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Move Over, Right Wing Radio: The Liberals Are Coming

Massive media conglomerates like Clear Channel and the Cable Radio Network are actively seeking out liberal antidotes to Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. It's not politics; just good business.
 
 
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A political explosion happened this weekend in New York, and it may be the big one that gives Karl Rove nightmares. It could mean the end of George W. Bush's seemingly unending ability to tell overt lies to the American people and not get called on them by the American media.

At a Saturday talk radio industry event put on by Talkers Magazine, Gabe Hobbs, Clear Channel Radio's vice president of News/Talk/Sports, announced that in the near future this corporate owner of over 1,200 radio stations is considering programming some of their talk stations "in markets where there are already one or two stations doing conservative talk" with all-day back-to-back all-liberal talk show hosts.

Using the analogy that music radio stations wouldn't run different categories of music on a single programming day, Hobbs said talk radio was similarly "all about format." This, he said, is why liberal talkers haven't succeeded when sandwiched between conservatives -- radio stations shouldn't mix formats but instead should market to specific listener niches. Understanding this, it's clear that only all-liberal/all-day programming can fill the demand for liberal talk radio, Hobbs' comments suggested.

The timing of Clear Channel's bombshell is interesting. Why this particular week and month?

Back last year, I wrote an op-ed suggesting that there was money to be made by programming talk radio for the unserved majority of American voters who cast ballots in 2000 for Al Gore and Ralph Nader. It's the nature of the marketplace to abhor a vacuum, and the hunger for liberal programming -- as evidenced by its explosion across the internet and its great success in the few markets where it can be found -- can be a very profitable vacuum to fill.

About the time I pointed this out, a group of wealthy Democrats pulled together $10 million, formed AnShell Media, and began the work of raising enough cash to put together a progressive talk-radio network. At the same time, the nation's oldest and largest progressive talk-radio network, i.e. America Radio in Detroit, expanded their programming to offer an entire day, 6:00 a.m. to midnight, of live progressive talk shows, which are now carried on radio stations from coast to coast, on channel 145 ("Sirius Left") of the Sirius Radio Satellite, and streamed around the world on the web. Salon.com even weighed in last week, running a feature article about one of i.e.'s stars, Mike Malloy, and how he's so popular that his show is beginning to rattle the world of internet radio and has a loyal following on the network's affiliates.

At the same time, right-wing hosts are fading. For example, Bill O'Reilly's radio failures in Limbaugh-dominated markets, documented recently by Matt Drudge, imply the obvious: Right-wing talk radio has reached market saturation and is no longer a growth industry. According to Geoff Metcalf on WorldNetDaily, the O'Reilly show is even paying stations -- in one case over a quarter million dollars -- to continue to carry the show.

The handwriting is on the wall for right-wing talk radio: To build profits, programmers must reach beyond diehard Republicans to unserved listeners. This means bringing in the center and left of the political spectrum. Thus, we're today seeing the early fuse-fizzing of the Next Big Boom in talk radio, and many in the industry openly acknowledge it (including Fox, which just syndicated liberal Alan Colmes).

But over the past year, as this became increasingly obvious to those familiar with the radio business, the big media companies seemed unmoved.

If anything, they appeared even more committed to exclusively promoting the most hard-right elements of the Republican Party. MSNBC dumped Phil Donahue even though his was the most highly rated show on the network; hard-right talker Glen Beck organized pro-war/pro-Bush events all across the nation; radio stations ran highly-publicized Dixie Chicks censorships and CD-burnings; and both Limbaugh and Hannity went into Republican hyperdrive with born-again 'Bush can do no wrong' riffs that defied traditional conservative values by embracing the bizarre idea that somehow deficits are good, taxpayer-funded photo-ops are wonderful, and insider politicians profiting from their knowledge and access are no longer worth mentioning. (All things Clinton was savaged and/or investigated for.)

Many industry watchers were dumbfounded at the overt bias and political boosterism. Even BBC Director General Greg Dyke weighed in, saying, "I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war." Across America and around the world, savvy media watchers wondered out loud why our giant networks and media companies would suddenly become so overtly partisan, loudly and unquestioningly kissing up to the Bush administration? And why did they ignore a multi-million-dollar audience of tens of millions of Democratic or liberal listeners -- people with upscale demographics whom advertisers would love to reach?

On my radio show a few weeks ago, I suggested the answer was simple -- it was all about June 2.

That's the Cinderella date for the giants of the media business, the day when Republican activist and FCC Chairman Michael Powell will announce whether or not the FCC will allow further mergers in the media business -- mergers that will help wipe out the few remaining small, local radio/TV stations and newspapers, and, most significantly, make literally billions of dollars in profits for the industry's giants.

This is all about paying forward, I said. The industry giants are ignoring markets and passing up profits over the short term in order to make bigger money over the long term. It's not politics -- it's just good business. If Gore had been in office and his FCC chairman was inclined to approve further industry mergers, Gore would have suddenly found himself equally bulletproof in the media, much to his delight. At least until the mergers were approved.

Nobody in the industry was willing to publicly agree with me, but nobody denied it, either.

Now, it appears I was right, but the other shoe was dropped two weeks early in Manhattan, a block from Ground Zero.

Last week, Michael Powell announced that he was refusing to postpone the FCC vote on deregulation, and that he was personally in favor of loosening the ownership rules, making the outcome a slam-dunk. In giving the big media companies advance notice that they'd get what they want, Powell also unwittingly began the process of cutting off Republicans from an exclusive lock on hundreds of millions of dollars a year in free political advertising provided by the constant national drumbeat of right-wing talk hosts. Thus, Karl Rove's nightmare.

Now that they're past their concerns about how this administration will decide the media consolidation issue, the media giants are now breathing a bit easier, and getting back to the business of making money.

The demands of the huge unserved market of Gore voters and progressives is real, and internet empires are being built on it. For example, RadioPower.org just last week announced they had surpassed the 1.5 million-user mark for their progressive talk radio webstream. The webstream of i.e. America Radio regularly maxes out with numbers that make terrestrial stations catch their breath, as well as successfully syndicating their programming on terrestrial radio stations across the United States. The strongly left-leaning Democracy Now radio show has exploded in listenership, and the new liberal talk star Nancy Skinner has gone from zero to 14 stations in fewer than three weeks, syndicated by both i.e. America and Doug Stephan's network. Peter Werbe and Mike Malloy from i.e. America Radio Network are doing great, even picked up by Sirius, and Michael Horn, CEO/President of CRN Radio News (syndicated on cable systems nationwide), announced at the Talkers conference this weekend that he, too, was looking for good liberal talk show hosts.

Although the right-wingers love to claim that they simply balance NPR (the claim was raised again at the Talkers event), it's an argument that commercial programmers know is specious. NPR never has and never will run hour after hour of a single commentator ranting about the wonders of one party and the horrors of another. Centrist and left-wing talk radio is still an emerging product with a huge unserved market.

This is why Powell's announcement -- once the vote is final and irrevocable on June 2 -- will begin the transformation of the landscape of talk radio in America. Freed from the need to curry favor with the party in power, the multi-billion-dollar media machines will get back to the profitable core of their business: serving programming that meets the needs and desires of a wide range of listeners while delivering advertising to consumers.

Get ready for liberal-progressive talk radio, coming to a commercial station near you. After June 2, of course...

Thom Hartmann, author of over a dozen books, started his radio career in 1968 and is now the host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" from noon to 2pm EST, nationally syndicated on the i.e. America Radio Network.