By shooting for a younger demographic with a bit of loud music and occasional sexy talk, he bores the younger audience and turns off the older (30+) crowd.

Let’s see…Has Been In The Morning, and then Hot Talk Lite, followed by 3 hours of Right Wing extremism, followed by the King of Self-Promotion. Then, more Hot Talk Lite for 2 hours, followed by a stock pumper followed by the most expensive “Infomercial” (read Drudge) in radio history. Thank God Viacom stock isn’t solely dependent on revenues and ratings from WPHT!

Giordano’s ratings were “massive” in comparison to Beck. And yet he’s now relegated to 11PM to 1AM?

And moving Rollye James to 1AM? More brilliant programming. Let’s take the #1 rated program out of its time slot and substitute an overpaid, “King of Brokered Radio” TV host…on tape delay. But let’s get O’Reilly before WPEN (or maybe WURD?) snatches him up. O’Reilly? Six months and he’s back on TV licking the wounds from the radio battles. He’s awful on radio!

Philly is a town that has always broken the rules, especially when it comes to radio. The early success of FM talker WWDB is one example of that. Unfortunately, the present owners had so much debt service, they had to cut costs; first with syndicated programming, then infomercials (historically, the kiss-of-death for talk radio) and finally, their present voice-tracked music.

Live, local and fun talk radio isn’t easy. Fun is the key. If it’s fun, people will listen. If it’s always heavy and/or outrageous, they’ll quickly move on. WPHT needs new, informed and entertaining local hosts. Finding that kind of person in the talk radio field will be, in my opinion, the key to the success of WPHT. (I do have these nightmares about waking up and hearing “The Sports Babe” again.)

Properly programmed and sold, even the overnights could be live and local (with the 30 state, 50,000 watt advantage). WPHT could have quite an entertaining profit center from midnight to 6AM. And a much better lead-in for morning drive than Art Bell. Overnights aren’t just for direct response. In my opinion, that’s just old school thinking.

One final thought; Imus? Does he have naked pictures of Mel? Hopefully, he did enough damage to his system that he won’t be around much longer. Sorry, was that cold? No colder than the callous way WPHT has treated all of us as listeners for far too long.

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