Final ADP/NBC 10 panel discusses effectiveness of R.I. talk radio

“Politics in Rhode Island: Does Talk Radio Still Rule?” – the final panel of RIC’s American Democracy Project (ADP) collaboration with NBC 10 – was held on Oct. 17 in Alger Hall 110.

Issues including R.I. talk radio’s influence, the effects of social media and the lack of economics were discussed by five expert panelists. NBC 10’s Gene Valicenti moderated the event.

Flyers advertising the panel read, “There was a time when the success or failure of candidates and issues was dependent on what was said on Rhode Island talk radio … today, much of talk radio is syndicated and the emergence of blogs and social media has created alternative sources of persuasion.”

Kay Israel, a RIC associate professor of communication, said, “At one point, talk radio in Rhode Island had a major role. The question is if it still does.”

Panelist Matt Allen ’00, host of WPRO’s “The Matt Allen Show” suggested talk radio “absolutely” continues to be a major force in Rhode Island today.

“We talk about things on talk radio that people talk about … [and] what we talk about is what others talk about,” he said. “We drive local issues. We break news stories … and communication leads to setting the agenda.”

On the other hand, Ian Donnis, a political reporter at WRNI since 2009, cited the serious lack of influence R.I.’s talk radio has had on local political decisions.

“I think it offers a valuable service in Rhode Island, but it’s not really a decisive force,” he said.

Both Allen and Ted Nesi – a political reporter at WPRI 12, and the founder of Nesi’s Notes blog on WPRI.com – disagreed with Donnis. Nesi said that WPRO is still a dominant force in the state’s talk radio today, and that it “has more weight in political discussions in R.I. than in other states.” He cited “The Buddy Cianci Show” as an example of a strong talk radio show with a dedicated listenership.

Josh Fenton, a panelist who co-founded GoLocalProv.com, raised an important point: audience demographics play a huge role in the influence of talk radio.

"We are at a total period of metamorphosis in the media. We need to figure out what people want and need."
-Josh Fenton

“Only four out of every 100 people get their information from talk radio,” said Fenton, who cited a study in The Boston Globe that found many young adults aren’t even aware the AM radio dial exists. Fenton suggests that today, the main source where people are receiving their information, news and music is from their smartphones.

“I don’t even know how much time people spend near a radio,” added Nesi. “It’s mostly Pandora. You have to win people over from other media.”

“If I want to be able to build a brand in the media, I need to be able to get to your phone really fast,” said Fenton.

Two of GoLocalProv’s major social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, have a combined total of almost 12,000 friends and followers, which Fenton says he wouldn’t trade for any amount of radio or print advertising because in today’s world, social media has a wider reach and is more effective.

“We are at a total period of metamorphosis in the media,” said Fenton. “We need to figure out what people want and need.”

Tim Staskiewicz ’06 – the digital content director for CBS Radio Boston who was involved with ADP as a RIC student – added to Fenton’s argument by suggesting the importance of social media.


Tedi Nesi - political reporter at WPRI 12, and the founder of Nesi’s Notes blog onWPRI.com - was a panelist at the Oct. 17 event. (Photo: Wheaton College)

Allen suggested that blogs like Nesi’s Notes are now the medium of choice for many Rhode Islanders. These new and innovative outlets are replacing the newspaper, talk radio and other ways people are receiving information because they are “better, quicker and shorter,” he said.

The last defining issue discussed at the panel included the declining influence of talk radio due to lack of funding. Large debts incurred by mass media and radio broadcasting companies across the country have forced local radio stations to cut bodies and move away from reporting on local issues, which has caused a further loss of listenership.

“It’s not that [talk radio] has a lack of value, but a lack of economics,” said Fenton. “People want local information.”

Valicenti added that the success of both local television and radio shows ultimately depends on the number of “eyeballs” watching; the more people viewing means stations can charge advertisers more, and they can reap the benefits.

Based on the responses of the majority of the panelists, it was decided that “for people of a certain demographic, talk radio still rules,” said Fenton.

“[Talk radio] will always be here,” said Allen. “We were the original mobile app; we were in your car and we went everywhere with you … FM talk radio is in the future.”

The American Democracy Project and NBC 10 will host debates for Congressional Districts 1 and 2 and the senatorial seat on Thursday, Nov. 1, in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall (read the full What's News story here). For more information, contact Valerie Endress at vendress@ric.edu or Kay Israel at kisrael@ric.edu.