The only progressive AM radio talk station, Green960-KKGN, in one of the nation's most liberal cities, San Francisco, is being taken off the AM dial by radio behemoth Clear Channel Communications, Inc. —- a media conglomerate now owned by Mitt Romney's Bain Capital, LLC —- at the beginning of the 2012 Presidential election year.
Adding insult to injury for progressives in the Bay Area, the 960 slot on the dial is being replaced by Clear Channel with the likes of Glenn Beck, Fox News Radio's John Gibson and other radical Rightwing talkers, according to a press release [PDF] issued by the media giant last week, touting, in somewhat Orwellian terms, their “goal of expanding talk radio in San Francisco.”
“We saw the opportunity to expand our footprint in this crucial arena as we head into an election year and a population increasingly engaged in local, state, and national events and activism,” says Clear Channel's San Francisco Director of Operations Don Parker in the release.
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The expansion will amount to moving Green960's current schedule of progressive talk shows off the AM band, and on to FM's HD2 radio ghetto where it will become a largely automated “robo-station,” according to several radio insiders familiar with the station and Clear Channel's plans for it. The station which was formerly Green960 will have the catchy new name “FM Progressive Talk 103.7-2” at its new home, if listeners can find it.
The new Rightwing format taking its place on 960 will be known as KNEW, which is currently at 910 on the AM dial featuring a number of Fox News Radio programs. The 910 position will then be filled with a new talk format being developed by Clear Channel called “San Francisco's Talk 910 KKSF,” which will also include some Fox News Radio veterans.
One bright side for progressives in San Francisco, the popular Randi Rhodes, who is syndicated nationally by Premiere (Clear Channel's syndication arm) will continue in her current live Noon to 3p PT slot on the new KNEW-960. She'll also remain in the same live slot in the progressive line up on the HD2 band, though few are likely to hear her there, as very few Americans actually own an HD radio receiver.
Rhodes tells The Brad Blog there could be a potential upside to the format change which will leave her progressive voice, as well as Bill Press' in the pre-dawn hours, sprinkled in among the far Rightwingers.
“I never want to see Progressive voices lose ground, but hopefully we can build on the new HD channel,” Rhodes told us via email on Friday. “It does look like the beginning of the end of 'conservative format purity' has started. That's a change in the industry that I've been fighting for for a long time and I'm happy to be part of it.”…
Other hosts currently featured on Green960, including the popular talkers Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, and Mike Malloy declined to comment publicly for this story. Their shows are still carried by other Clear Channel stations around the country, including in cities where Clear Channel owns both a Rightwing and a progressive talk station in what has led to a less than competitive market for the two formats in many major markets.
In many of those cities, the progressive station is usually carried on a weaker signal and broadcasters and their syndicators have pointed out that there is often little, if any, marketing done to promote the progressive stations. Such was the case on San Francisco's Green960 prior to last week's announcement, according to a number of insiders who spoke to The Brad Blog off record.
Unfortunately, many that we've consulted with for this article either work for Clear Channel or still rely on them to broadcast their programs so they chose not to speak on the record, though some did.
According to their website, Clear Channel has “more than 850” stations reaching “more than 110 million listeners every week.” Wikipedia says that “Clear Channel is the largest owner of full-power AM, FM, and shortwave radio stations and twelve radio channels on XM Satellite Radio, and is also the largest pure-play radio station owner and operator.”
After passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as signed by President Bill Clinton, media goliaths like Clear Channel were allowed to buy up multiple, often competing stations in the same market and allowed leases by the FCC for multiple frequencies on our publicly-owned airwaves in each city.
The law was sold by legislators and lobbyists on the premise that it would increase competition in the market place. The net effect has been the exact opposite as progressive stations have not been allowed to compete for audiences on an honest and level playing field against Rightwing talk stations owned by the very same companies in the very same market.
Former syndicated radio host Peter B. Collins, whose nationally syndicated show was once carried by Green960, now hosts a regular podcast version of the show at PeterBCollins.com. He's also a Bay Area radio veteran and explained that, with consolodation following the Telecommunication Act, there now remain just four major players in the San Francisco market, “Cumulus, CBS, Entercom and Clear Channel and they control, between the four of them, about 80% of the radio ad dollars in the market place.”
He also notes that San Francisco's KGO, another staple AM talk station in the Bay Area, has similarly announced a major overhaul late last week that the trade industry publication Talkers Magazine described on its website Friday as a “San Francisco Earthquake!”
“It's the End of KGO as we know it,” Talkers' website blared over the weekend, describing the layoffs of all but one of KGO's talk show hosts as the station moves from talk to the more inexpensive all-news format. Collins was, until the shake-up, also a frequent guest host on KGO.
The changes will leave Rhodes as the only progressive talker on AM radio during daylight hours in one of the nation's most liberal cities.
“The combination of these moves by two different companies (KGO is owned by Cumulus) really eliminates what little diversity there was in AM talk in San Francisco,” Collins told us over the weekend. “By taking off the progressives from 960 and eliminating the centrists, libertarian and liberal views heard on KGO, it means that AM talk in San Francisco is now 90% conservative. And that's a dangerous development.”
He adds that while he believes the moves are more business than politically related, “I think it's very unfortunate that it's happening in an election year.”
In describing what Clear Channel's removal of progressive talk from the AM airwaves in San Francisco may mean for the progressive format nationally, Talkers offered a curious explanation on their website.
“Obviously it is a setback for the struggling format, simply because of the loss of a major market,” they wrote. “Some observers will point to this situation as an example of the format's inherent weakness by saying it can't even make it in San Francisco – one of the most liberal regions in the nation. However others will note that it is harder for a radio format targeted to a political orientation to make it in an area heavily populated by like-minded people because it doesn't serve a [sic] unfilled need. Radio, being a niche medium, often works best in an area where the targeted audience is in the minority and it thus serves to galvanize a critical mass necessary to support a format. That is likely the case in San Francisco.”
So progressive talk is reported to have not worked in progressive San Francisco because it didn't serve an unfilled need? If that were the case, wouldn't there be Progressive Talk Radio stations all over, say, Kansas and Utah?
Oddly enough, the reason that Right-leaning media frequently cite for the lack of progressive radio elsewhere, for example in heavily Republican markets like Kansas and Utah, is that there is no interest in having progressive talk in such “Conservative” markets. So Talkers seems to be having it both ways here.
Bay Area radio vet Collins says that, in truth, “Industry hasn't really experimented with progressive talk in any aggressive way. And yet they have gotten behind Michael Savage and Glenn Beck and others like them who have a history of being angry or unstable. The people who put that on may not buy that message themselves, but they think people will listen to it.”
They also aggressively promote those programs in markets where they air, while failing to do the same with progressive shows, even those like Stephanie Miller's whose morning show often outpaces Laura Ingraham's, an extreme Rightwinger and regular Fox News Channel guest host, in the ratings in markets where they are broadcast live head-to-head. And yet, Miller's show is carried by just 36 affiliate stations, while Ingraham's is carried by more than 300.
Clear Channel, our public airwaves and public interest obligations
Emmy award-winning former Los Angeles TV news producer Sue Wilson (an occasional guest contributor on media issues at The Brad Blog over the years), whose documentary film Broadcast Blues focuses on, among other things, the dangers of Clear Channel's dominance in the radio market following the passage of the Telecommunications Act, noted yet another change by the company over the weekend. In Sacramento, the state capitol in very progressive California, where there has been no progressive AM talk stations on the public airwaves for years, more Rightwing radio was quietly added to the airwaves.
She charges, on a Facebook page linked from her FCC watchdog website, OurPublicAirwaves.com, that last Wednesday, the company “pulled a fast one on its listeners in Sacramento” by replacing an FM rock station with simulcast programming from talk station KFBK, the station which launched, and still carries, Rightwing talker Rush Limbaugh.
Wilson writes that the move “means that hard right-wing talk will fill another 50,000 watts of OUR PUBLIC AIRWAVES in the Sacramento region, ranging from Lake Tahoe to Santa Rosa. It means our region now gets four stations promoting pro-corporate 'conservative' hate speech, but zero stations promoting any opposing ideas.”
She says this means that “Limbaugh can tell millions that Occupy Wall Street protestors are 'Pure, genuine parasites,' and 'smug, stupid idiots' whose parents will need to 'housebreak 'em all over again'” while Sean Hannity “defends UC Davis cops use of pepper spray [and] can tell millions that Occupy protesters are 'Lunatics Of The Left Wing'”, while at the same time on KFBK's sister station KSTE Rightwinger Michael Savage “calls occupiers 'vermin'”.
“[There is n]obody there to counter this propaganda,” she charges. “'Conservative' talk radio supporters will tell us that this is all about free speech, and if we don't like it, we should just change the channel.”
“They are right,” Wilson says, “it is about free speech. OUR free speech. Where is OUR opportunity to get an alternative message out to our community on OUR PUBLIC AIRWAVES?”
She goes on to say that no matter the politics, stations are granted FCC licenses for use of the public airwaves in exchange only for serving in the public interest.
“How is a hard right corporate power grab serving YOUR public interest?,” she rhetorically asks. “Answer: It is not.”
Clear Channel's removal of progressive talk from San Francisco's airwaves at the beginning of a Presidential election year when Romney is seen by many to be the GOP's likely nominee is bound to raise eyebrows and renew progressive concerns about media consolidation under the 1996 Telecom Act.
Collins, however, doesn't see a conspiracy behind the shakeup in San Francisco. “I just don't think the decisions were about politics,” he says. “But, it's very easy to see that there's an industry bias against Liberals and a basic industry presumption that Liberals can't be successful in talk radio.”
“The real failure of this was to promote progressive talk in the same manner as conservative talk is promoted,” he says.
Indeed, it's not just the corporate radio industry that seems disinclined toward supporting and promoting progressive programming. In 2006, Collins released a memo from ABC Radio Networks instructing affiliates who carried programs syndicated by Air America (the progressive radio network which declared bankruptcy the same year) to black out all ads from some 90 major corporate sponsors, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Visa, Exxon Mobil, Cingular, McDonald's, and even the U.S. Postal service and the U.S. Navy. All of them, the memo reads, “do not wish to air on any Air America affiliates.”
After the memo [PDF] was posted online by the non-profit media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the New York Times noted that the “advertisers’ avoidance of Air America’s liberal programming seems pointed when contrasted with the commercial success of right-wing talk radio programs like those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”
No reason was given in the memo for the major corporate advertisers shunning of Air America programming, and none offered comment in response to the NYTimes, which pointed out that “H-P, Wal-Mart, Visa, Microsoft and McDonald’s [were] among sponsors of Fox talk shows, including Mr. Hannity’s and Bill O’Reilly’s.”
As to where listeners can find Green960's programming as of January 3rd next year —- other than via Clear Channel's I Heart Radio smart phone app —- it won't be easy. At least not on the way to and from work, where Rightwing talk radio will still be plentiful and featured on several stations in the Bay Area.
While Collins notes that the HD2 band was originally meant as commercial broadcast radio's answer to satellite radio, “there's not been a big embrace of HD.”
“It's in a bunch of Volkswagens,” he says, “and other than that, nobody's got 'em.”