How To Build (and destroy) a News Media Empire

CNN was the original 24-hour cable news format, likely patterned after the success of all-news radio stations. But CNN lost its course and its audience.  While many formerly great stations stumbled and lost audiences, CNN’s fall from greatness provides a lesson to all in media.

The Rise of CNN

CNN launched in June 1980.  In the 80s and 90s, Ted Turner’s CNN made history covering breaking news on location:

+   Reagan’s assassination attempt in 1981

+   Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981

+   Spaceship Challenge explodes on takeoff 1986

+   Tiananmen Square 1989

+   The Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989

+   The Waco standoff 1993

+   The OJ Simpson trial in 1995

+   Oklahoma City bombing 1995

+   The death and funeral of Princess Diana in 1997

+   The Clinton impeachment in 1998

+   And the Columbine school shooting 1999

The Fall of CNN

CNN’s continuous coverage of these stories made it great. But over time, they lost their focus and changed from presenting breaking news to opinionated talk shows. CNN’s initial ratings success brought on competitors. MSNBC launched in July 1996, and Fox News launched in October of that year. CNN even created its own competitor, likely inspired by All News 1010 WINS in New York, CNN Headline News launched in 1982 with its half-hour news cycle.  Pictured below is Lynn Russell.

CNN had other competitive issues.  When CNN launched in 1980, there were 28 cable channels. Today, there are over 450 channels, and viewers have streaming from YouTube, Facebook, and many other news and entertainment options.  Media critics agree that Fox single-handedly destroyed CNN, taking the ratings lead, although it took two decades.  The Fox News Channel was founded by media mogul Rupert Murdock in 1996.  Roger Ailes was appointed CEO in 2001 of FNC’s Republican-centered alternative to CNN.  By January 2002, FNC ratings surpassed previously top-rated CNN to become the #1 cable news channel, and Fox News remains the most-watched network in cable news history.

How did CNN lose its course?  News consultant Peter Wilkinson Thiele said that instead of focusing on and refining its product, CNN panicked and changed its mission – that which made it famous and desired.  CNN built its empire on breaking news with credible coverage. Turner sold CNN to Time Warner in 1996.  CNN lost its culture, direction, and focus when it switched from unbiased news to liberal talk shows.  How could CNN have failed to relate?

CNN originally gained an audience by covering major news stories with wall-to-wall news without a political slant.  That changed.  Having news bureaus around the world was costly.  Enter the Time Warner accountants and bean counters.  Replacing news bureaus with talk show hosts in Atlanta was cost-efficient. The CNN audience slowly left.  While their election night coverage remains excellent, CNN today is likely best known for its left-leaning hosts and their political slant.

What radio stations have stood the test of time and competition and continued to succeed in their markets?  Here are the #1 stations in the top ten markets twenty years ago and their rank today (April 2024 PPM):

Top 10 Markets #1 in 2004 Rank today
New York WLTW #1
Los Angeles KIIS #4
Chicago WGN #9
San Francisco KGO #37
Dallas KKDA #15
Philadelphia WBEB #5
Houston KODA #1
Atlanta WSB #2
Boston WEEI #10

How about your station? 

What is your station “famous” for, and how is it memorable?  Was your station the Michael Phelps of radio in its day, but now it struggles to stay afloat?

If your station is treading water, get the WOW factor back with sizzle and excitement. Every station is unique. Refocus the product to gain more audience.

  • Analyze branding and content. Define the mission and target audience and focus on your strengths.
  • Work on program development and execution. Prune outdated or stale features that do not advance the mission.
  • Research the music and play the right songs to attract the biggest audience.
  • Coach talents to help them sound relevant. Tune their show prep to mirror the audience’s interests. Talk about local events.
  • Review and update social and digital media strategy.
  • Create fun contests and promotions to create tune-in and perk interest.
  • Review ratings and make enhancements.

There is a science to programming “WOW” and exhibiting programming passion on the air.

Pic designed by wirestock for Envato Elements.

John Lund is President of the Lund Media Group, a radio programming, broadcast consulting, and research firm with specialists in all mainstream radio formats.  Leave a comment below or email him at John@Lundradio.com.

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