Earlier this month, talk-show veteran Larry King quit his syndicated radio show and was replaced by a newcomer to the talk-radio circuit--comedian David Brenner.
Since assuming King's mantle, Brenner, whose show is broadcast from New York and heard in more than 100 markets across the country (but not Los Angeles), has not made any attempts to emulate King or to discuss weighty topics. Rather, Brenner has continued to do on radio what he has done best elsewhere: comedy.
To many in talk radio, the move represents a clear-cut example of the heightened emphasis being given to entertainment in their format, as opposed to information.
"I think it's sad when you see a Larry King replaced by a David Brenner," said Michael Jackson, who has hosted an issues-oriented radio show at KABC-AM (790) for 28 years.
"Let's see what kind of staying power (Brenner's show) will have," said Bruce Williams, who for 13 years has hosted a show on the NBC talk network. "Isn't that the test? Brenner's an unknown quantity. He's certainly a very funny comedian. I don't think he's exhibited as yet an interview capability or a radio capability, but then all of us were unknown quantities before we got into this."
The tightrope walk between information and entertainment will be the subject of the opening session today at the annual convention of the National Assn. of Radio Talk Show Hosts, which runs through Sunday in Santa Monica.
And how to turn unknown quantities into successful talk-show hosts is another issue that the 400-member association will grapple with, said president-elect Gene Burns, who hosts a talk program in New York that is heard in 150 other cities, including San Diego and Fresno.
While there is a place in talk radio for an entertaining style, according to KABC's Jackson, the key is to be informed about the issues and fair-minded in their presentation.
"If you equate entertaining with telling jokes, I'm not that good at it, but if you equate it with hospitality and building a bridge with an audience, that's what I do," Jackson said. He said he operates on the BBC motto he learned as a young broadcaster more than 30 years ago: "To enlighten, inform and entertain."
KFI-AM (640) program director David Hall sees the entertainment portion of that formula as the key to success, and his station has risen dramatically in the ratings over the past few years following that credo. KFI's ascendancy has been fueled largely by the runaway success of syndicated host Rush Limbaugh--who, first and foremost, considers himself an entertainer.
"If talk radio is moving away from anything, it's public service," Hall said. "And it's definitely moving toward entertainment. I think in the old days, people used to do topics because they felt they had to be done. Now they do topics just because they're fun to do. But a show still needs to have as much information for it to really have some bite and some substance. It can't just be entertainment, but it can't be just information either."
Whatever the proper mix, one thing is certain: Talk-radio outlets are proliferating. Ten years ago, there were 150 talk stations throughout the country. Today there are 900, and it is the second highest ratings-getter of all radio formats (after country).
With the increased number of outlets, the competition has gotten stiffer. In many cities there are several talk stations, with a newer brand targeted specifically to younger listeners, as is the case locally with the new KMPC-AM (710). Most programmers believe that younger talk-radio listeners prefer an emphasis on entertainment over information.
"Larry King was tired and they replaced him with a pure entertainer in hopes of drawing younger people," said George Green, general manager of KABC and KMPC, which are co-owned by Capital Cities Communications. "As talk radio has become a very hot medium, you start looking at the word entertainment as being more important than it was before. Entertainment doesn't necessarily mean a program that makes you laugh. There can be many ways to entertain."
Several talk-show hosts said they believe that information and entertainment are inextricably intertwined and that one cannot take precedence over the other.
"I think we shouldn't have to choose between information that the public should have and presenting a show in an entertaining way," said attorney Gloria Allred, who hosts a nightly program on KABC-AM. "I think we can do both and we should do both. By entertaining, I don't mean it should be a comedy. It should be involving, it should engage, it should be participatory."
"We straddle the fence between entertainment and serious discussion," said Joel Roberts, who hosts a daily show on KABC with Steve Edwards. "Our thing is to have big fun with serious issues."
Stand-up comic Stephanie Miller was hired at KFI with the directive to take serious issues and find the humor in them for her nightly show.
"It wasn't until I heard KFI that I even thought about doing talk radio," Miller said. "I always thought it was just old guys talking about the budget. I think KFI has been the one that really trailblazed that kind of different, more entertainment-oriented talk radio."
Miller opens her shows with jokes. One night this week she encouraged callers to phone in with their "crackpot conspiracy theories" that would explain O.J. Simpson's innocence. She has also taken a comedic look at the Northridge earthquake, the Malibu fires and flesh-eating bacteria.
"You don't have to be Dan Rather every time you cover a serious issue," Miller said.
Pat Piper, who used to produce Larry King's call-in show and now produces Brenner's, praised the decision to lighten things up.
"There have always been attempts in radio to make people laugh," he said. "It's good to hear some guys having fun. When people call in, they say, 'David, this is such a breath of fresh air.' Not all of talk radio has to be what you see on 'Crossfire.' "