November 25, 2015

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First Mediaworks

The Whole Package: Consumer Advocate Clark Howard Offers Advice And Concern When His Listeners Need It Most (08/18/08)
Clark Howard’s take on how consumers can make the most of their money — and keep from getting ripped off — is more valuable than ever in these tough economic times, and it’s brought him a top slot in Radio Ink’s annual Reader’s Choice survey.

Howard moved into broadcasting in the mid-’80s after a successful career in the travel industry, and the show went national in 1998. The Clark Howard Show is a lively blend of commentary, advice, consumer horror stories, and even activism: A couple of years ago, when he felt Bank of America had treated a customer unfairly (the bank first mistakenly verified that a forged check was valid, then had the man arrested for check fraud when he tried to cash it), Howard first challenged the bank to pay its customer’s legal bills, then, when that was refused, urged his listeners to close their BofA accounts. When he wrapped up the campaign, the total in closed accounts had reached $50 million.

That story speaks to exactly how much influence Howard has with his listeners — and he also makes the most of that influence in his extensive charity work, particularly with Habitat for Humanity. As he says, “I never stop leveraging the signal to help others. It is such a privilege I have, to ‘rent’ that microphone each day.”

The show’s website at www.clarkhoward.com is another example of making the most of available resources: Though its design is simple, the site offers podcasts, video on demand, message boards, and even an opportunity for people less than thrilled by Howard’s advice in the “Clark Stinks” section. Just like the show — and its host — it’s the whole package.

Radio Ink: What makes your show even more relevant now than it used to be? Who does the show appeal to?
Clark Howard:
I love the way you worded the question. There was a period of time, after the terror attacks seven years ago, when I think a lot of PDs thought my show had no relevance. If you dial back to 2001 and 2002, Talk radio transitioned to much more current events and political talk than before. Both Dr. Laura and I suffered from cancellations and downgrades of time slots.

I own my show, and I can tell you how tough it was to suddenly be considered irrelevant: I lost money in 2002 and wasn’t sure what lay in front of me. I went into syndication in 1998 and had a fantastic rise, followed by a terrible 18 months from really late fall 2001 through spring 2003. Fortunately, I became profitable again in 2003 and have actually had higher net profits and station clears every year since.

Station by station, I started to matter again. As the war on terror became the new normal and people still faced the same financial pressures that are my bread and butter, I regained importance for my listeners and, in turn, the PDs.

Today, I sense unease in listeners I haven’t heard in my 21 years on the air. Obviously, this is a result of the bind we as Americans are in with things we own, such as houses, going down in value while things we buy are rapidly rising in price. Some of my listeners are financial train wrecks, others are facing job losses or seeing hours cut back. Still others are business owners or entrepreneurs having a tougher time making a profit. I am here to serve them.

My core audience needs me now more than ever. They are men and women age 30 to 50 who are trying to handle raising kids, aging parents, and crushing debt levels. Never in American history have people carried debt like today.
RI: What do you anticipate as a result of the current state of the economy, and what should we as broadcasters be doing to assist our listeners?
I think all of us need to understand that we could face slower economic growth over the next 15 years. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a good year here or there, but there are structural issues we have to adjust to individually, as companies and as a country. We must de-leverage. That is the process by which we reduce the amount of debt we carry vs. income.

Corporations are doing so by turning to capital markets to increase the amount of stock they issue to cut the debt levels on their books. Individuals must start to save. The personal savings rate in the United States has been essentially zero or negative for three years. We must go back to basics and begin as individuals to save at least 10 percent of our pay, before we do anything else. The federal government needs to stop spending money it doesn’t have. Period.

It is my belief that listeners are confused by all the choices they must make. People don’t know who to trust and where to turn for information in simple English to make choices for health care, retirement, car buying, the real estate bust, and everyday decisions, like picking the right cell phone plan, Internet service, pay TV, etc. Talk radio can play a role here that we have mostly ceded to NPR. We have to be careful about ignoring public radio, as it tends to attract higher-income and higher-education-level people. I think it is possible to be informative and entertaining at the same time.

RI: Talk about your show’s online presence. What has the listener/sales response been to the interactive offerings — on-demand audio, video, blogs, etc. — on the site?
I have been stunned by the exponential growth of our website. I remember when I set up clarkhoward.com back in 1997 that I had no expectations of meaningful revenue. I did it just to have another way to connect to my listeners. Today it is a money machine that is not close to its potential. I have an unusual advantage over the typical radio website: Since people are looking for info from me and are highly motivated to find it, my website is an automatic traffic builder.

We use several channels to generate revenue. We make a huge amount of revenue from Google for the ad-based search of our website. I could make a living just from the search revenue — thanks, Google. I have a deal with Cox Radio to sell ads on our podcasts, our various topics pages, and in our video on demand section.

My show and content are made to order for the web and it seems that the sky is the limit for visits and page views. The web has increased the loyalty of existing listeners and has become a bridge of info that has attracted people to my radio show who never would have sampled me. Video on demand and podcasts are our fastest growing areas. Last July we had 169,000 podcast downloads of a minimum of one hour’s content per download. Last month we had 457,000. That is an increase of 270 percent in a year. By the end of this year, we should be at around 750,000 podcast downloads per month, and a million per month by March of 2009.

Our message boards are a big deal, because we have them divided by areas that our listeners want help with such as real estate, investments, cars, insurance, travel, and my favorite: “Clark Stinks,” where listeners can let me know that I am wrong, dumb, or an idiot.

RI: With the radio industry facing major challenges as a result of advertising cutbacks and new media competition, what advice would you offer today’s radio owners and operators? As someone with feet in both the radio industry and the financial world, what is your take?
The death of radio has been predicted since the 1950s. Every time a new technology emerges, we are supposedly headed for the graveyard. Bull. Capitalists don’t sit still. Just as Rush Limbaugh gave the terminally ill AM band new life, we as an industry will adapt.

But we can’t kid ourselves. It won’t be easy, especially for music stations. Think about when XM and Sirius were going to kill FM. Didn’t happen. While we were all focused on satellite, we missed the emergence of the iPod. It is a real threat. My wife and two daughters take their iPods with them everywhere they go. But both of my daughters turn off their iPods and turn on the radios when their favorite morning shows are on the air.

My 19-year-old listens to The Bert Show on Q100 Atlanta, my wife listens to NPR, and my 9-year-old listens to Steve and Vicky (B98.5 FM Atlanta). My 9-year-old goes to bed each night listening to Delilah. We are relevant, even at music stations, when we remember what business we are in. Connect to the listener with something that he or she feels a personal connection to. Usually, that will be a person or persons, not a song list. The more unique or local an offering is, the better we beat back against new technology.

Radio sells itself short, and in a time of economic slowdown, we can’t afford to. We don’t take a fair share of ad revenue when you consider our impact in local markets. Especially, Talk radio deserves higher ad revenue. When a station strategically sells ads focusing with a potential client on how people listen to radio, both the station and the advertiser win. Talk radio listeners are front-of-mind. Since the content requires active listening, the advertiser benefits from those ears in a much more dynamic and effective way than other media. And so far, there is no Tivo for radio.

RI: How do your philanthropic endeavors impact your online and on-air work? How do they overlap?
I never stop leveraging the signal to help others. It is such a privilege I have, to “rent” that microphone each day. It has made it possible for me to sponsor 30 houses with Habitat for Humanity, built by my listeners from all over America.

It’s funny with the Habitat thing. We put up a sign for volunteers on my website, and people from everywhere sign up. People pay their own airfare, hotel costs and incidentals to help me build. I remember, in 2003, we kept track of how many states listeners had come from to help us build, and that was 15, from as far away as Washington state.

We have Team Clark, which is in its 16th year. That is our group of 155 volunteers and four paid staffers who answer money questions from listeners on the phone. We are open 45 hours a week to take calls off the air.

This will be my 18th year of Clark’s Christmas Kids. I solicit donations and toys for all 16,000 foster children in Georgia, as well as a national effort for poor and homeless children around the country that I do with the Salvation Army. My listeners go crazy buying toys and donating money for the children. I imagine that I have played Santa to more kids than any other Jew in America.

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