New York — It's the old law of supply and demand.
In this time of recession, American consumers are ''demanding'' to know how they can stay one step ahead in their finances. Individual retirement accounts (IRAs), money market funds, stocks, and the state of the economy in general are hot topics - even among beginning investors.
And who has stepped up to ''supply'' the information? The media - including radio.
In the past 18 months, CBS, NBC, and ABC have sent out new, brief financial programming on the radio waves. The networks have been joined by an entrepreneur from upstate New York, and a number of independent stations that have set up their own money bureaus.
Of the three networks, ABC was the first to jump in with both feet. Last September, the network began splashing the airwaves with nine shows a day by Gordon Williams, a former managing editor of Business Week magazine. More than 200 stations have signed on in exchange for a commercial minute a day, given to ABC.
NBC took a different tack. In November, the network started a two-hour financial phone-in on weeknights, called the Bruce Williams Talknet program. Response to the show has been ''extraordinary,'' says Talknet's executive producer, Maurice Tunick. The show began last fall on 23 stations. Now about 80 stations are carrying it, and NBC expects to have more than 125 stations by September.
And last year, CBS's Doug Poling started anchoring ''Today in Business,'' a four-minute daily look at the markets. The show is aired in addition to CBS's established ''Your Dollars'' program, a short feature giving specific advice and financial information by Marshall Loeb, an editor of Money magazine.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal, almost a granddad among these programs after 18 months on the air, broadcasts 19 times a day to a network of 70 stations.
The networks head out on a similar tack. They give specific advice related to market changes and discuss the day's financial news.
But Tom Morgan, a writer and businessman, has a different approach.
A former vice-president of a garden seed company, he was unfamiliar with radio broadcasting of financial news. After studying the broadcasting market for two years, conferring with his lawyer and accountant, and finally incorporating himself by selling shares in himself to friends, Mr. Morgan now hosts ''Moneytalk.'' In one year this 21/2-minute commentary has been picked up by 50 radio stations in 15 states and three public television stations.
''Only a small percentage of people actually own stocks and shares,'' Mr. Morgan said. ''The networks are defining their audiences too narrowly. I see my audience as America, from the welfare recipient to the $250,000-a-year executive . . . and beyond.
''How many executives understand personal finance? Even if they majored in economics at a university, they're specialized out of that. I remember a publishing exec who earns $100,000 a year asking me in hushed tones what a second mortgage was.''
Mr. Morgan describes his program as a down-to-earth, humorous commentary which runs the gamut of economic topics.
But he especially likes to talk about entrepreneurs. ''The biggest difference between 'Moneytalk' and the competitors is that I talk about a subject that directly affects 55 percent of the population and indirectly touches the rest of us - small business,'' he says.
He advises his listeners to trust their instincts and even garners his material from people like the Trailways bus driver who tests the economy by the mood of his passengers. ''He told me he knows times are tough because his passengers are grumpy and mutter to themselves,'' Mr. Morgan related.
Although ABC's Gordon Williams hosts a much more formal and specific show about the day's market activity, the network employee agrees with his competitor on the simplicity and reliability of ''economic instincts.''
''When I traveled throughout the country promoting my new book I told people they didn't need gurus. I told them to count on their internal warning systems. When your company's laying off you know what it means.''
For the past 15 years presidents have promised what they could not deliver, according to Williams. ''People feel they've been lied to by the government. They're frightened. And as long as they feel they're being worked over by the government they'll want to know what money is all about.''
Radio stations' managers and program directors have seized on that mood.
A station manager in Northampton, Mass., said that within the first week of broadcasting Gordon Williams's show a woman called in to thank him for running it. An even stronger response came for Tom Morgan's program in Albany, N.Y., where the program director said there were a dozen calls and letters in the first few days.
What is the future for this crop of money advice programs?
Williams and Morgan are determined to outlast what they see is a recession-linked upsurge in financial broadcasts. They think there will be some survivors, and both think, from their differing approaches, that they have the key to beating the competition.
''There will continue to be a market for the best of the money men when the recession lessens,'' Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Morgan argues that when interest rates lower, so will the fascination with the hard financial information provided by the networks. While there may one day be less interest in hard information, he does feel there will always be room for more general commentary. Morgan now spends much of his time meeting public speaking commitments and traveling to sell the program to more stations. At the moment, most of his shows air on the East Coast.
Williams concludes: ''Radio is a fascinating medium. The technology isn't limiting. I can talk directly to my audience.''