Philadelphia’s The Big Talker has a smallish mouth, but that’s OK with the bosses who have signed off on significant changes at our region’s leading conservative broadcaster. Bigger isn’t always better, they say.
WPHT/1210-AM knew change was coming for a while. We all did, after The Biggest Talker, Rush Limbaugh, announced last year he was dying of lung cancer.
Limbaugh helped create and shape the conservative movement, and revived the AM band, with power so great it was grudgingly acknowledged by NPR, which had to hate every corpuscle of his being.
“His voice entertained millions of listeners, cheered conservatives hungry to see their beliefs reflected on the airwaves, and elevated long-shot Republicans to national prominence,” wrote NPR media critic David Folkenflik. Presidents courted Limbaugh’s support.
Limbaugh’s death in February at age 70 blew a huge hole in the programming of the 650 radio stations, mostly AM, that carried him live every weekday. It was a seismic shock, and Limbaugh had anointed no heir.
Embracing the crisis, Audacy execs decided to turn it into an opportunity to expand local programming in Philly.
After a 50-year run as Entercom Communications, in March the company rebranded itself Audacy. In 2017, Entercom acquired CBS Radio (which owned WPHT) and had become the No. 2 radio broadcaster after iHeartMedia (which distributed Limbaugh).
In Philadelphia, Audacy owns (by descending ratings share, starting at the top) WIP-FM, KYW-AM, WBEB-FM, WOGL-FM, WTDY-FM, WPHT-AM.
Until July, WPHT’s weekday local voice was just two shows – Rich Zeoli, 6-9 a.m., and Dom Giordano, 9 a.m.-noon. After that, it was all syndication: Limbaugh at noon; Sean Hannity from 3-6 p.m.; Mark Levin from 6-9; former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch from 9-midnight; Coast to Coast, 1-5 a.m.; Fox News Rundown, 5-6 a.m.
With Limbaugh gone, “we thought more of a local story would be better for our listeners,” I am told by David Yadgaroff, senior vice president, and marketing manager for Audacy Philadelphia.
*He looked at the bullpen and saw Dom Giordano, a long-time talk-show veteran who worked his way up from the bottom, starting in 1987 with WDVT/900-AM, the talk station owned by broadcaster Frank Ford. He then worked overnights at WWDB/96.5-FM before arriving at WPHT two decades ago.
Taking Limbaugh’s time slot is a challenge, says Michael Harrison, the founder of Talkers magazine and a recognized talk radio authority. But it’s a smart move, he says, because Giordano is “the dean of Philadelphia talk show hosts.”
Still not filled is the morning time slot Giordano left, but you can bet it will be someone with a local connection.
“I am not trying to be the new Rush or anything like that,” says Giordano, who is a known quality in the Philadelphia market. His goal is to “get every listener and advertiser you possibly can” and make his show feel like a club of like-minded people, which is to say conservatives.
Before Limbaugh, the noon-3 time slot was kind of a death valley. Morning and afternoon drive time were all important, but Limbaugh changed that. “Since Rush took noon-3, it became appointment radio, one of the most desirable and important periods in talk radio,” says Harrison.
When Limbaugh died, his time slot was filled by a variety of guest hosts. Ratings dropped from 4 just before his death to 2.3 a month later. The slot was finally filled by Premiere Networks’ Clay Travis and Buck Sexton – two men to replace one Rush.
About 400 stations took the new show, says Harrison, with the rest either taking other syndicated shows, or filling the slot with local talent, as WPHT is doing. “The feeling in radio,” Harrison says, “is that a good local show will beat an equally good [nationally] syndicated show.”
The final Limbaugh time slot rating of 2.3 was just a little stronger than Giordano’s, who is very different from the man he is replacing.
Limbaugh prided himself on almost never having guests, because he felt – with some justification – he was more entertaining than they were. When he did have a guest, it was always someone he agreed with, or who agreed with him. No alternative views were welcome. He always had callers waiting, but got to very few, as he talked, and talked and talked for three hours.
Conversely, Giordano treasures guests. “Big issues, big guests” is one of his catchphrases. Most – but not all – guests agree with his point of view. Giordano tries to get elected officials on the air and on the record and relishes a good argument. He also takes plenty of phone calls.
After flying solo forever, a couple of years ago Giordano picked up an on-air sidekick in Dan Borowski, who produces the show, and who occasionally disagrees with Giordano’s opinions, which the host tolerates.
One thing Giordano never tolerates is anyone going racial. When he hears someone heading in that direction, he cuts them off. He’s a bedrock conservative, but not a hater.
His mind can be changed. When Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy, Giordano was not a fan, but after Trump breezed to victory, Giordano became a strong defender of #45.
It’s easy to tell he’s a native of South Philly from his voice, less easy to tell he has an advanced degree. What I mean by that is he comes off more like a mechanic than a master’s in education.
In terms of style, the better choice to fill in for Limbaugh might have been New Jersey native Rich Zeoli, who uses heavy doses of humor, which Limbaugh did, and which Giordano does not.
He was a successful political consultant when the broadcasting bug bit him on the doorstep of middle age. In 2010, he scrounged any job he could at WPHT, starting with a show heard only on the internet. He worked “whatever shift I could get,” the station’s gristle – nights, weekends. He made himself available, he had talent, and it paid off.
He admits to being “very libertarian,” against government control, regulation, and restriction. That can cause some tight threading of the needle, such as when he rails against authority, while reflexively backing the cops, the very symbol of authority.
He has the good fortune to have former TV anchor Dawn Stensland, with her infectious laugh, as his “news” person and second banana.
When I looked into the ratings, I was surprised that WPHT just barely cracked the top 20 – 19th place in the June Nielsen book – given that it’s only conservative competitor is low-rated WNTP/990-AM. Black talk WURD/900-AM aims at a radically different audience.
Being 19th is no big deal for WPHT, says Yadgaroff.
“It doesn’t have the same mass appeal nature as [all news] KYW or [all sports] WIP,” he says.
“It doesn’t have to crack the top 20 to be important,” says Harrison. “Some of the most successful people and shows don’t necessarily have the same ratings as you think of as mass media.”
Yadgaroff sees the station as “a boutique. It’s like a high-end store in a mall that not everybody shops at, but those who shop at it, love it, and visit it frequently.”
I can’t say the station strikes me as a boutique. It carries many commercials from doctors and dentists, home remodelers, dog food makers and financial advisors, and its content is often guided by right-wing talking points.
The station declined to provide a list of its top advertisers, but did produce Scarborough research showing its audience is 70 percent more likely to have a second home than the average household, 45 percent more likely to have a postgraduate degree, 66 percent more likely to be self-employed, 80 percent more likely to have a home valued at more than $500,000.
Then I take a second think and understand that Philadelphia is one of the most blue cities in the nation, and its once blood-red suburbs are turning purple, if not blue. Democrats recently captured Delaware County, once owned by the GOP.
With Democrats holding a 7-1 voter registration edge in Philadelphia, there’s little appetite for conservative blather.
That’s why it is not fair to measure WPHT against sister stations WIP or KYW.
Will Giordano be able to regain Limbaugh’s 4 rating?
Will the new 10 a.m.-noon host pull his or her weight?
Will these combined factors lift the station in the ratings?
And will it matter to the bosses who seem pretty content right now? Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. Follow him on Twitter @StuBykofsky.