Interview: Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison recently spoke with PRWeek about the political leanings of talk radio hosts, deconsolidation of radio station ownership, and the impending death of traditional radio outlets.

 

Michael Harrison recently spoke with PRWeek about the political leanings of talk radio hosts, deconsolidation of radio station ownership, and the impending death of traditional radio outlets.

PRWeek
: What does Talkers cover? How long has it been around?
Michael Harrison: Talkers magazine has been around since 1990. It's a trade magazine; it covers the talk show business, mostly talk show radio. We call it talk media, and that includes talk radio, talk television, talk shows on the Internet, talk satellite, and anything else that's happening in the world of talk. So it's quite an interesting array of venues that come under this umbrella. The magazine is totally industrial. It's not geared toward listeners or fans; it's geared toward people who work in the business and it's all across the board, from radio station owners to general managers, program directors, producers, talent, and marketing and sales people. The same could be said for syndicators, for news bureaus, people involved in the technical things, and basically people who do business with talk media: businesses, publicists, special interests, book publishers, politicians.

PRWeek: Are you the founder?

Harrison: I'm the founder. My personal background is multifaceted in terms of radio: I've been involved in trade publishing. I was the first manager editor and one of the designers of Radio & Records when it began. I published a tip sheet that I later sold to Billboard magazine. I spent a couple of years as Billboard's radio editorial columnist and chart consultant. [I] redesigned their charts around 1980. I've been a radio personality in both the rock and talk formats at major stations on both coasts. I've been a program director for radio stations. I've also been a station owner. Basically I've done every possible job in radio at one time or another since 1967.

PRWeek: So what are some interesting trends of late? Consolidation of markets, for example?

Harrison: It's tough to be a talk show host; it's a tough business because for talk show hosts, like actors or baseball players, the pyramid is very pointy and there are not that many jobs or positions at the top. It's a difficult business to make it to the big time; whereas if you're a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant or a real estate broker, you can make a lot of money and be very successful in any city in the country. Radio, and it was true for disc jockeys during the heyday of pop music radio and even now in the heyday of talk radio, is a tough career. Even the big names are very uneasy; they don't take for granted their success because things change rapidly.

PRWeek: Is it getting tougher because of consolidation of radio stations?

Harrison: The consolidation of radio stations is not a new movement. If anything, we're entering a period of deconsolidation. But there's no question that consolidation of radio stations has eliminated a number of jobs. We're not just talking about on the air. We're talking about management jobs. In the pre-consolidation era, you had one program director, one general manager at every station. Now they have these clusters where one person runs that job, whatever it may be, on as many as seven or eight stations. However, the counterpoint to that is consolidation has spread the format, so you have more places doing talk with fewer jobs at each place.

PRWeek: I've heard from PR professionals that consolidation both helps and hurts doing PR.

Harrison: There are fewer gatekeepers, so with fewer gatekeepers there are fewer opportunities. Of course if you do break through the gate, you get greater exposure. So it's never a good or bad thing; it's just a changing thing that professionals in the public relations field have got to learn to handle. It's important to understand the field you're in. The importance of a trade magazine, whatever the field, is to give information to professionals in the business so they understand what they're doing. One thing that amazes me is that there are so many people in [various industries] who don't know what's going on, what the trends are. They operate on wishful thinking and hearsay and as a result don't see it coming when the road turns and they're going off a cliff.

PRWeek: Speaking of cliffs, you're talked about radio as a medium affected by the rise of the Internet and that radio will evolve into Internet channels.

Harrison: I think everything is going to evolve into the Internet. Talking about what's good and what's bad, for publicists, the advent of Internet radio and television and communications is going to open it wide open. It's going to be an amazing time over the next five to 10 years, because they're going to have hundreds and hundreds of outlets, large and small, mostly specialized, specific to their audience to promote and publicize their clients. It's going to be the exact opposite of what consolidation did - that reduced the number of gatekeepers for the media. It will do the exact opposite. It will require knowledge and a lot of work, but it will be a great opportunity.

In terms of the Internet, I think the Internet is the greatest invention since the wheel. I think it's going to not just change radio, but our entire way of life, our sociology, and it's even going to change us as a species as it raises the collective intelligence of the human race. Now we can communicate with each other, with large groups, with specialized groups instantaneously around the globe. There's no time lag in terms of getting messages out to as many or as few people as you need to. This is going to change everything.

PRWeek: Is there some future use for transmission of radio waves?

Harrison: For a while. I think it will be around for at least five or 10 more years, but you'll begin to see a number of stations going off the air because they can't afford to maintain the license when they could be reaching more people by putting the same programming on their Web site. What I think is going to happen eventually is that Web sites will become the new radio stations, but they will also be television stations, newspapers, and magazines, and all of them will have the same basic technological properties. They will be able to put out audio, video, photographs, and text. As a result, we will no longer see radio stations, televisions stations, newspapers or magazines as separate media. Each one will be a media station that will have access and application of all media. Some will be audio oriented, the children of radio stations; others will be video oriented, the technological children of televisions. Some will be with photos and stories, others will be magazines. Some will be newspapers that are text-oriented. But they will all have properties of each other. For newspapers, one of the biggest expenses in terms of their evolution is they are buying television trucks.

PRWeek: And newspaper reporters are carrying video cameras.

Harrison: Right. So the word is convergence. As a result, we'll see new platforms. They will have an atmosphere; you'll know who they are going after by virtue of their culture. And these will be by the thousands all across the Internet, and the public will have instantaneous access to it, from their cars, on their persons, from their homes and businesses, wherever you go, the way we can now just turn on a radio or a television. How can old media survive in the face of such a marvelous innovation?

PRWeek: A lot of talk radio hosts seem to be conservative or right wing, with the exception of NPR and Air America. But is that fair or is that a misperception?

Harrison: It's partially fair depending on what you call talk radio. We view radio as radio, and you can't just say “with the exception of NPR,” because NPR is gigantic. It's not some anomaly off on the side. NPR is talk radio and it is moderate. You have progressive and liberal hosts on urban talk radio, which people don't often talk about. You have social liberals scattered all across the FM dial on music stations that have morning talk shows. Then you do have Air America and a number of liberal hosts in news talk radio, which is what people think of as talk radio. In that slice of the pie, conservatives do dominate and are the big stars. But when you step back and look at the true scope of talk radio, there is far more variety than conventional wisdom or the mainstream media would indicate.

PRWeek: So it does reflect the range of opinions of people in America?

Harrison: Yes, it's just what we call news talk radio is dominated by conservatives, but that's a small slice of the bigger picture.

PRWeek: Any other main points about the industry you'd note?

Harrison: Just the fact we're coming out of consolidation and the big companies are going to be selling off their radio stations, which will create more ownership and gatekeepers, which is of vital importance to the public relations industry.

Name: Michael Harrison

Title: Editor and publisher

Outlet: Talkers magazine

Preferred contact method: Michael@talkers.org

Web site: www.talkers.com

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