Michael Savage’s pivot from political pontificator to “life coach” may have more to do with corporate pressure and evolving audience preferences than a change of heart.
“To hear about politics every day is boring," Savage told the Washington Times Monday. "I’ll continue to talk about the news when we need to talk about it. Next year, though, I’m moving into diverse lifestyle topics as well."
“You can call in to me and I’ll be your life coach,” he said. “I can help people.”
As Savage tells it, he’s simply tired of doing what he’s done for years, which is talk and debate politics from a hard-right populist perspective. But talk radio insiders tell the Washington Examiner media desk that it likely has more to do with the medium’s changing landscape and perhaps also pressure from Savage’s corporate bosses who are looking to move away from conservative talk as a means to appeal to a wider range of advertisers.
In 2013, Cumulus, the second-largest radio broadcasting company in the U.S., dropped popular radio host Sean Hannity from its stations and picked up Savage, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (since canceled) and Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera (since taken out of syndication).
“The show isn’t going to change in a great way, because I can’t change myself at this stage of my life,” Savage, 72, had said of his new corporate home and time slot, which went from airing in the late evenings to afternoons in most markets.
That’s quite different from his new attitude on how “to hear about politics every day is boring.”
“They're (Cumulus) actively trying to move away from that (conservative radio),” said one radio host affiliated with Cumulus and who broadcasts his show in a major media market. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss internal business matters.
Talkers, a talk radio trade magazine, estimates that Savage received about 5 million listeners per week in December. That’s less than half of Limbaugh’s audience of nearly 13 million per week in the same month, but still a sizable audience.
The Cumulus source said even hosts with big numbers like Limbaugh, who has long maintained his lead as the No. 1 most-listened to host, are proving harder and harder to sell to big advertisers.
Major advertisers include soft drinks like Coca Cola, department stores like Macy’s during the holidays and car companies such as BMW.
Instead, most ads that air during conservative talk radio are for precious metal retailers or obscure security software. “You can’t charge them a premium,” said the source.
“The other thing is that act has kind of played itself out where it's just angry talk about politics nonstop,” said the source, who considers himself a conservative and sometimes talks about politics from that point of view on his own show but also mixes in pop culture and comedy.
He said while it was once true that people who wanted to hear conservative opinion could only find it on the radio, political talk from across the ideological spectrum is now ubiquitous on TV and the Internet.
“A lot of people used to listen to talk radio at home but now you just watch Fox News, or you go on the Internet and you read the Drudge Report,” he said. “So, what Savage is doing is just really not that unique anymore.”
Tom Leykis, a nationally known shock-jock radio host who once worked for CBS Radio but now hosts his program independently only online, shared a similar sentiment.
He said he believes it’s possible Savage was told by Cumulus executives, “What you’re doing is not going to work for us, or it’s not working anymore or that ad agencies are turning on us and we have to do something different.”
Leykis, who identifies as a libertarian, said the popularity of conservative radio waned after Rush Limbaugh in 2012 called then-Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut.”
“Ever since the Limbaugh incident with Sandra Fluke and the reaction of activists and then the ad industry, I think the talk radio industry is falling all over itself to say, ‘Well we're not that,’” Leykis said.
After the incident, liberal activists groups petitioned, with success, to have advertisers pull their money from Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated show. Companies who had their ads removed included JCPenny, Sears and Allstate.
Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey said the flee of advertisers had cost his company "millions."
Hugh Hewitt, a nationally syndicated conservative radio host whose column also appears in the Examiner, said it's "impossible" to generalize about the talk radio industry but that only radio hosts who break news and deliver news in real time will survive in the long term.
"I'm interested in reporting news and making news," Hewitt said. "I think the [radio] medium's got to be more about news show, breaking news with commentary. Not the amplification of old memes."
Hewitt's show is known in media circles for hosting newsmakers, like former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Hewitt said that's what sustains his show and others like it.
"You have to provide breaking news," he said. "It has to be reliable and it has to be fast. That's what people want. Some old-time hosts can't do that. They want to talk about immigration everyday."
Hewitt would not directly address Savage or his pivot to a "life coach" format, but reiterated that talk radio shows that break news are the ones that will last. "If you can't do it, you better find something else to do because that's the only thing that's going to survive," he said.
John Dickey, executive vice president of content and programming at Cumulus, did not return a request for comment. When Savage was initially signed to Cumulus, however, Dickey lauded him as “one of the more thought-provoking people that I have ever had a conversation with and he is also one of the best raconteurs that I have ever had the privilege of spending time with.”