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July 29, 2004

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ABC News, Talkers Join Forces on Talk Radio Row

By Dan Wagner
Thursday, July 29, 2004

Jay Marvin, WLS Radio, Chicago, interviews a guest
Media Nation Photo by Sarah M. J. Welch

Seated at a small folding table on the first floor of the Fleet Center, with Democratic operatives rushing past hawking retired governors and former legislators as guests, Mark Davis leans toward his microphone and says, “Go ahead -- you’re on the air.”

Davis bites his tongue as his caller stumbles through a critique of John Kerry’s charisma, then breaks in to caution his audience -- the largest for any local show in the Dallas-Fort Worth market -- that Kerry may well deliver a competent acceptance speech on Thursday.

Instead of the usual bare studio walls, Davis faces a long row of tables stretching toward an oversubscribed public toilet. At most of the tables, hosts gesture vigorously, beaming commentary, mostly conservative, back to stations in cities like Providence, Baltimore and Cleveland.

This is ABC Radio Network's Talk Radio Row, an operation that for the first time centralizes logistics, technical support, bookings and even editorial help for stations and affiliates of the largest network in an increasingly consolidated industry.

In addition to its six hourly newscasts and prime-time coverage, ABC News Radio is making sure representatives from 15 of its stations -- some owned by ABC, others by radio giants that include ClearChannel and Infinity Radio -- have everything they need to keep the folks back home abreast of events in Boston.

Even those of the network’s 4,600 2,500 U.S. affiliates that haven’t sent their own talent will benefit from what Chris Berry, president and general manager of WMAL in Washington, D.C., calls “a Chinese menu of options.”

Despite early plans to limit podium coverage, ABC has heeded affiliate demands by offering nightly three-hour broadcasts anchored by veteran personalities Gil Gross and Sam Donaldson, says Steve Jones, vice president and general manager of ABC News Radio.

Talk Radio Row offers “improved capacity for localizing coverage,” Jones says. "This set-up allows them to marry their top talent with our news coverage."

But other radio journalists have nicknamed the operation “Conservative Corner.” Most of its denizens are openly skeptical of the Democratic Party’s message, and Fox News Radio broadcasts from the adjacent tables.

Davis, the Dallas host, describes himself as “a guest in [the Democrats'] house,” and says almost all of the convention attendees he’s interviewed have been “more than gracious. I think it’s invigorating and important for them to hear from me,” he says.

John McConnell, the ABC Radio vice president responsible for syndicated talk programming that includes the Sean Hannity show, says this political dissonance “creates a much more dynamic, unpredictable program.”

Hosts like Hannity “are here not to fight, not to argue, but to roll up their sleeves and go at it relative to the differences of opinion,” he says.

Talk radio “thrives on conflict and resolution,” Jones agrees. But, he says, “the resolution is when the talk host essentially tells the listener how some topic should be handled.”

McConnell maintains that the marriage between the news division and talk programming is a healthy one. He says editorial decisions are sufficiently distant that there is no potential for conflict.

ABC News Radio’s “ability to organize and plan events is such that it’s smart for us to use the resources that they have to set up logistics,” he explains. At the convention, these resources include technical equipment, advance teams to secure credentials and work space, bookers to set up interviews -- in short, everything the affiliates need to show up with their local personalities and begin broadcasting.

Reporters on the news side agree. “Our listenership does largely reflect fans of conservative talk radio, but I try to keep blinders on and just report the news,” says Pam Coulter, a correspondent covering the convention for ABC News Radio.

Since 2000, ABC has capitalized on the growing popularity of talk programming by launching four shows into national syndication. Entertainment-format stations, which carry the talk shows, now make up the largest group of ABC Radio affiliates.

Talk Radio Row also has room for stations not affiliated with ABC. It provides space and support for some ClearChannel-owned stations that are broadcasting their own hourly newsbreak.

When that company’s equipment was misplaced a few days before the convention began, ABC stepped in with replacement gear, according to Jones. “They’re good customers of ours and partners,” he explains.

Even the dwindling number of independently owned stations benefit from ABC’s largesse. Paul Gleiser, who owns KTBB radio in Tyler, Texas, says entrepreneur-owners like him are “a dying breed.”

“The ClearChannelization of radio is working to radio’s detriment,” he says, because “everyone knows that radio, when well done, is a local medium.” But, he adds, “ABC does a phenomenal job. We get treated like a top-10 affiliate.”

Mark Davis is equally thrilled with life on ABC's Talk Radio Row.

“I’m not here for a cause,” he says. “Spare me people who are trying to educate. Give me people who are trying to entertain!”



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