Special Report

Talk Radio Hosts Targeted in Ratings Scandal?

Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin lead conservative tech revolution. Did opponents fix ratings?

By 5.31.11

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"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world."
-- Revolution, by The Beatles

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
--Mark Twain

IT WAS THE MOST downloaded app when it was released in December of 2010.

For two days.

Apple scored it #1 for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad maniacs.

Who was moving these kind of numbers? What force of nature was blowing through the tech world with the force of a category five hurricane?

Say what? You guess Lady Gaga? Guess again.

The center of all this attention was none other than -- Rush Limbaugh.

That's right. The man liberal critics are trying to convince you is losing his radio audience is in fact at the head of a conservative radio revolution that is not only humiliating liberals all over again, this time he's doing it right under their noses.

As befits those who could never master the basics of talk radio (can you say Air America?) this time liberals haven't even begun to scratch their heads at what's happening because they haven't yet realized that it is happening.

And well beyond the story of a technological revolution led by talk radio, a question has now surfaced that raises the possibility liberal opponents have deliberately tried to fix radio ratings. Why? To give the decidedly false impression conservative talk radio is losing audience.

First, the Radio Revolution.

Limbaugh and conservative talkers Sean Hannity and Mark Levin are not only not losing their audience, as low-tech (or is that no-tech?) political critics are braying, the three are so far ahead of the communications curve that their liberal blogger and news outlet political foes are literally clueless even as the revolution unfolds right in front of them.

There is a stunning story here, a new one and a big one. How best to explain?

Let's start by taking a look at this classic cartoon short (34 seconds) of the legendary Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius as he tries yet again to do in his mortal enemy The Road Runner.

Wile has gone to extraordinary lengths to accomplish his task of obliterating Road Runner. A blueprint. Huge rock, small rock. Bait. Rope. Leverage angles. Telescope to see when his target approaches. And just as Road Runner appears -- the rope is pulled, the small rock gives way -- and the big rock falls backwards, flattening Wile. The Road Runner flashes by with his trademark greeting: Beep beep!

In short if slightly exaggerated form, this cartoon captures exactly what has happened here. With Rush, Sean and Mark playing the always sought after but never caught Road Runner.

The real story no one has yet understood began to surface with this curious February posting over at the liberal bastion the Daily Beast (aka Tina Brown town), where Limbaugh and conservative talk-radio foe John Avlon (Avlon is but the latest incarnation of Wile Coyote -- so many liberals have tried to sandbag Rush Limbaugh over the last 22 years it's probably just best to call them all by the same name) surfaced the idea that conservative talk radio was "dying." 

Something was in the air, posited Mr. Avlon/Coyote. Something he was sure was Big News. A Big Deal.

That Something?

Talk radio was losing its audience! Really! Can you believe it??!!! OMG!!! There was an almost orgasmic release from liberals everywhere. Rush hushed! Sean gone! Mark dark! Gasp!!!!!!!!!!!! No!!!! Can it be????? Ohhhhhhhhhh the humanity!!!!!

You could almost hear Mr. Avlon/Coyote tapping on his computer, repeating to himself with a congratulatory chuckle (as Wile does here in this short set-to with Bugs Bunny ): "Wile Avlon/Coyote, Super Genius."

Breathless, Avlon/Coyote zeroed in on Rush's ratings, excitedly pointing out that they were dropping at New York's WABC while those for his "packaged follow-up acts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin" had "narrowly declined and flatlined." On and on Mr. Avlon/Coyote went, excitedly positioning his big rock at the edge of the cliff.

There was, Avlon/Coyote gleefully penned, this problem with talk radio. And that problem. And another problem over there and, well, another and another and another. You get Avlon/Coyote's drift. His revelation was awash in techno-jargon of a sort. Program directors, you see, had their "spider-sense" tingling. There was the PPM and the trends. Don't forget the demographics and the time slots. Not to mention the market-by-market thing and the ratings. Ahhhhhhh yes, the ratings. The ratings, the ratings, the ratings.

He was not content to stop there. As he double-checked his blueprint for leveraging a falling rock on to the Road Runners of talk radio, Mr. Avlon/Coyote followed up recently, with more liberal yeast for The Beast. This time telling us talk radio was no longer dying it was --yikes! -- flaming out!

So the obvious, one would think, would be to ask: Why might this be? Why had talk radio gone from dying to flaming out? In mere months? Why was this tall tale spreading to the predictably lip-smacking precincts of the decidedly leftist Salon.com

(Wile E. Coyote.com?) and who-knows-where-else in the Internet liberal universe?

Because in his second story alleging a "flame-out" Avlon/Coyote, clueless that his rock was incorrectly leveraged, was still prattling on about demographics and "more accurate ways to measure audience. " He was gleefully snarking along (with that lovely tone of civility evidenced by those who bemoan the lack of civility) that Rush would be reduced to selling bedpans and resentment. And so Coyote.com… ahhhh, sorry, Salon.com… took the bait hook, line, sinker and all the rest.

Cue the sound of the falling rock. Then…SPLAT!

Mr. Avlon/Coyote and his lip-smacking conservative talk radio-hating friends are flattened -- worse, they are flattened and still clueless.

HOW DID THIS happen? What is the real rock that fell onto the Avlon/Coyote world and flattened the "talk radio is dying" old wives tale?

Technology is the rock. Technology in the hands of the very sophisticated and bold entrepreneurs who are today's conservative talk radio legends.

Here's a sampling of what that rock really represents in the world of what we might call not simply "talk radio" but "talk tech radio." (Full disclosure: I should note here that as with most who work in the media I have been on over a hundred talk radio shows around the country over time talking about this or that, bringing me into contact with not just the national "names" but the local and regional personalities, their producers and staff. This has provided a ground-level eye view of what these people are all about.)

Streaming: For example, as explained to me by one talk radio show veteran in dismissing the attacks on conservative talkers, most stations that carry Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin stream these shows on their own websites and push hard and successfully to increase listenership on those websites. Most of this is not included in the Arbitron ratings, which form the foundation for the argument conservatives are losing audience.

Host Websites: Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin -- and they are not alone in this, Glenn Beck is another -- have their own websites. These websites promote that individual's own show. This allows people to listen to their favorites on their own schedule at their own convenience, not in real time.

Satellite: Both Hannity and Levin are on XM/Sirius (Limbaugh could easily chose to do so but has not). And… that's right…. satellite talk radio is not rated.

There's more here, technically. Much, much more. But you get the picture. The fact of the matter is that the rapid and radical change in technology is something that has been recognized early on by conservative talk radio stars.

Why? 

Because while millions may think of them in their on-air incarnations, these people are in fact that most American of personalities -- they are entrepreneurs. Excellent entrepreneurs. They understand their business, they know what they are doing, they are constantly looking for ways to maximize their audience and hence their message. As Americans have changed their listening habits and technology has advanced, conservative talkers have not only kept pace with their audience -- they have increased their audience size. They have been bold in quite deliberately moving forward to expand their reach and the reach of the conservative message on a vastly increased number of platforms well beyond the humble AM radio dial that Limbaugh in particular did so much to revive. And none or a very small fraction of these listeners are captured by Arbitron radio ratings for market X.

While the liberal Wile Coyotes plotted and planned ways to try and get them off of AM radio, stuck in a communications time warp from somewhere a few years back, the conservative Road Runners were supersizing the conservative talk radio message in every form imaginable from iPhones to satellites to their own web apps.

And when all is said and done, the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

In this case this means the bottom line is -- the bottom line. In 22 years says another source familiar with the Limbaugh operation, Rush has never -- not once -- had a down year. With his tech empire rapidly and successfully expanding as was evidenced in December with the release of his web app and the Apple statistics, Rush is firmly at the head of this conservative talk-tech revolution. While liberal and anti-conservative operatives are trying to get away with saying his ratings are "dying," the fact is Limbaugh has already, in the first five months of 2011, enjoyed a 10% boost over 2010 in gross revenues, radio advertising, web subs, and more.

To borrow a phrase, a similar version of this is ditto for Hannity and Levin. They are massive commercial successes in expanding their conservative message through the use of technology well beyond the literal AM radio dial.

If in fact Limbaugh's audience -- or Hannity's or Levin's -- were decreasing in the dramatic fashion wished by his various Wile Coyote critics like John Avlon and Salon.com, the kind of very basic economic growth Rush is showing simply wouldn't be possible.

THIS STORY OF THE REAL-STORY behind the ratings of conservative talk radio has another angle as well.

Sitting down? The operative word here is scandal.

And it's an ugly one: a possible scandal involving race and ratings.

As reported in the New York Daily News back in December of 2009, Arbitron was threatened by New York Congressman Edolphus Towns over its Portable People Meter (PPM). The PPM, a small pager-like device that can be carried with ease, was hailed at the time as a new and more accurate way to measure radio ratings. When PPM burst onto the scene, the ratings for talk radio exploded. What took a dive in listenership ratings were urban and Hispanic formats. Towns, then the chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, was furious. So too was House Judiciary chair and Democrat John Conyers, who organized a hearing on the matter, charging that the PPM system was discriminating against minorities.

But there's more here -- much more than meets the eye. And likewise this story has not been explored.

Arbitron, as a private business, is not -- understandably -- into the idea of sharing their trade secrets. This doesn't stop extremely knowledgeable people in the talk radio business from having a view as to how some of this business is conducted. As that story in the Daily News hinted and this transcript of the Conyers hearings demonstrate, a squeeze from liberals was put on Arbitron and their PPM system of measurement. To get out from under, one well-placed source tells me (another highly professional talk radio veteran who for understandable reasons has requested to be on background), the problem was resolved in the following fashion -- a fashion that could have little other outcome towards talk radio than generating the kind of headlines Mr. Avlon/Coyote and his liberal friends have produced.

Talk radio targets households making $75,000 or above. Participants in talk radio ratings surveys are paid $50 a month, not exactly a financial incentive if you are in this income demographic. But in the wake of the Towns/Conyers allegations -- which in fact involved a lack of participation by minority communities at the lower end of the economic scale -- something is said by this source to have changed to encourage that participation. The change? Pay more money to would-be participants. How much? The source is unclear but has been told personally the amount can be up to as much as $200 a month per household participant. If you have, say, 6 people in the household -- a household with an annual income of not $75,000 but $36,000 -- that's an extra $1200 a month.

What happened after this sequence of events? You got it. The financially struggling urban and Hispanic radio formats magically "returned" -- and the talk radio formats magically began to turn in lower rating numbers.

Is this exactly what happened? Certainly I can't say for sure given the understandable secrecy involved. But when one adds the quite public threats from powerful liberal members of Congress together with background information from talk radio veterans, this would seem not to take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out how bad talk radio ratings are available for liberals and conservative talk radio foes like Avlon/Coyote to cherry pick for a headline. And by the by, remember this quote from Avlon/Coyote?

An apples-to-apples comparison of ratings between November '09 and November '10 in the New York area shows that Rush Limbaugh's ratings on WABC declined from 5.4 to 5.0 -- despite the crescendo of a GOP election year landslide. Likewise, year-end to year-end comparisons of the crucial 24 to 55 demographic show that Rush declined from 3.7 to 2.6 -- while his packaged follow-up acts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin narrowly declined and flat-lined, respectively. 

Did you catch it?

Avlon/Coyote cites a year's worth of PPM ratings from… where? That's right. WABC -- in New York City. And where exactly is Congressman Towns from? That's right. New York City. And when were these ratings figures that Avlon/Coyote cites gathered? That's right: for 11 of the 12 months that followed the public warning by Congressman Towns, duly reported by the New York Daily News, that if Arbitron didn't hop to and do the Congressman's bidding on its rating system PPMs he was going to pass legislation to make them do it. And a year later? Presto! The ratings of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin have begun to shift. To chortling from Mr. Avlon/Coyote who seems totally innocent -- really -- of any knowledge of this decidedly questionable and serious ratings scandal.

So.

Let's sum up, shall we? What do we have here?

1. Conservative talk radio stars are leading a radio revolution: Right under the noses of inept and clueless liberals, your favorites are not only not losing audience (a flat out lie), they are expanding, growing, highly commercially successful. Using by now highly refined skills as entrepreneurs, launching on everything from iPhones to satellite and the streaming idea and much more, they are attracting listeners in places that can never -- say again never -- be counted. Most importantly, these people -- who are competing with all manner of competitors from sports to prime-time TV lineups not to mention each other in some markets -- are making ocean liners of cash for their advertisers and sponsors.

2. A Potential Ratings Scandal Looms: There are serious questions out there on just how the ratings that showed the kind of drop precisely cited by the opponents of conservative talk radio came to be. While much attention was given to an Obama-run FCC bringing back the decidedly misnamed "Fairness Doctrine" or launching a push for "localism" to push the national conservatives off the air, in fact a quieter corruption may in fact have occurred. Unknowingly, John Avlon and others -- and it must be emphasized that unknowingly is the word -- fell for a set of ratings statistics that may in fact be the product of an old-fashioned political shakedown. Quite aside from the fact that a Rush or Sean or Mark Levin had the entrepreneurial smarts to use the tech revolution to their advantage, someone needs to run a serious-minded scandal investigation to see what's going on here for fact.

Does the name Congressman Darryl Issa -- the new Republican chair of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee ring a bell? That would be the same perch from where, again according to the Daily News, the-then Democratic chair Congressman Towns issued his threat to Arbitron. It would seem that an attempt to arbitrarily fix the ratings with cash payments, fixed ratings designed to deliberately hurt the popularity of conservative talk radio as an institution if not the advertisers and personalities millions of Americans listen to every day -- if true -- is nothing if not a subject ripe for a congressional investigation.

IS THERE MORE? Sure. What Mr. Avlon/Coyote does have going here is an agenda to push so-called "Independent" politics on talk radio. His favorites, New York's John Batchelor and Philadelphia's Michael Smerconish (full disclosure: the latter a former colleague working at the late Jack Kemp's HUD), are in fact nowhere close to Limbaugh, Hannity, or Levin in the numbers of stations or audience. Indeed, neither Batchelor's WABC numbers in New York nor Smerconish's Philadelphia numbers are said to come close to Hannity's when he occupied nights in New York or afternoons on Smerconish's WPHT. But along with the "No Labels" crowd (of which he is a founding member), Avlon/Coyote believes the politics of Thomas E. Dewey, Bob Dole, and John McCain (among others) are sure winners in American presidential politics -- and in this instance, on talk radio. Another tale, another day.

Interestingly these attempts to take on the conservative talkers seem to coincide during slow news cycles. Imagine that.

But make no mistake. 

Rush Limbaugh is not just a voice on the radio. He is a technological pacesetter.

Sean Hannity is not just a voice on the radio, he is a technological innovator.

Mark Levin is not simply the guy who makes the Constitution come to life on the radio, he is a technological entrepreneur.

All are on the cutting edge. They understand in their bones that communication is changing and have accordingly gone way out ahead of the curve. As a direct result their influence is spreading, their conservative message is spreading, and their clout, yes indeed, is increasing by leaps and bounds.

And something -- something -- appears to be afoot in the ratings game. With liberals and the anti-conservative talk radio crowd as clueless on the conservative technology revolution as they are gullible in taking the ratings bait. Yet make no mistake, this is a concerted and powerful effort to try and get conservative talk radio in any way it can be done. Bluntly put, when you can't beat 'em -- lie about 'em.

But as all the anti-talk radio Wile Coyotes have found out over the years as they have failed and failed again with one scheme after another to get them off the air, each of these personalities in their own way can be seen as the talk radio version of one of the most recognizable figures in American culture: the Road Runner.

Beep beep.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.