Jan 1 2007

The Pitfalls and Promise of Progressive Talk

Surviving and thriving on the left end of the radio spectrum

Although progressive hosts like Michael Jackson and Bernie Ward have been around for years, progressive talk as a recognized format began in 2004, when Air America Radio was born and the Jones Radio Networks began to syndicate Fargo, N.D.-based Ed Schultz nationally. Since then, the format has attracted major newsmakers, big-name politicians and famous authors. But it hasn’t won over many media critics, who keep insisting the format has no future. Other than an occasional profile of a well-known host like Schultz or Al Franken, what little mainstream media attention progressive talk has received tends to be negative—dismissive comments by conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly about how few listeners liberal radio has, or an HBO documentary (4/10/05) that focused almost entirely on the financial troubles of Air America’s founders.

In fact, if you only relied on the mainstream media, you would never know that in a number of cities, in red states as well as blue ones, progressive talk is getting respectable or even excellent ratings.

Chris Collins, program director of WHMP in Northampton/Springfield, Mass., is a big fan of the format. “We used to run a lot of conservative talk shows,” he says, but “the switch to progressive talk has been a hugely positive move. . . . We’ve gone from losing money to turning a profit, while seeing Arbitron numbers climb to their highest level in recent memory.” But somehow, the successes of progressive talk don’t fit the storyline the mainstream media have decided on.

Progressive talk has faced an uphill climb, emerging after conservative talk had a giant head start.

Media consolidation following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 particularly affected the radio industry, leaving fewer and fewer independent stations available where the new format could go—and those independent stations often have weaker signals and minimal promotional budgets. While the biggest names in right-wing radio, like Rush Limbaugh, are heard on over 600 stations nationwide, the majority of which have powerful signals, Air America programming is heard on about 95 stations, many of which have signals that barely cover their target market. Fans often have to rely on the Internet or on satellite to pick up a progressive talk station.

Harvey Wells is the vice president of Newsweb Radio Group, which owns WCPT, Chicago’s progressive talk station. His station is only a day-timer, but it has developed a loyal following. “We get a lot of feedback from listeners,” he says. “I have never seen such a passionate audience.”

When it comes to the sponsors, though, there are challenges he didn’t expect. “Advertisers tell us we do get results for them,” he insists. But as soon as sponsors begin to advertise, they begin to get phone calls. “There are people who start calling clients of WCPT to complain about the content of the shows.” The supposedly irate citizens tell the advertiser they will never go into his or her store again unless the ads are pulled from WCPT. And with some would-be sponsors, the threats work. “The small advertisers are getting scared off,” says Wells. “We had a Subaru dealer who had to pull his ads after a couple of days because he was getting so many calls. This is a very organized effort—this is from people who want to put formats like ours out of business.”

Lest this seem like paranoia, I heard similar versions of this story from other managers in other cities. One manager from a red state, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that even when his station got good ratings, he had to consider a format change because potential sponsors said they would never advertise on a liberal station; they said being associated with “liberals” would hurt their business. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., host of Air America’s Ring of Fire, surmised several months ago that some corporate clients might be avoiding progressive talk because the hosts often criticize corporate greed, a theory that was dismissed at the time.

But it turns out he was onto something: An October 25, 2006 memo from the ABC Radio Networks was leaked to several progressive outlets, including FAIR. It named 90 companies that were asking to be excluded from advertising on Air America. Among these companies were Wal-Mart, GE, ExxonMobil, Bank of America, FedEx, Hewlett-Packard, Cingular, Visa, Allstate, Sony, Paramount and McDonald’s. (All of these companies do advertise on Fox News Channel, according to the Liberal Talk Radio blog—10/31/06.)

The Republican stranglehold on power over the past six years has also made it difficult for progressive talk hosts to be heard. Ed Schultz tells the story of how he was kept off of Armed Forces Radio, a taxpayer-supported outlet that had featured only conservative talkshows. Schultz got an agreement to broadcast his show starting on October 17, 2005, but at the last minute, he was told the deal was off. Shultz surmised this had to do with his criticism of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber; Schultz had discussed on his show how she rehearsed George W. Bush’s video teleconference with troops in Iraq, reportedly telling participants where to stand, what to say, etc. It took the intervention of several Democrats in Congress and a letter-writing campaign from his fans to get one hour of his show on Armed Forces Radio, which is still almost entirely dominated by conservative voices.

In Phoenix, despite strong ratings and good sales, the owners of Air America affiliate KXXT decided to sell the progressive station to a conservative Christian group in 2006, thereby ending progressive talk until recently, when a new progressive station took to the airwaves. But when a progressive voice is silenced, it is often not replaced. And that is a shame, because progressive radio is vital to restoring balance to the popular debate.

Cenk Uygur is the co-host of Air America’s Young Turks morning show, which moved from satellite radio to Air America, even knowing the financial uncertainties. “We decided to go with Air America because this is where the fight is,” he says. “Progressive talk] is at the heart of what the right-wing noise machine is attacking. It’s a Republican talking point that it can’t work. It gets repeated, it becomes the common wisdom, and then general managers and advertisers hear it and believe it.” Uygur isn’t discouraged by the bad publicity, and believes things will change: “We know we’re fighting an uphill battle, but we want to show people that progressive radio really works.”

The fans of progressive talk cannot imagine life without the format, and they don’t see the format as controversial—they see it as honest and compelling. Ed Huefe, a former political consultant who lives in Portland, Ore., expresses sentiments I often hear when I ask why the format matters: “I was living in Phoenix when KXXT was on the air, and it was a lifeline for the progressive community. It kept us all connected.” In Portland, he listens to progressive talker KPOJ for a similar reason: The hosts ask the right questions of those in power. “While I don’t always agree with everything the progressive talkers say, at least their analysis flows from a worldview that I tend to share,” he explains. “Basic facts. . . . are treated with a level of respect by progressive talkers that mainstream corporate talkers utterly lack. . . . I have become sick to death of apologists for the powerful behaving as if they possess a license to pick and choose ‘facts’ as they please while totally ignoring any duty to the truth.”

Now that the Democrats are in power, progressive talk hosts may have more political access. The Bush administration preferred to deal only with conservative talkers, even holding a so-called “radio day” to which nobody from Jones or Air America was invited (New York Times, 10/17/06; Washington Post, 10/25/06). But that may be changing. As I write this, Ed Schultz has been in Washington talking to a number of senators. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a guest on his show. Stephanie Miller, Al Franken and Rachel Maddow are seen on a growing number of TV talk shows when a “liberal” viewpoint is sought. And progressive talk hosts are noticing increased activity on their websites, with new fans joining their message boards.

In Madison, Wisconsin, a decision by Clear Channel to drop progressive talk from WXXM (known as the Mic) despite good ratings and a large fan base elicited an editorial in the Capital Times (11/15/06):

The Mic has earned strong ratings in a community that is hungry for a fuller expression of views than it can get from national television and radio networks. Make no mistake, most national media are conservative or centrist—which explains why Americans find themselves so very concerned about a disastrous war in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties. Had most of the media asked the right questions, most of the mistakes and the misdeeds of the Bush administration could have been avoided.

After a rally attracted over 500 people, including political figures, Clear Channel relented and the Mic is still on the air. But in Columbus, Cincinnati and Boston, where the radio giant yanked similar formats, progressive talk for now is still off the air, and it remains to be seen whether protests will get it back.

Donna Halper is a Boston-based radio consultant, educator and media historian.