As part of its takeover of ABC/Cap Cities, Disney is acquiring the ABC Radio Networks --and in doing so, it may already have silenced the most distinctive new voice on talk radio.
ABC had been distributing the talkshow of Jim Hightower, the sharp-tongued Texas populist. Hightower is an unabashed advocate for blue-collar workers, family farmers, pensioners and middle-class consumers. The real political spectrum, according to Hightower, is not right-to-left: "It's top-to-bottom, and the vast majority of people aren't even in shouting distance of the economic and political powers at the top."
While other talkshow hosts make a sport out of baiting the poor, racial minorities and other relatively powerless groups, Hightower regularly took on the most powerful forces in our society: big corporations and their well-financed allies in Washington.
Hightower's show offered thorough, well-documented analysis of bread-and-butter issues like NAFTA, the export of U.S. jobs to cheap-labor countries and the corporate safety net that undergirds Newt Gingrich's political career.
Hightower had a suggestion for the 1996 presidential campaign (5/2/95): "Like NASCAR race drivers or PGA golfers, why not require each of the candidates to cover their clothing, briefcases and staff with the logo patches of their corporate sponsors?"
Exposing a recent federal giveaway to a mining company that donated $120,000 to members of Congress members, Hightower commented (8/20/95):
Hightower's forthright populism won him an estimated audience of 1.5 million on some 150 stations nationwide over the last year and a half. Unfortunately, it also alienated the corporate advertisers who pay the bills on commercial radio. Hightower's willingness to take on specific industries and companies reportedly cost stations sponsors--from local banks to oil companies (Mother Jones, 11-12/95).
What's more, Hightower has not exempted Disney from his scathing critiques. "I work for a rodent," Hightower declared after the Disney/ABC merger was announced (8/5/95). "When you allow that much power in so few hands, they will take money out of real news-digging and it will become what music radio has become, which is Top 40 hits."
Hightower took Disney to task on August 19 for employing homeless contract workers who have to pay for their uniforms and tools out of their $4.25 an hour salary--while Disney CEO Michael Eisner makes $78,000 an hour.
On September 4, Hightower blasted ABC News for backing down to tobacco companies in the face of a lawsuit--noting that the network "had just merged with the Mickey Mouse empire of Disney Inc." The next day, Hightower was informed by ABC that his show would no longer be distributed by the network.
Was there a connection between Disney's takeover and Hightower's dumping? ABC radio executives say no. But staffers at Hightower's office note that ABC's promotion of the show ground to a halt almost as soon as the merger was announced.
And Hightower is not the only ABC/Cap Cities employee to be fired after criticizing Eisner: Robert Sam Anson, who was dumped as editor of Cap Cities' Los Angeles magazine, had written an unflattering profile in which David Geffen called the Disney chief a "wimp" (Los Angeles, 7/95).