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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The rise and fall of prog-talk radio
Posted by Jill | 7:18 PM
One of the ways I know I'm an old fart is that I still listen to terrestrial radio. I don't listen much, usually only when I'm driving to or from work. On the way TO work, I often find myself listening to Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton's morning sports talk on WFAN. I don't know why I do this. It isn't that I'm such a sports junkie, and after Carton's ignominious firing from his previous radio show following unconscionable remarks he made about former New Jersey Acting Governor Richard Codey's wife's postpartum depression, no self-respecting feminist should ever listen to this man again. And yet I do, and I'm not the only one (though I think this woman's Carton fetish is a little bit weird -- the man may be an entertaining asshole, but he's still an asshole).

It's probably because in the morning, what you need is a zoo. I'm really not up to learning the minutiae about what's going on in Turkey, and the NPR morning crew isn't exactly designed to get you going when you're on the road at 6:15 AM in the dark on the way to a 7:00 teleconference. It's like drinking chamomile tea when what you really need is dark roast with an extra shot of espresso. And Carton is that extra dose. Sometimes I listen to Mark Riley on WWRL, the last voice of progressive talk radio in New York, but frankly, I'm really not that interested in the New York City school bus drivers' strike, and Riley's show is more often than not about topics of interest primarily to New York city residents. So it's to WFAN I turn, for Carton shrieking about the Jets, or Al Dukes' off-key songs, or Boomer Esiason trying to inject some gravitas into a show that isn't about gravitas at all. And all of this is punctuated by commercials for ex-NFL-er Brad Benson's Hyundai dealership, which are so dumbassedly funny that they almost make me want to shlep down there to buy an Accent. It's sort of like listening to The Odd Couple with crazy sports callers. Clearly the formula works, because "Boomer and Carton" is the #1 show among men in the age group 25-54.

How the mighty (meaning me) have fallen.

The "Felix Unger and Oscar Madison" dynamic just plain works on morning talk radio. There was a time when I could turn on the radio at 6 AM and listen to three hours of smart comedy, incisive interviews, and just plain lunacy. That time lasted from April 1, 2004 until December 2005, when the then-current suits at Air America Radio pulled Morning Sedition off the air. I've spilled plenty of keystrokes here about Morning Sedition, and if you'd like to read them, just type "Morning Sedition" into the search box in the left-side menubar and you'll find plenty of it. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go here and start listening. This brilliant radio show, misunderstood and mismanaged by the people who were supposed to bring progressive talk radio into the mainstream, has just an early canary in the coal mine for what has transpired since then.

Peter B. Collins, a long-standing prog-talk guy, laments the devolution of progressive talk radio at Truth-Out:
Despite the sharp decline in the progressive radio business, we all hoped that the end of the Bush presidency and the 2008 elections would produce new growth in lib talk. With the protracted primary battle between Obama and Clinton, and Obama's inspiring campaign against McCain, we expected to see a spike in ratings and affiliates and hoped the Obama campaign and other Democrats would spend money to reach our listeners, their voters. There was no measurable audience growth and only a precious few campaign dollars were spent on our programs and our affiliate stations.

In August of 2008, all of the progressive shows converged on the Obama coronation in Denver, but we were ignored by the Obama campaign. We were assigned a radio row in the basement of the convention hall, under an escalator. All the delegates and dignitaries whisked past us on the escalator, and when they reached the main floor, the first radio booth they saw was FOX News. Team Obama mostly declined our requests for interviews and we ended up mostly talking with Team Hillary. Schultz was so pissed that he pulled out after the second day and returned to his base in Fargo.

By March, 2009, I had to make the difficult choice to end my syndicated show. There was no path to profitability and the Bush recession didn't help. Indeed, it lowered the tide for all radio boats, and it also sharply cut the revenues to my personal business that had helped subsidize my radio show. After several years of financial losses, I signed off and launched my net-only podcast in June 2009 which now attracts more listeners than I was reaching with ten AM affiliates. The roster of surviving liberal and progressive talk radio shows is facing a similar set of dynamics, even more dire. With Monterey and Eureka as the only remaining full-time progressive outlets on the West Coast, progressive talk does not have national distribution and can't compete for most national ad buys. A year ago, Clear Channel renamed the San Francisco station KNEW and bumped Stephanie Miller in favor of Glenn Beck, Thom Hartmann in favor of money-talker Dave Ramsey. At about the same time, the company dropped Hartmann in Los Angeles for a local show that was intended to defuse community protests of racist comments by "John and Ken" on co-owned KFI.

Ratings range from flat to flat-lined: in 2012, Clear Channel-owned KPOJ in Portland and CBS-owned KPTK in Seattle showed audience numbers so low that they were not listed by Arbitron; Clear Channel's WDTW in Detroit barely showed a pulse at .1 percent, and the once-powerhouse, now-struggling media conglomerate recently agreed to donate WDTW to a local community group. In his second attempt at WVKO in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Richards was forced to sign off just before Christmas 2012. Progressive talker Jeff Santos waged a valiant four-year struggle in Boston, and I was a consultant in his effort last year to add eight new markets in battleground states; we had no choice but to lease air time, and once again the Democrats who had the most to gain failed to support the effort. The only exception I've found is Madison, Wisconsin, market #100, where Clear Channel's WXXM-FM, "The Mic" jumped a full share point to a respectable 3.3 this fall. Back in 2006, a local group led by activist Aldous Tyler rallied support, and a planned format change was halted. Similar efforts are underway in Seattle and in Portland, where longtime KPOJ morning host Carl Wolfson has just launched a live webstream show weekday mornings 7-9 AM Pacific. It's worth noting that Arbitron has switched to a "people meter" system that has produced lower numbers for talk programming in general and progressive talk in particular. Al Franken is in the Senate, Ed Schultz appears to be doing well on MSNBC, Thom Hartmann has a nightly TV show on the RT network, Bill Press and Stephanie Miller are simulcast on Current TV (which has just been sold to Al Jazeera). But their radio shows face tough sledding and possible elimination in 2013. Dial Global, the company that syndicates these programs (along with NFL football and a variety of music formats), is in deep financial trouble, and its stock was recently voluntarily delisted from the NASDAQ when the share price dropped below $1. Ironically, the company blames the progressive-driven advertiser boycott in 2012 aimed at Rush Limbaugh for his misogynist comments about attorney and birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke, which appears to have caused many national advertisers to stop advertising on all talk radio programs - both right and left - to avoid controversy.

Some observers see the long arm of Mitt Romney's Bain Capital (which took Clear Channel private in 2008) and other right-wing forces as the causes of lib talk's travails. While it's true that progressive programs were consigned to weaker stations in many markets - often programmed by conservatives who didn't believe in the product - and never got the kind of advertising support needed to develop the brand properly, it's clear that the progressive community and its political leaders have simply not supported the format in the same way that the right has. This includes listeners, (who seem to prefer the measured tone of NPR to the rough and tumble of AM talk, in markets where they are able to hear both) advertisers owned by progressives, and the leadership of the Democratic Party. Some labor unions have advertised on progressive shows, but their financial support is no match for the profits of conservative stations and programs. As someone who took substantial personal risk in syndication and station ownership, I can tell you that progressive talk has not panned out as a viable business. Clinton's 1996 deregulation of broadcasting and the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 didn't help. I do think the FCC should require some balance of viewpoints on the stations it regulates, through the license renewal process, but there is simply no interest on the part of Obama and his appointees in regulatory reform - even as the president is pilloried by right-wing radio on a daily basis. Air America's parade of management blunders produced the downward spiral that brought us to this tipping point for progressive talk radio, and most station owners, rightly or wrongly, see that failure as an indication that audiences won't support liberal talk radio.

In radio, we always like to end on an upbeat note. Here's the best I can muster: if you want to help keep the surviving progressive talk shows alive, subscribe to the podcasts of your favorite progressive hosts - it's a critical stream of revenue as these programs fight for survival.

So the question is: Is this a BAD thing? Or is it just a natural evolution of communications media? Right-wing talk radio and even sports talk radio thrive because its audience skews old -- the people for whom terrestrial radio is omnipresent. For younger generations, AM radio isn't even on their radar.

A few years ago, when Air America was still viable and still had a reasonably strong signal, I went to a meeting at the campaign headquarters of Dennis Shulman, a blind rabbi who had embarked on a quixotic quest to unseat our wingnut Congressman, E. Scott Garrett. Shulman had a compelling personal story, and I suggested to the campaign manager that they try to get him on some Air America shows. The campaign manager, a kid in his 20s, had no idea what I was talking about.

Thom Hartmann is still out there, Randi Rhodes is still fighting the good fight, albeit on ever-fewer stations, Stephanie Miller is getting harder to find (and will be even harder to find after Current TV leaves the airwaves) and Ed Schultz somehow manages to do three hours of radio every day and an hour of television. But when I think of the days when I could turn on WLIB and listen to Morning Sedition, followed by Unfiltered (which gave birth to the phenomenon that is Rachel Maddow), followed by The O'Franken Factor, then Randi Rhodes, then The Majority Report, and never once change the station, it reminds me just how much has disappeared.

In the short run, I suppose the wingnuts can crow about how they once again "own the airwaves." But the airwaves that don't have video attached to them have become increasingly less important. Yes, the call-in format is dying on the progressive side, but once you get past Morning Schmoe, MSNBC boasts a pretty impressive prog-news lineup. Taken in conjunction with the phenomenal success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, it becomes clear that progressive media isn't dying, it's just changing form. Sam Seder is still out there with The Majority Report. Cenk Uygur has been from podcasting to terrestrial radio to podcasting to TV and back to podcasting. We Act Radio has a full lineup and is available on TuneIn Radio. And with Blog Talk Radio, anyone who has the time can create a podcast (even my cousin Dan).

Just as self-publishing is making the publication of reading materials no longer the province of rich publishing houses, so is podcasting making terrestrial radio obsolete. Until we have ubiquitous wifi, podcasting and internet radio doesn't have the "turn it on and it's there" immediacy of terrestrial radio. But in the not-too-distant future, it won't matter.

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8 Comments:
Blogger Jimbo said...
Yes, I think this is right. Ok, I regard myself as a Progressive and have been my entire (long) career but what I don't accept is the bullshit that there is no market for Progressive views. The Clear Channel people I thought were all right wing reactionaries; I guess they briefly supported liberal channels but not any more.

I listen to NPR because they at least try to provide a balanced presentation of news and opinion. Those who think they don't are delusional IMO. Otherwise, I use the Internet. Morning Joe is a total joke. Mika should be ashamed of herself; she's just an attractive sock puppet. Rachel Maddow is the one that rocks in intelligent commentary.

Anonymous Buzzcook said...
I miss Thom Hartman and Norman Goldman, never cared that much for other on air hosts when Seattle went silent.

NPR is pretty much nice polite republicans, with some exceptions.

At least we still have Amy Goodman on the tiny local 90.7 KSER.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
sobering article ,i gotta feel lucky living in stupid bullhead city,az. across the river in needles ca. is ktox am 1340,the second station ed schultz picked up,about 10 years ago.i used to talk to ed a couple times a week! then he got picked up.couldn't get through anymore,its a good thing.....great local programming 6-9(dave hayes ownes the station,does the local show and rocks.hes the burr under the saddle of the local powers that be),ed schultz,randi rhodes,tom hartmen.....12 hours of progressive talk...damn,i'm lucky
p.s. i sure miss ray taliaferro out of KGO S.F.,bermnie ward too.

I listen to Mark Riley primarily because he and many of his callers bring an African-American perspective that I would otherwise not encounter. I have also become a fan of certain callers, like Julie from Montclair and Jerry from Amityville. The one strike against WWRL is a very weak signal, especially at night.

I loved Morning Sedition, it was like a bunch of crazy outsiders trying to find their way in a new medium, with Mark Riley playing the role of straight man and serious journalist. They really caught lightning in a bottle, and they were on the cusp of doing some really innovative projects (as I recall, they were trying to get some sort of "culture jamming" campaign off the ground).

I still crack up whenever I think of Lawton Smalls

Blogger Nan said...
In addition to podcasts, there is satellite radio. SiriusXM channel 127 has Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, and others.

Blogger Unknown said...
I'm just loving the TuneIn App on the tablet. I can listen to just about any radio station in the country, including internet radio.

Blogger Chris Webster said...
I am a major Hip Hop fan, who recently moved to South Florida. I thought I had left all the hot hip hop radio stations back in New York, but boy was I wrong. X102.3 is my new favorite station for the hottest and latest tracks. It’s easy to get hooked on this www.thex1023.com

Blogger jnc said...
What about Mike Malloy? He is my favorite.