Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Radio Veteran Explains Why Rush Limbaugh and Co. Have Come To Drown Out Liberal Voices On The Dial

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.


Anonymous said...

Here is what I believe is one of the most glaring problems:

1. "Liberal"

The definition has liberally set in an etched stone, the ideology of liberal being not what the reality is.

I am an artist. Considered of course to be a "liberal." Now I've been in the high order liberal crowds, Andy Warhol and the lower echelon of liberal arteests in the U.S. of A. too!

R.C. Gorman in New Mexico drew quite a California CROWD of so called "liberals." New Yorkers swarm to NM, Swan Lake owners ET AL purchased our art.

Mable Dodge had already been there and the relic of the place where all the liberals hung in the earlier days was a ghost ranch, literally falling down gone.

I met Easy Rider in Taos, NM, not Peter Fonda, but indeed I had Dennis Hopper thrown in jail on his birthday, May in the 1980s.

I know Dennis is dead from prostate cancer. I did reach out to him during his time with cancer, and that was not easy because in the 1980s, he was a vile evil monster.

TOO LIBERAL. Long story.

The party got out of hand and I was a liberal "care taker" of the San Geronimo Lodge, very rich liberal owner hired our family to restore his adobe mansion and do work of high art in the "Lodge."

Thom Hartmann is another liberal and then Randy Rhodes as well.

NONE of the "liberals" in the U.S. of A. were courageous enough to go where you have, Legal Schnauzer.

This is the problem. Liberals are labeled the word of "liberty," and most have been molded into chicken shit.

My great arteest greatest love and best friend in earth and in heaven, would say, "... take the 'Homie Sock' and beat the liberals with their own stupid egotistical shit till they get the IDEA to stop the sucking of all creative genius into the ideology of zero courage to create.

The guy in the White House was considered THE choice to indeed suck all the "liberals" into doing nothing when the "liberals" were able to have their vote count for the POTUS, a new puppet. Puppets prove there is no difference between the dumb and dumber except the dumbest in the land runs US into the oblivion of no liberty and We People appear to vote for this "Hope."

"... WHI: Well, he takes his meetings just like any other president would, though even then, he seems to lack a certain focus and on a few occasions, actually leaves with the directive that be given a summary of the meeting at a later date.

.. I hear he plays a lot of golf, and watches a lot of television – ESPN mainly.

.. I’ll tell you this – if you want to see President Obama get excited about a conversation, turn it to sports.

.. That gets him interested. You start talking about Congress, or some policy, and he just kinda turns off.

.. It’s really very strange.

.. I mean, we were all led to believe that this guy was some kind of intellectual giant, right?

.. Ivy League and all that. Well, that is not what I saw. Barack Obama doesn’t have a whole lot of intellectual curiosity.

.. When he is off script, he is what I call a real “slow talker”. Lots of ummms, and lots of time in between answers where you can almost see the little wheel in his head turning very slowly.

.. I am not going to say the president is a dumb man, because he is not, but yeah, there was a definite letdown when you actually hear him talking without the script.

.. That sounds like you are calling Obama stupid to me.

Anonymous said...

continued ~

.. How about Bill Clinton?

.. WHI: I never heard Obama say anything about Bill Clinton personally, though I was told he has cracked a few jokes about the former president since getting into the White House.

.. I have heard that Bill Clinton does not like Barack Obama.

.. That really started when Obama played the race card against him during the primary campaign.

.. Apparently Clinton was apoplectic over that and still hasn’t gotten over it.

.. If there is one thing I have learned in this town – don’t make an enemy of Bill Clinton.

.. But after Obama was sworn in, things began to change?

.. WHI: Almost immediately. Obama loved to campaign. He clearly didn’t like the work of being President though, and that attitude was felt by the entire White House staff within weeks after the inauguration. Obama the tireless, hard working candidate became a very tepid personality to us. And the few news stories that did come out against him were the only things he seemed to care about. He absolutely obsesses over Fox News. For being so successful, Barack Obama is incredibly thin-skinned. He takes everything very personally.

.. And you state he despises Joe Biden?

The Man Who Calls Himself Obama: Collection One: Volumes 1-6, By DW Ulsterman


Redeye said...

"Where is progressive talk radio headed? The future isn't bright, and we should not look for any help from the Obama administration: "

Oh, OK.


jeffrey spruill said...

Competition is a sin.
John D. Rockefeller

LS:It's sounds as if the "powers that be" are intentionally trying to create monopolies.

And Rush Limbaugh is about as funny/moronic as Laura Ingraham & Sean Hannity.

(“my mullah went to Club Gitmo and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”).


Zacherydtaylor said...

Robert McChesney went into this in much moredetail in at least a couple of his books, "The Problem With the Media" and "Rich Media Poor Democracy." Now that they have consolidated into six conglomerates and the commercial media is under centralized control it ahs essentially been turned into a propaganda machine. McChesney wrote about how profits for the media outlets isn’t necessarily the most important thing; or at least not immediate profits.

They often give more leeway to right wing shows with fewer viewers than to left wing shows with more viewers. The reason for this is presumably that some of these left wing talk show hosts expose some of the scams the corporations have been running. This could mean they're using the commercial media to protect the fraudulent profits of other corporations; and furthermore many of these corporations might have overlapping board members.

Unfortunately I'm not quite so certain that Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz and some of the other high profile left wing talk show hosts are quite as good as they could or should be. I know Ed Shultz has often used appeals to emotions and even though he has stood up to Obama on some occasions he has also covered for him on many more occasions. Some of these left wing talk show hosts only provide as much progressive talk as they seem to feel they need to in order to maintain what they consider a progressive reputation.

In the long run, as McChesney implied or stated we need major media reform that allows many more voices. In the short run we have that on the internet but it is so unorganized and the best sites have the least viewers in many cases because the word hasn’t gotten out and the commercial media uses their position to promote “alternative media outlets” of their choice one way or another.

It may be slow but most people are recognizing how incompetent or corrupt the commercial media is.

Spaceman said...

Reagan really screwed us on the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan really screwed us on a lot of things.

TLR said...

Thanks for spotlighting, LS. Excellent piece by Mr. Collins.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big Al Franken fan--love his books--so I'm sorry to hear about his role in the demise of Air America. I guess this is just Peter B's take on things, but I suspect he's right. Maybe radio isn't Franken's medium.

legalschnauzer said...


Even conservatives would be wise to read Peter B's piece. It contains a lot of good "inside baseball" stuff on the radio biz. I learned a lot about how the world works behind the dial.

Gerry With A G said...

Are any of the liberal programs mentioned carried in Alabama? Is there such a thing as liberal talk in our state? Is there such a thing as non-conservative talk in our state?

legalschnauzer said...


Good question, and I don't know the answer. Welcome input from readers. All I hear in the Bham area is right-wing talk.

Anonymous said...

Would be interesting to hear from Tim Lennox on this subject. He has tried to at least do moderate talk radio in Alabama on several occasions. I suspect it was tough sledding, although I recall that his content was quite good. Isn't he in Montgomery now?

Anonymous said...

Media, information, news, all controlled. CIA.

This is the reality of why the internet and Roger Shuler is a top journalist in the world.

The world Roger. Aren't you glad to be a globalist!

What happened is the globalism has been a blowback.

Liberals were the best used useless useful idiots for the war machine. Went crazy with George W. Bush, Jr. and then dead silent almost, on the Obama worse than Bush in many ways, dumber killing war machines.

How to correct the problem?

Need more radio programs like Steve Lendman in Chicago and the other sources of truth, Sibel Edmonds has a great site. Veteran's Today as a conservative is actually more liberal than any Limbaugh or Rove, for Christ sake.

Do a radio show LS, Alabama can use the air waves to lighten up the land of roaches.

Anonymous said...

Liberal, Conservative....it doesn't really matter. By even discussing this subject we are playing into the soiled hands of the evil doers! True Conservatives and true liberals are all bitching about the same things now so why keep up a dividing line? For the bigger picture that is. And anyway if so called conservatives rule radio then the so called liberal should just turn on the tv. It's actually brilliant target marketing. Conservatives are usually in their cars or on the job, at least those that can get work and Libs are mostly at home now anyway. See everyone should be happy. At least until you all wake up and realize you are being bs'd!

legalschnauzer said...


Thanks for a thoughtful comment and for your insights on the McChesney books. Need to check those out, and I hope readers will do that, too.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see Peter B. Collins on the air here in Alabama--and across the South. We libs need to figure out a way to make this happen.

Anonymous said...

Clinton is a smart guy, but he did some dumb things--or he allowed some dumb things to happen. Radio consolidation is one of them.

Earnest said...

Whatever happened to radio news? I see stations that are marketed as "news talk," but they are almost all talk--and it's all right-wing talk.

Doesn't the decline of newspapers open up opportunities for radio news, reported by real journalists?

Bill Schmalfeldt said...

There are some of us who have taken our experience in so-called "real radio" and are beginning to carve out a niche on Internet radio. Although my platform, Blog Talk Radio, is dominated by Conservative all blathering the same crap, there are a few of us who do progressive shows. On my show, I concentrate less on national conservativism and more on the hucksters like former Breitbart writers. Try me out sometime. I'm live every weekday at noon ET on Blog Talk Radio. I've even had Herr Shuler as a guest in the past.

legalschnauzer said...

Yes, Bill is the Liberal Grouch--a most informative and entertaining guy. I encourage Schnauzer readers to check him out. Is there a direct link to your show, Bill?

Bill Schmalfeldt said...

Don't use the Liberal Grouch handle any more, Roger. Now I'm "Mean Old Uncle Bastard." My blog is http://oldunclebastard.com, and my Blog Talk Radio page is http://www.blogtalkradio.com/meanuncle -- I try to keep it funny, but on message.

legalschnauzer said...

Hah! Mean Old Uncle Bastard. I love it.

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