Jul 1 2000

Solid Ratings Don’t Protect Progressive Radio Voices

Are 'controversial' and 'mean-spirited' code words for 'left'?

Commercial talk radio, like television punditry, is politically lopsided, dominated by the likes of Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Rush Limbaugh. The airspace for voices that tackle political issues from a progressive perspective even seems to be shrinking; two progressive shows–Pat Thurston of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Chicago’s Mike Malloy–were canceled earlier this year.

The February 15 firing of Pat Thurston by Santa Rosa’s KSRO sparked protest rallies and letters to the local paper lamenting the loss of “the voice of Sonoma County” and “the only widely accessible interactive debate on local issues” (Press Democrat, 2/17/00; 2/27/00).

Project Censored’s Peter Phillips told the Press Democrat (2/18/00) that Thurston’s show “featured some people who alienated the powers that be in Sonoma County.” Thurston agreed that her politics “rubbed advertisers and powerful friends of the station the wrong way.”

Thurston didn’t shy away from criticizing powerful business interests, like the Sonoma wine industry, or the local political elite. Local elections were just a few weeks away when she was fired, and she had recently infuriated an area judge by endorsing her challenger.

But “the final straw,” Thurston told CounterSpin (2/18/00), may have been a recent show on which she and guests discussed the unsolved 1990 car-bombing of Earth First! activist Judi Bari. On the day she was fired, Thurston refused to read a retraction of the program, in which a guest had suggested the FBI investigate Bari’s ex-husband–who has family connections to KSRO’s ownership.

Oddly, KSRO station operations manager Brian Hudson insisted Thurston’s firing “had nothing to do with any of the content of her shows” (Press Democrat, 2/15/00). According to Hudson, this was just about ratings: “She was fiery and controversial and appealed to certain residents in Sonoma County, but beyond that, we needed to look for a little more mass appeal.”

If the outcry at Thurston’s firing didn’t count as “mass appeal,” her ratings should: Thurston told CounterSpin (2/18/00) that when her show debuted two years ago, KSRO had a 0.8 percent share for that timeslot. By the last ratings period before she was fired, her numbers had risen to 4.6 percent. With the elections just a few weeks away at the time of her firing, Thurston’s focus on local political issues had never been more popular–except, perhaps, with the politicians and station owners.

Thurston was replaced by the nationally syndicated Mike Gallagher show–which is much cheaper to air than a locally produced show. One month later, KSRO owner Lawrence Amaturo announced the station’s sale to the Washington, D.C.-based Emerald City Radio Partners chain of stations (Press Democrat, 3/16/00).

“Dark” and “mean-spirited”

The management at ABC‘s WLS-AM in Chicago has been even less forthcoming about their reasons for firing Mike Malloy on March 24: The official line is that the decision was “amicable” and “mutual,” and a severance agreement prevents both parties from discussing further details. But Malloy certainly wasn’t eager to abandon his show and five-year contract; this “mutual” decision was sent down by station bosses.

The problem certainly wasn’t the ratings. During his last Arbitron ratings period, Malloy was No. 2 in his timeslot, and he consistently beat or tied the station’s overall ratings among 24- to 54-year-old men.

But like Pat Thurston, Malloy rubbed station management the wrong way with the content of his shows. As columnist and occasional guest Eric Zorn observed (Chicago Tribune, 3/27/00), Malloy tackled “issues involving the environment, foreign policy and corporate irresponsibility that other hosts rarely touch.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported (4/6/00) on long-standing conflicts over content: “As far back as September, Malloy complained about clashing with his bosses over interference with his show, saying he had been pressured not to talk about issues related to Walt Disney Co., owner of ABC and WLS.”

Station management “flatly denied reports that Malloy’s outspoken left-wing politics were an issue,” the Sun-Times reported. But in a message to a listener, WLS operations director Mike Elder wrote, “It is time to let Mike go,” citing the host’s “very dark and mean-spirited approach to talk radio.”

WLS seems to be over its qualms when it comes to “mean-spirited” and confrontational programming–just as long as it’s coming from conservatives like Limbaugh and Schlesinger.

Kimberly Pohlman wrote about the commercialization of children’s public TV for the May/June 2000 issue of Extra!.