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An Insider’s View of the Progressive Talk Radio Devolution

(Photo: Rusty Sheriff)

As an independent progressive and 40-year radio veteran, I’m sorry to report that heroic efforts over the past ten years to build a national radio presence for progressives and Democrats seem to have reached a critical turning point. With the recent loss of key AM outlets in Portland, Seattle and Detroit, the progressive talk format no longer enjoys national coverage, which in turn threatens the financial viability of the syndicated programs hosted by Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, Mike Malloy, Bill Press and Norman Goldman.

Since the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the shift of hundreds of radio stations to wall-to-wall conservative talk in the 1990s, progressives have faced a decidedly uphill battle. In my experience, most station owners and managers have a strong bias to the right, and with a few exceptions, the rest just look for the easiest way to make maximum profit.

It’s no accident that Limbaugh was recruited for the heavily market-researched model that was labelled “non-guested confrontation talk radio” after Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act removed ownership limits that led to rapid consolidation and the troublesome concentration of control by national operators we see today. Three companies control almost all of the talk radio stations with competitive signals in the major markets: Clear Channel, CBS and Cumulus.

In my view, we have reached a major crisis due to right-wing bias in talk radio. This right-wing tilt has an obvious impact on our politics and culture. But President Obama, his FCC appointees and most members of Congress – including all but a handful of Democrats – are indifferent. Sadly, it seems that most listeners are indifferent, too.

Having walked some miles in similar shoes, I know the difficult decisions facing my radio friends and colleagues and their business operations. With affiliates, audiences and revenues all declining and the muscular expansion of sports-talk by CBS, FOX, NBC SportsRadio and ESPN, the future looks pretty bleak for lib-talk. You might ask, as David Byrne once sang, “How did we get here?”

Some history: I started yakking in Chicago when Nixon was president and Watergate helped my late-night talk show on WLS-FM (then WDAI) reach the top of the ratings. Moving west, I talked on San Franciso’s AM powerhouse KGO from 79 to 81. By 1989, I was the house liberal at the Bay Area’s KNBR – where I followed Rush Limbaugh every day. (Yes, right-wing talk and not-right-wing talk once both lived on the very same station!) Then I moved to afternoon drive in the same town on KSFO in a mixed lineup that included G. Gordon Liddy and Larry King.

In 2003, I was recruited by a spunky startup called Icicle, run by Ken Dennis and funded by Dorothy Bullitt, whose millions came from the sale of the KING Broadcasting empire that had been based in Seattle. With twin goals of developing online and satellite radio content with a progressive bent, we forged an alliance with the struggling United Auto Workers’ (UAW) radio network (with the dumbest name I ever heard, IE America). We were homesteaders on the new satellite territory at Sirius, and my All American Talk Radio (“for ALL Americans, not just right-wing nuts”) joined a daily lineup with Thom Hartmann, Mike Malloy and Peter Werbe on Sirius Left, the web, and a handful of AM stations.

Err America

As the UAW was winding down its money-losing effort to add some balance to talk radio, we heard the first rumblings from Sheldon and Anita Drobny, who were described as wealthy liberals from Chicago and fans of the fiery Malloy. They managed to get some ink in The New York Times around New Year’s 2003, sketching a plan for a national progressive radio network in the darkest days of the first Bush-Cheney term.

The machinations of the startup, operation and demise of Air America are too complicated to recount here, but it launched, inauspiciously, on April Fool’s Day 2004. In the meantime, Hartmann and his savvy wife Louise had formed their own syndication effort, and Schultz launched his show in January 2004 – with capital raised at a fundraiser hosted by Senate leader Tom Daschle and funneled through Democracy Radio, which was run by Tom Athans, the husband of Michigan’s Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow.

Air America raised the expectations of many of us – and consistently disappointed. Recruiting comedian and author Al Franken as their marquee star, his radio show was flat and not very funny. For some reason, he was paired with NPR veteran Katherine Lanpher, who was not permitted to say much. Topics and guests were safely anti-Bush and pro-Kerry, but real liberal, anti-war voices were not invited; Franken talked up his United Services Organization (USO) tours in Iraq as evidence that he supported the troops.

In its initial business model, Air America made two major blunders: bundling and brokering. Embracing antiquated practices from the 1950s, they tried to force affiliate stations to carry all of their programs; when most station owners rejected this “bundling,” they were forced to lease time on stations, which was costly and disastrous. Within weeks of launching, Air America was dumped from the fringe stations they had leased in Chicago and LA, reportedly due to bounced checks. In politically driven Ponzi style, checkbook Democrats bailed them out, and they were able to lease some big (and many weak) signals from Clear Channel in Boston, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, LA, Miami, Detroit and other markets. In San Francisco, insiders told me that Clear Channel was collecting $100,000 a month for running Air America 24/7 on a 5,000-watt station that did not cover the whole market. Along the way, Air America burned major liberal funders from George Soros to the millionaire club called the Democracy Alliance.

The desirable model for radio syndication is called barter: the syndicator covers the costs of the production and distribution of the show and delivers it to affiliate stations, via satellite, in exchange for a split of the advertising minutes, or “inventory.” Typically, the syndicator gets five minutes to sell to national advertisers, and the local station gets nine or ten minutes to sell to local, regional or national sponsors. As you can imagine, the local station needs to be persuaded that a new show will generate adequate ratings to justify decent ad rates. Some of the highly rated right-wing shows can demand a cash license fee from stations – in addition to minutes on the hourly clock – but I’m not aware of any liberal or progressive shows that ever achieved barter-plus-cash status.

The less desirable model is called time brokerage, or leasing. Like a laundromat, you can only use the machine as long as you keep putting in coins – lots of them. Since Air America’s shows were unproven and they insisted on bundling Al Franken with all their other programs, and because they were desperate to have a national reach before the November 2004 elections, they used this pay-to-play model.

Air America was betting that it could generate big enough ratings to taper off or eliminate their payments to stations, but that never happened. Pay-to-play was a major reason the network went into bankruptcy in 2006. Another was that they never mounted a serious internal ad sales effort to tap advertisers or allied groups that would pay a premium to reach progressive listeners. They relied on bulk sales, first through Jones Radio Networks and then Premiere Networks, which were based on the relatively low audience levels of Air America.

In addition to my radio jobs, I’ve owned a production and consulting firm since 1977 which has exposed me to every facet of our media industries. In early 2005, I was retained by Washington DC attorney Hal Ginsberg, who was interested in buying an AM station inside the Beltway to carry Air America. We did not find a suitable station there, but ended up buying AM 540 in Monterey, California; in July 2005, we signed on progressive talk KRXA without any of Air America’s programs. I was the initial program director who set up the station and host of the 3 PM-6 PM show; my company, Collins Media Services, put my show into syndication.

Despite Air America’s mostly self-inflicted problems, progressive talk expanded, and by 2006 there were more than 60 stations nationwide airing at least one lib talk show each weekday. In some markets, including Monterey and Sacramento, there were even two progressive stations. My syndication plan was based on the hope that, like “conservative talk,” we would see healthy competition in many markets, supporting Air America and independents like me, Miller, Schultz, Hartmann and local shows, as well.

Looking back, the format peaked in terms of outlets and audience at the end of 2006, not coincidental to the Air America bankruptcy. Some Clear Channel stations dropped the format as payments ended; others dropped Franken and tried to expand their appeal – like Clear Channel’s AM 960 in San Francisco, which changed its name from “The Quake” to the more progressive sounding “Green 960” and launched an unsuccessful local morning show co-hosted by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and comedian Will Durst.

In March, 2007, Air America jettisoned the expensive Franken show. Not too long after that, they bounced Rhodes, purportedly because of an off-air, crude rant against Hillary Clinton, but more likely to unload her salary. A dizzying sequence of management shuffles and program changes – notably the addition of TV schlockster Jerry Springer – led more affiliates to drop the format: Miami, San Diego, Cincinnati and more.

Air America’s failures left permanent damage. The biases of many station managers and owners were confirmed – listeners just weren’t interested in liberal views and personalities. Wealthy progressives refused to invest in other radio shows and more stations changed to other formats.

And because Air America was always reliably “in the tank” for the Democratic Party, many early listeners developed the perception that left-leaning talk was just as partisan as the right. This was still the case in 2012, when most of the progressive hosts muted or downplayed their differences with Obama. And the hosts didn’t just voluntarily censor themselves: one told me how a top-five market station threatened to drop the program after too many comments that were critical of Obama.


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.

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