D.C. Listeners Tune Out Talk Radio

Political talk radio ratings in the Washington, D.C. metro area have plummetted since the November elections.

Local Listeners Tune Out Talk Radio (WaPo, C1)

What a difference an election makes. No, we’re not talking about the fortunes of a rich and powerful democracy. This is about talk radio. And even in the nation’s capital, post-election, people seem to have had their fill of politically oriented talk on the airwaves. The latest quarterly audience ratings spell it out: Local talk stations — both on the right and on the left — saw their audiences dwindle during the January-March period, according to Arbitron Inc.

WMAL-AM (630), home of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other mighty righty talkers, was one of the big losers in the latest survey. WMAL lost nearly 30 percent of its core audience (adults ages 25-54) from the preceding three months, when the election was the dominant story. What had been an up-and-coming station a few months ago (WMAL ranked 11th among all stations during the fall) is now a middle-of-the-pack afterthought (it tied for 16th in the latest survey). “For those of us in news and talk, there’s nothing like an election,” says Chris Berry, WMAL’s president and general manager. “It’s like the Super Bowl. For us, the Super Bowl wasn’t in January; it came in November.”

WMAL was at least able to record some ratings. Two of its AM talk competitors, WTNT (570) and WRC (1260), barely registered. WTNT — which features conservatives Laura Ingraham and Joe Scarborough — captured an average of just 0.5 percent of the Washington area’s 2.3 million adult (25-54) listeners; it finished in a tie for 26th. WRC, which turned to a liberal talk format in January by adding Al Franken and some of his “Air America” crew, was nowhere to be found. It captured less than 0.1 percent of the audience, too low to be counted.

One wonders how these ratings compare to comparable periods. It’s not surprising that casual interest in political talk would decline after the election, just as ratings for televised golf dip for non-Majors.

Still, the local talk radio offerings are rather weak. There are three NPR stations and C-SPAN radio available, which is a plus. In terms of commercial stations, though, there’s not much to pick from. During morning drive, the only nationally-syndicated political talk show is Don Imus, which is often entertaining but also often aggravating as the host indulges his sometimes odd non-political interests. I’m not a Howard Stern listener, so the only talk alternative is AM 870’s feed of the Mike & Mike ESPN program.

I’m seldom able to catch much of the midday offerings, but they’re rather slim as well. Laura Ingraham competes with Tony Kornheiser in the 9-noon slot and noon-3 is Rush Limbaugh and Joe Scarborough. G. Gordon Liddy, Ken Hamblin, and other nationally prominent shows are not available. This is particularly odd in the case of Liddy’s show, which originates locally but was only partially carried via tape delay until his replacement with Scarborough.

From 3-6 there’s a tape delay of Glenn Beck’s very uneven show, which is sometimes about politics and sometimes not, and Sean Hannity. I can seldom take Hannity for long and Beck’s show is only interesting on a topical basis. Indeed, I usually wind up listening to retired Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson’s show or something on C-SPAN instead.

The early evening selection is limited to Michael Savage, who is highly intelligent but more highly deranged, and local offerings like Chris Corr. There’s a reason local hosts are local.

Update: Via Michelle Malkin, I see Tom Blumer thinks the rising popularity of blogs may be a partial explanation for this phenomenon, which is not just relegated to D.C. It could well be, although I listen to talk radio almost exclusively while driving or getting ready for work. Come to think of it, though, I used to listen to talk radio when I was on the computer and haven’t done that since I started blogging.

(1400): D.C. area radio talk host Cam Edwards observes,

Blogs are great, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I think certain quarters of the blogosphere thinks 5 years from now they will have replaced newspapers, talk radio, and the network news. It’s not going to happen. TV didn’t kill radio, cable didn’t kill network television, and the blogs aren’t going to kill off any other form of media. It will be another source, but not a sole source of information.

Quite right. Reading a blog is a different experience than listening to talk radio. Reading blogs while driving would be a bad idea! That doesn’t mean that blog reading (or iPod listening, or whatever) couldn’t be taking a small bite out of talk radio listening. But I suspect this decline is mostly issue-driven. Indeed, blog readership rises and falls rather dramatically with events in the news.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jon Henke says:

    I’ll tell you who is underrated: Lionel.


    I disagree with him a lot, but he’s the most interesting, thought-provoking, qualified talk show host in radio. Too bad he doesn’t have the widespread syndication of hacks like Hannity, or nutjobs like Savage.

  2. Chris says:

    You can tune in WBAL out of Baltimore around most of the Beltway. They have a whole posse of talkers through the day. Can be very entertaining.

  3. Mark A. Jones says:

    Michael Savage isn’t deranged, his show is gaining in audience ratings when nearly every other show is losing big time…see Hush Bimbo, Sean Vanity, and Don Imus. Air American is on life support and most local shows have but a cult folling.

    Savage’s show can’t be predicted from day to day with the exception that he will have a 10 minute yellabout the borders….which 80% of American agree with.

  4. bryan says:

    One would think that the one thing people in washington wouldn’t want to listen to is political talk, given all the political talk they engage in all day long. 🙂

  5. Russ says:

    Well, I think that part of the problem is the weak talent that really don’t have anything interesting to say. I think Michael Graham in the morning stacks up as a lightweight when running against Laura Ingraham in the morning. Joe Scarborough is a lightweight compared to Rush, and Glen Beck just isn’t that good.

    Also, WMAL cannot get away from having some liberal on sometime during the week. This is failed time and time again. But, still they put Jerry the Producer on Sundays. Even if Sunday is a weak listening day, the core of their audience won’t tune in. The problem with Chris Core’s show is the repetitive nature. If I hear one more show on how Beltway traffic sucks or the schoolboard is a bunch of crazy socialists, I think I will scream. I like Mr. Core, but add a little variety please.

    Michael Savage says a lot of things that I agree with, but he spews so much venom at everyone. He even turns on his callers. He should treat people with more respect.

  6. Kappiy says:

    The broadcast radio industry is also blaming IPods and satellite radio for their demise.

  7. Bithead says:

    Agreement on BAL… It’s a 50 /clear.
    I was actually not very suprised when Liddy started dropping off the map on JFK; THeir signal on AM 1300… a low power gravewayd) was far eclipsed by their 106.7FM signal, in terms of coverage… and that isn’t impressive, by any means.

    Liddy himself suffered from having Don and Mike on the same channel, locally. THe two audeinces are at opposite ends of the spectrum. ANd frankly, Liddy was starting to lose ‘the edge’, anyway.

  8. mike says:

    It sounds like a pretty poor lineup of talkerson the DC area stations. No wonder nobody’s listening.

    Here in Los Angeles there is much variety on talk radio, with all the major national talkers plus many great local hosts spread among three conservative stations, two lefty stations, a hot-talk station with Stern and Leykis, plus a number of NPR outlets and middle of the road KGO-San Francisco at night. I find there’s almost always lots of interesting talk anytime I listen.

  9. Fernando says:

    Reading a blog is a different experience than listening to talk radio

    True, but some talk radio shows are just like blogs; these are likely to be hurt by the blogosphere. I used to wait for Limbaugh to discuss the news of the day, but now, after reading my morning blogs, I find his opinions old hat. I don’t listen to him much anymore.

  10. Sooziecc says:

    Try Ed Schultz from 3-6 on 1260 in DC as an alternative to Hannity’s inanities. Even some of you righties might like him.

  11. Steve Ryan says:

    I have lived in Manassas since 1992, but grew up in Baltimore County, so I have a perspective about talk radio in both Baltimore and DC.

    WTNT: Imus is a sleazeball, love Laura Ingraham, haven’t heard Scarborough or Beck enough to form an opinion on them. Michael Savage has some valid points, especially on illegal immigration, but is generally too mean-spirited for my taste.

    WMAL: Michael Graham is a wuss. Why they dumped Dr. Laura for him I don’t know. Still like Rush and Sean, but they can be too predictable at times. Chris has no “Core” convictions. Do enjoy Tammy Bruce and Drudge on the weekends.

    Michael Reagan is back on WMET-1160. They also have Linda Chavez, Tony Snow, and I think Liddy is there too. Hard to get at night, though.

    In Baltimore, the situation is not a whole lot better. I used to really enjoy WBAL’s Ron Smith when he was a Reaganite conservative, but in recent years, especially since 9/11, he has gotten extremely cynical, negative, and seems to traffic in the paranoid conspiracy theories of the far right. Chip Franklin is a comedian. Rob Douglas (ex-MAL) used to have a good weekend show, but had to give it up due to his PI work.

    WCBM-680 carries Liddy, Hannity, and Savage, but the only local hosts they have are Tom Marr and Les Kinsolving, both of woom IMHO give conservatives a bad name.

    WITH-1230 has Bill Bennett’s morning show (no DC outlet), along with Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, and a few others.

  12. Jim says:


    I used to listen to WMAL for the trip home from work and enjoyed Sean Hannity. For a month around Terry Shavio, his show was focused almost exclusively on her case. He lost me as a listner. I have been listening to Ed Schultz (except the signal dies around Centreville) and have enjoyed it despite disagrreing with everything he says….he is Hannity’s polar opposite with the same weaknesses.

  13. GordoM says:

    This article is a perfect example of why many have quit any hope of getting any real info from the MSM. The writer obviously had an adjenda. No real numerical comparisons, no info on new entrants into the market, no differentiation between the different types of “talk radio”. Totally worthless exhibit of MSM tripe. Only the blogs flech the stories out. Sad.

  14. Rich says:

    May I suggest another possible … and, I think, plausible … reason for the dramatic ratings decline: it’s wrong.

    I don’t live in Washington, but I’ve worked in radio for over 30 years. Arbitron’s ratings methods result in questionable results all the time. I’ve seen audience drops even more dramatic than these in the cities I’ve worked in, and then in the next ratings book … poof, all the numbers suddenly are back to where they’d been for years.

    Does a roller-coaster audience swing like that really come and go in 90 days? No. Stop all this analysis and consider the simple answer: the numbers are just wrong.

  15. 3:00pm is like a deadzone for me in NYC. The Two Irish tenor washerwomen “Shill O’Realy and Oprah Hannity” force me to take a 1 hr radio break. They I, I, I, I, so much and mention their own name so many times ya gotta flush! SeanHannity Website, SeanHannity Book, SeanHannity CD, SeanHannity DVD, SeanHannity Tour, SeanHannity concert… a little self centered?, grandiose?, They both say they are humble??? hak,hak,hak!
    It’s been passed down for generations in my family that any man who tells you he is humble ,is lacking it completely. Thank God for 4 O’clock and the Godfather of talk radio WOR’s “the ORIGINAL” Bob Grant.
    If anyone questions my allegience or needs a right-wing laugh check out the free MP3 comedy downloads at my website by clicking my name.

  16. ProcessBear says:

    Why is WOL never counted for the DC area ? It is 1450 AM dial. I know it is a weak signal, but it is a talk station and it is mostly political. I know their ratings have to be equal to at least that of WTNT ! I can guess why both this listing and the Washington Post seem to think they do not count.

  17. James Joyner says:

    If a station is marketed to a niche demographic, it’s unsurprising that other demographic groups are uninterested.

  18. ProcessBear says:

    I see your point, but by that logic, you could be talking about WMAL, WTNT, or WMET. It does not excuse the Washington Post’s not including them. That “niche”, if by that you mean ethnicity, that ethnicity is more than a small part of the population in and around DC.

  19. James Joyner says:

    No doubt. Still, a station that markets itself as a “black station” is explicitly acknowledging that it’s not after non-black listeners. I don’t listen to any of the many Hispanic stations in D.C., either.

    I’m not sure if I’ve picked up WOL or not–only a couple of the AM stations have a decent signal–but my tour of DC talk was just the three AM stations I’ve picked up on a regular basis and the talk stations at the front of the FM dial. I don’t listen to the high 100’s FM station that carries Howard Stern and similar programming, either.

  20. ProcessBear says:

    I guess my frustration was more with the Post. I do not listen to WOL as much as I used to, but they should be counted. Also, talk has never faired as well as people would think in DC. I think the 1260 line up should have been introduced before the election. Also, they are trying to target a niche with their name. They have a disadvantage in that their name alone will drive away listeners. When Rush first started, he was something new and different. Even though he claimed to be a concervative, it was not every break and second. So, someone that might partially agree with him would not be instantly repulsed by name alone.

    I definitely do not listen to Rush much anymore. Sean’s TV program turned me off to his radio showt that I used to like.

  21. ProcessBear says:

    I think all of us are better off when we challenge our views and belief and not always go to places that reinforce what we believe. Although we could all use more languages, WOL is in English but the signal is too weak in some directions.

    There is something happening in the country that many would not agree with but a lot of important issues are flying under the window. With so many tied more to party and affiliation more than principle, I think we need to be careful. There are those out there who will deny 2 + 2 = 4 if it does not support their agenda.

    I appreciate your perspective and your initiating the discussion.