We Need Another Talk Radio Station in Philly

Unless we're bitching about sports, the voices of everyday Philadelphians are being drowned out

Philadelphia desperately needs a local news talk station and there is no better time to start one than right now.

My father used to go to bed with an earpiece running to a transistor radio on the night stand. He was listening to Philadelphia Talk Radio. The radio format has a proud tradition in this area. Before the Internet, it was the only place to exchange opinions about the news of the day with the entire area. WWDB was the station in my Dad’s ear and was the undisputed king of talk in the area. Irv Homer was quoted more in my home than any politician or philosopher.

Now 24-hour cable news networks have become the place to go for political opinion and debate. Local news stations are following that successful template with more commentaries and opinions. In Philadelphia, Fox 29 has taken the lead with nightly debates about local issues from the set. I am a news commentator for WPIX in New York, and my nightly commentaries are sent to a couple dozen TV stations across the country.

But something is missing in the TV version; there is a lot of opinion and very little conversation. We hear the canned and sometimes forced opinions from the preselected pundits, who clash in manufactured debate, with an anchor — who often just learned about the issue that night — mediating. It is all too often overproduced and manipulative. What is missing is the raw emotion and real concern of Bob from Kensington or Beth from Cherry Hill. Their voices, the ones we need to hear, are drowned out by those who manufacture opinions for power and profit.

[SIGNUP]The people’s voice is especially drowned out in Philadelphia, and it’s only getting worse. That is not to say we lack talk radio stations. We just don’t have a strong news talk radio station that can mold and drive local debate. We have three, count ’em, THREE sports talk radio stations: 610 WIP, WPEN 950 and The Fanatic at 97.5 FM (although the last two often simulcast). We also have the Conservative Talk Station WNTP, but there is nothing local about it. WNTP features syndicated hosts from everywhere but this area. The only time Philadelphia is even mentioned are the rare instances that a caller from here gets through or when Bill Bennett has a book signing at the Center City Borders.

And then there’s The Big Talker, WPHT. A station that showed great promise but seems to be crumbling under the weight of its star’s ego. Michael Smerconish is the king of talk in Philadelphia by default. For the past decade, he was the only game in town. He is smart, talented and used to be conservative. But he lost many of his right-leaning listeners when he endorsed Barack Obama for president; and he lost many of his Philadelphia viewers when he syndicated and started talking about Philly like a place he used to live.

The ratings suffered, Smerconish was dropped from Philadelphia magazine’s “Most Powerful” list, and now WPHT is forced to reshuffle. Smerconish is moving to mid-days. A better spot for syndication and TV appearances on MSNBC. In other words, a better spot for Smerconish. As a trade-off, he has agreed to talk about Philadelphia for one hour a day.

For the mornings, WPHT is bringing in some guy from Kansas City, who will probably study up on MOVE, Rizzo and the DROP program on the flight here. The station also made the wise decision of moving Dom Giordano, the area’s only true Philadelphia talk-show host, to afternoons.

But this all creates an opportunity for another station in town to get into the talk game. Because of the reshuffling at WPHT, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity will be off the air in Philly starting in January. The two are mighty free-agent pickups for a new talk station. For that to happen, a broadcast corporation would have to switch the formats of one of its lower-rated stations. But there are plenty of duplicate hip hop, adult contemporary and easy listening stations at the bottom of the Philadelphia ratings heap to make a possible switch to talk radio at least something to think about.

My guess is that stations are considering the switch right now. Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have star-egos too and are no doubt upset about not being heard in a top 10 radio market. The national stars could be surrounded with the kind of hyper-local Philadelphia talk that has been missing in the market for too long. The kind of talk that gives a voice to the area’s citizenship, drives public debate and provokes change.

This area is know for its passion, its attitude, its smarts and its opinions, which are always expressed loud and clear. More than any city I can think of, Philadelphia deserves a voice. If it’s ever going to happen, now is the time.
LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to wpix.com.