Wednesday, June 20, 2018
TV and Media

Cox Radio's all-talk format at WHPT-FM holds promise and risks

It's your classic good news/bad news scenario.

One the one hand, watching Cox Radio convert WHPT-FM (102.5 The Bone) into an all-talk station starting today feels like watching the local radio scene rise from the dead — trying something new after years of downsizing, cost-cutting and retrenchment.

But the talk format Cox Radio is splashing across its dial can be contentious and problematic.

Last week, the company announced who would join star personalities Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (6 to 10 a.m.) and Mike "Cowhead" Calta (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) weekdays at the station.

Drew Garabo, morning personality at Cox Radio-owned WSUN-FM (97.1), will pop up on WHPT from 10 a.m. to noon; Billy Madison, a morning host in San Antonio, offers a live show from noon to 3 p.m. for the Tampa market from Texas; and Matt "Spice" Lloyd will leave Clem's show to host his own program from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Call it shock jock radio, or "hot talk," but the format is male-centered, sometimes sexist, awkward on race issues and drawn to stunts of questionable taste.

This new lineup at WHPT, for example, doesn't feature any female personalities. Program director Mike "Shark" Sharkey said they are talking to one woman who might appear on four different shows across the day.

"The Bone has always been a male-oriented talk station," Sharkey said. "We're not going to offend for the sake of offense … but we're going to stir the pot."

Many industry watchers remember the on-air boar slaughtering years ago that got Clem prosecuted (and acquitted) for animal cruelty when he worked for Clear Channel Radio.

And even though Clem hasn't tried anything nearly as shocking at Cox Radio, he has aired a parody song about immigration titled "Those F------ Mexicans, They Gotta Go" and posted "f--- Haiti" on his Twitter feed after the earthquake there.

Here's a list of pros and cons at hand.

PRO

It's live and local, mostly.

With a ratings system that seems to reward more music and less talk, FM stations have been cutting down the talk and amping up the music. It's a shortsighted approach. If I want music, I have an iPod to jack into my car stereo; new cars will have Internet capability. Radio should offer unique content, which means live and local voices telling me things that aren't on my smartphone or MP3 player.

CON

It can get out of hand quickly.

When Tampa had radio stations filled with local talent, there was some pretty awful stuff on the radio, too. Mark Larsen had his "humpday" news segments with bizarre stories lampooning gay people; Ron Diaz and Ron Bennington's Ron & Ron show had fake "week in race" reports from a supposed former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard; and WFLZ-FM had a bikini contest featuring pregnant women on Mother's Day.

Cool as it will be to have a live talk alternative, those examples highlight the bad old days we really don't need to revisit.

PRO

It shakes up commercial talk radio.

For too long, radio listeners have had mostly three choices in local talk: political conservatives, sports and noncommercial hosts on NPR and WMNF-FM. Clear Channel turned the most powerful AM station in town into a megaphone for its syndicated conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

But with audiences for those guys aging and shrinking, it's time for a fresh approach.

CON

It increases the pressure to do something stupid.

Hot talk formats work best when the host is pushing boundaries, creating buzz. In the case of WHPT's Mike "Cowhead" Calta, that meant giving out the personal cellphone of late night host Conan O'Brien's publicist during a feud, as well as joking with Charlie Sheen during the actor's Tampa stage show about Roger Ebert's cancer.

And while the O'Brien thing was almost funny (to everybody but the publicist), who knows what the new guys might do to prove themselves? Is the Tampa Bay area ready for a station full of shock jocks unleashed?

PRO

It could reverse a seriously declining industry.

Layoffs have pulled a string of great local radio personalities off the air, simultaneously shutting down the pipeline for new talent.

Of course, by writing all this, I'm making myself a target, too. There's no better position for a hot talk radio personality than to rail against the establishment, especially a know-it-all media critic whose nose for prejudice and sexism sounds like political correctness to some people.

Believe it or don't, I actually hope this all-talk experiment works. Commercial radio is a great platform, but its biggest success has come from smart programmers willing to take chances on new ideas.

Here's hoping it works without inflicting too much knuckleheadedness on the rest of us.

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