|Peter B. Collins|
Why is talk radio dominated by right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh? Why have progressive voices largely failed to gain traction on the radio dial? What does it mean for our country when the federal airwaves are used to trumpet one viewpoint?
Peter B. Collins, who has more than 40 years of experience in radio, answers those questions and more in an insightful Truthout piece titled "An Insider's View of the Progressive Talk Radio Devolution."
I've been a guest on Peter B's San Francisco-based radio program many times, usually to discuss events related to the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. I consider Peter B. a friend, but he also is a sharp and courageous progressive, a compelling interviewer, and a darned good writer.
His Truthout piece provides the most concise explanation I've seen of the challenges liberal voices face in the world of talk radio. Peter B. is blunt enough to state that progressives, at times, have been their own worst enemies; some of their talk-radio wounds have been self-inflicted.
Recent events make the outlook even more grim than usual for progressive talk radio. Key outlets in Portland, Seattle, and Detroit have been lost--and that threatens the financial viability of syndicated shows hosted by Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, and others.
How did we get here? Peter B. provides a brief history lesson and notes that we have both the Reagan and Clinton administrations to "thank":
Since the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the shift of hundreds of radio stations to wall-to-wall conservative talk in the 1990s, progressives have faced a decidedly uphill battle. In my experience, most station owners and managers have a strong bias to the right, and with a few exceptions, the rest just look for the easiest way to make maximum profit.
It's no accident that Limbaugh was recruited for the heavily market-researched model that was labelled "non-guested confrontation talk radio" after Reagan's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Clinton's 1996 Telecommunications Act removed ownership limits that led to rapid consolidation and the troublesome concentration of control by national operators we see today. Three companies control almost all of the talk radio stations with competitive signals in the major markets: Clear Channel, CBS and Cumulus.
The sad story of Air America did not help the progressive cause. Writes Peter B:
Air America raised the expectations of many of us--and consistently disappointed. Recruiting comedian and author Al Franken as their marquee star, his radio show was flat and not very funny. For some reason, he was paired with NPR veteran Katherine Lanpher, who was not permitted to say much. Topics and guests were safely anti-Bush and pro-Kerry, but real liberal, anti-war voices were not invited; Franken talked up his United Services Organization (USO) tours in Iraq as evidence that he supported the troops.
In its initial business model, Air America made two major blunders: bundling and brokering. Embracing antiquated practices from the 1950s, they tried to force affiliate stations to carry all of their programs; when most station owners rejected this "bundling," they were forced to lease time on stations, which was costly and disastrous.
You might think that a Democrat in the White House would help matters. But you would be wrong:
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.
How bad are things for liberals on the radio dial? Peter B. sums it up:
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. . . .
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.
Where is progressive talk radio headed? The future isn't bright, and we should not look for any help from the Obama administration:
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.
Is there any hopeful news? Peter B. has this:
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.