|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
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.