It’s the kind of conservative media story only conservatives understand.
The latest numbers are out for Michael Savage’s radio show. Recall that Savage was a key player in the battle between Sean Hannity and Cumulus radio. A battle that had an exasperated Hannity finally firing Cumulus, as reported here in NewsBusters at the time. But not before Savage, whom Cumulus had in the wings to replace Hannity in the latter’s Cumulus slots, took shots at Hannity, gloating at taking Hannity’s slot.
The Savage numbers tell a revealing tale of conservatism in the media. So let’s start with the brand new numbers themselves, numbers supplied by Nielsen Audio. They are the numbers for April – last month -, and cover 52 of America’s major radio markets. We will directly compare them here with Sean Hannity’s last numbers before being replaced on Cumulus stations - which is to say Hannity’s numbers for December, 2013. The percentages cited – again, these are from Nielsen Audio (formerly known as Arbitron) – are nothing if not startling.
New York – WABC – Savage numbers drop by 50%.
Chicago – WLS – Savage numbers drop by 59%
San Francisco – KSFO – Savage numbers drops by 26%
Dallas-Fort Worth – WBAP FM – Savage numbers drop by 13%
Houston-Galveston – KSEV – Savage numbers drop by 55%
Washington, DC – WMAL – Savage numbers drop by 17%
One could go on here through the entire devastating list that includes one major market after another all across the country. Markets with names like Seattle-Tacoma (-40%), Kansas City (-21%), Norfolk/Virginia Beach/Newport News, Virginia (-50%) and Memphis (-75%). But we’ll mercifully stop by saying that the average percentage drop in those 52 markets from the Hannity December 2013 numbers to the Savage April 2014 numbers is 47%. – again, according to Nielsen.
Why is this happening? The answer is as simple as it is predictable. Cumulus radio - at the express direction of its Dickey brother managers – has earned itself a reputation as despising its conservative talk radio audience. While Rush Limbaugh – also a longtime Savage target as was and is Hannity – eventually re-signed, in fact he was for months made the public target of the Dickeys. The attacks launched an endless round of stories in the liberal media depicting Rush as a “drag” on company earnings and more. One can write all this off as mere “contract negotiating in public” – but in fact the only possible outcome of this was to raise the hackles of Rush’s fans when it came to Cumulus itself. Many of Rush’s fans being, unsurprisingly, also being Hannity fans.
Hannity is an indelible voice of the modern conservative movement. His very persona – upbeat, optimistic, straight to the ideological point at hand – is, as they say in conservative shorthand, decidedly Reaganesque. But as we mentioned in this space last week, Cumulus has a perpetual problem that in fact has nothing – yet everything – to do with its conservative audience.
Perhaps the most astute reader of the Cumulus tea leaves is Inside the Music’s Jerry Del Colliano, who is a veritable encyclopedia on the behind-the-scenes of the radio business. Back in August of last year, as the Hannity-Cumulus relationship began to crash on the rocks quite publicly, Del Colliano presciently wrote that if Hannity departed New York’s Cumulus-owned WABC for WOR (along with Rush) the result would be the “eviscerating (of) whatever ratings WABC had left.” Del Colliano went on to predict Big Trouble for WABC , saying “if Savage replaces Hannity on WABC, Savage will be number one in angry men, 70 years old and older” adding “some advertisers think (Savage) is unsellable on the air in prime time.” Hannity and Limbaugh did in fact depart WABC for WOR, and Savage now holds Hannity’s once-sterling 3-6pm WABC time slot.
Now, the April Nielsens are out. And as night follows day, there in black and white are the cruel numbers at WABC, not to mention all those other stations. The difference in audience draw between Hannity in December and Savage in April on WABC is a full 50% drop. The word for that is free-fall.
But well aside from the political ramifications, the real focus here will have to be the base-line measurement in terms of what Cumulus in fact is. Cumulus isn’t about radio, it’s about business. Earning money for shareholders. And as reported in multiples of outlets, as here, for example, in Breitbart Cumulus is in increasingly deep water without a paddle. As noted in that Breitbart story from just last month, TheStreet.com rated Cumulus as a “hold”, giving it a “C-ratings” score.
“We do not recommend additional investment in this stock despite its gains in the past year... Compared to other companies in the Media industry and the overall market, CUMULUS MEDIA INC's return on equity significantly trails that of both the industry average and the S&P 500. The company, on the basis of change in net income from the same quarter one year ago, has significantly underperformed when compared to that of the S&P 500 and the Media industry. The net income has significantly decreased by 87.4% when compared to the same quarter one year ago, falling from $56.05 million to $7.04 million.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist with a Nobel in economics to understand that the 50% difference – make that drop – in the WABC ratings for Hannity in December and Savage in April and the row after row of similar dismal stats in the ratings “book” are playing a real role in all of this.
The real question here has to eventually become what it always is in a business situation like this with a publicly held company. When a company starts losing its customers – in this case that means ratings – somewhere along the line the company’s shareholders begin to get concerned. Put in context here, Hannity’s radio audience followed their favorite out the Cumulus door at WABC and all those other Cumulus stations across the nation as well. Whether the idea at Cumulus was to so anger Hannity that he departed and they were left with Savage as a result or, as Del Colliano believes, the Cumulus objective was to kill conservative talk radio – period - it is eventually not going to matter. Whether this strategy was followed quite deliberately or whether it was simple managerial incompetence, the fact of the matter is that the Savage-for-Hannity switch has left these radio properties hemorrhaging audience..
But whatever the reasoning and whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is that the April 2014 Nielsen ratings for Savage - seen in comparison with Hannity’s last Nielsen ratings book at the same stations in the same time slot for December - is nothing short of devastating.
This is, without doubt, one of the most eerily fascinating conservative media stories out there, with an entire radio audience simply turning against a radio network’s handpicked host at the departure of their favorite.
The question? When will the shareholders of Cumulus follow the audience and turn against the Dickeys?
Based on these latest numbers it can only be a matter of time.
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.