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Crashing the Gates: How a Handful of Progressive Activists Brought Liberal Talk-Radio Back to the Nation's Capitol

DC is the most liberal region of the country, but until now all the talk on the radio dial skewed right.
 
 
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The District of Columbia, Gallup tells us, is the most progressive region in the country – 40 percent of those living in the nation's capitol identify themselves as liberals. It's got a commanding lead – Massachussetts is the only state to hit the 30 percent mark.

But if you're stuck in traffic on the infamous Beltway and want to tune into some political talk, you've only had the option of listening to right-wing bloviators like Limbaugh and Hannity. Since Air America Radio's demise in 2009, Washington has been without a liberal alternative to right-wing hate-radio.

That is, until last month, when three long-time progressive activists – Cliff Schecter, Alex Lawson and Kymone Freeman -- took over WPWC 1480 AM, and rebranded it as We Act Radio.

At AlterNet, we're excited to see a liberal voice emerge in Washington, and we're really excited to introduce the AlterNet Radio Hour, hosted by yours truly, which debuts this Sunday at 6pm.

We caught up with the three co-owners to see how things were going.

Joshua Holland: So, you guys just decided to go into the belly of the beast, bringing liberal talk-radio to the DC area without corporate backing or a huge wad of cash.

Cliff, let's start with you. Are you guys crazy, or visionaries, or crazy visionaries? How's this going to work?

Cliff Schecter: First of all Josh, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. What is it they say, once you become wealthy you go from crazy to eccentric? So I guess we'd better hope this thing's a homerun!

On a more serious note, there's no doubt the radio business is a challenging one. It combines technological know-how, marketing savvy, regulatory...um let's call it "understanding," and so on. But, here's the thing--we went into this with a solid business plan, a number of solid assets and our eyes wide open. It's true we don't have corporate cash. We're proud of that, actually. But we do have a number of individual funders who have stepped up to the plate, because they understand the importance of having a talk station in DC where, as we like to say, "the truth is our product."

Until our launch there was really only right-wing talk in DC. So the vast majority of us, who north of 60 to 70 percent in poll after poll agree that Social Security should be protected, arms dealers and investment banks shouldn't be able to buy off Congress, and our civil justice system shouldn't become a playground for corporations, to pick a few examples...we had no real voice in Washington. We do now. We will be a part of the conversation, from coffee shops to cab rides, that ultimately shapes conventional wisdom and eventually policy. And we're excited about that.

It made no sense that Washington DC, a top 10 media market where there is more than a passing interest in politics and a populist sentiment, had only right-wing talk. So in reality, there was a market opening, as well as an opportunity to represent all those who don't have lobbyists on a six-figure retainer.

We were also able to recruit top-flight talent. David Shuster, an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster. Lizz Winstead, the creator of "The Daily Show." A variety of other top talents, from Sam Seder to Shannyn Moore. And of course, my partners Alex Lawson and Kymone Freeman are rock stars, who have such long resumes when it comes to helping others, while making their ventures hugely successful.

We can be heard in Washington, at 1480AM, but also at weactradio.com, so people across the country from Salem, Oregon, to Lafayette, Louisiana, to Anacostia, where our studio is based, can be a part of the We Act Radio's extended family.

Now we may still be crazy, irrespective of this undertaking. But I like our chances.

JH: And we're rooting for you. What was the station broadcasting before you took it over? Tell me it was Rush!

Kymone Freeman: WPWC used to stand for We Proud We Country. Now it stands for Washington's Progressive Working Community.

JH: So, the vast left-wing conspiracy knocked out that annoying Toby Keith guy? That's so full of win.

KF: Yes it is! And when the country music station was sold due to the owner's retirement, it became a Latino station. But then Prince William County embraced Arizona's racist law enforcement practices by giving the sheriff's department immigration enforcement powers. So over 50 percent of the Latino community vacated the area within one year – it made the station unsustainable, and that's how it fell into our hands.

JH: OK, let me throw this next question out to you, Alex: DC hasn't had progressive talk since Air America Radio went under three years ago. I'm sure you've done some analysis of why they failed, despite having some really good talent. So, what do you think they did wrong, and what will you guys do differently?

Alex Lawson: I don't think that you can call Air America a failure. I would say that we have Senator Al Franken due in part to Air America and that there are many progressive voices heard today because of the start they got on Air America.

Air America was also a huge part of activating me to engage in the political process. Knowing that I was not alone in my progressive values empowered me to search out a community that shared my commitment to building a world that values the inherent worth and dignity of every person. There are many lessons to learn from Air America, but the most important one is that radio is a powerful medium and we cannot afford to let the right-wing monopolize it.

Now, I have spent a lot of time on an analysis of how the right-wing came to dominate talk radio. And the answer is simple: they started small, built an audience and grew over time.

JH: OK, fair enough -- I don't want to trash Air America, which was great. But let me approach this a different way: how will WeAct Radio differ? Or will it?

AL: The thing is we are not even close to the scale of Air America. We're launching a single AM station in a single market that has a large population of politically inclined people. So while it's not a small undertaking to launch a new station in a top 10 media market, it is much more modest than trying to build a nationwide progressive talk station in one go.

And I think that by focusing on a single market we can develop content that is more responsive to what our audience wants to hear. So the biggest difference between Air America and We Act Radio is scale.

JH: Now, Kymone, I saw you being interviewed a few weeks ago -- I don't remember who the interviewer was -- and you were talking about how WeAct Radio was going to be really integrated into the community. And you were saying that rather than talking at people, there's going to be a lot of opportunity for the progressive community in DC to make their own voices heard. Tell me about that.

KF: We're providing all sorts of opportunities for the local progressive community to get involved and really do something.

We're launching Live Wire, which is our independent showcase of programming comprised of local activists and business owners that will air in prime-time hours 11am and 7pm. We're going to host film screenings, book promotions and other cultural events at the studio which will be open to the general public. I'm working on getting some grants to launch broadcast training programs for young people – to try to engage them in media and politics, and as a Green for All fellow, I have received support to create a community garden in the back of our studios. We fully intend to make our station as eco-friendly as possible.

And let me just say that I fully embrace the title of "crazy visionaries!" I believe that in a world of insanity, it is the strong that go crazy while the weak pretends there is nothing wrong.

You know, according to Bill Press (one of our leading syndicated progressive hosts who wasn't heard in DC until now, despite the fact that he broadcasts his national program from from here) says that there are 2,000 conservative talk-radio stations in America and only 50 progressive stations.

And I am very proud to say that we are now the 51st and we do not take the words, "Truth is our product" lightly. It's a direct response to the handful of corporations that control most of what we see hear and read.

JH: OK, Kymone, you win for best answer.

I'm really excited to debut the AlterNet radio hour this Sunday evening at 6, and I'm also very confident that Americans are going to tune in and not waste time with that silly football game. I mean, it's our debut show! I almost feel sorry for the NFL – they went to so much trouble and got Madonna and everything.

And, Cliff, you're doing a show with 'Daily Show' co-founder Lizz Winstead. I know you have Ed Schultz on for drive-time. Who else is onboard?

CS: Glad you asked that. I think what's really exciting about our station is that we have nationally syndicated talent--you mentioned Ed Schultz, for example, and we also have Thom Hartmann and Bill Press (both based out of Washington) and Stephanie Miller, as well as Ring Of Fire (Robert Kennedy Jr., Mike Papantonio and Sam Seder are the hosts) and David Pakman on weekends.

Also, our weekday, nightly schedule and weekend programming is filled with top-notch talent, with those who have become innovators with popular online shows and also important voices who did not yet have a show. During the week, we have Kymone on from 6-8, and following him we have huge talents in folks like Sam Seder, Shannyn Moore, Nicole Sandler and Elon James White.

On weekends, we have longtime radio hosts and podcasters such as Mark Levine, Nancy Skinner, Angie Coiro, Bob Cesca and Matt Filipowicz. Ben Wikler, who produced Al Franken's show on Air America has a show with us, and other longtime contributors to TV and radio, RJ Eskow and some guy named Joshua Holland, make this entire group an all-star lineup. As I'm sure I'm missing people, readers should check out our weekday schedule (here) and weekend lineup (here).

So we're pumped about this. And I'm appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of something this groundbreaking. In fact, the best way I can think to sum it up is in the immortal words of John Travolta's character Major Vic "Deak" Deakins, from that all-time classic Broken Arrow: "Aint it cool?"

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.
 
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