Turn Your Radio On

The Unions' Answer to Right-Wing Static

by Thom Hartmann

Dissident Voice

August 12, 2003

"If America's largest and most conservative corporations can own and influence big chunks of the American media," some have asked, "then why not our most established and respected unions?"


It turns out that unions can get into the media business - and one already has, creating what has recently become America's only operational commercial liberal talk radio network, officially introduced to the industry this month with a prominent ad in Talkers Magazine.


KKBJ-AM Talk Radio 1360 discovered the union-owned network's liberal programming on a stormy night back in June when one of the Minnesota talk station's satellite receivers died. To avoid dead air, the station flipped to the program stream coming down on a second satellite receiver, tuned in to i.e. America Radio Network's 9 pm-midnight host, Mike Malloy. Malloy was in fine form, ranting about the "Bush crime family."


The next day, KKBJ's Chuck Sebastian got some feedback from listeners who had just heard their first bit of liberal programming on a station that otherwise carries mostly right-wingers. "One guy said that it was a breath of fresh air to finally get somebody who knows what he's talking about," Sebastian said. He added, "Another said it was 'nice to hear somebody with an opinion the opposite of Michael Savage's ranting and raving.'"


This revolution in talk radio has come about because four years ago the United Auto Workers union (UAW) acquired a struggling talk radio network from its owner in Florida. In the intervening years, they renamed it the "i.e. America Radio Network," moved it to Detroit, and invested in state-of-the-art studios, satellite uplinks, and internet stream servers.


The network brought in top-notch radio industry management, technical, and programming talent, and built an entire business week of high-quality left-leaning programming and an assortment of non-political weekend shows. The i.e. America Radio Network now feeds the ABC Starguide III satellite, which beams down a broadcast-quality signal that can be carried by virtually any radio station in North America - for free on a barter basis (of the 14 minutes in a broadcast hour, the local station can sell nine minutes and the network keeps five).


Over 115 stations across the nation have now taken them up on the offer. The i.e. America Radio Network has also joined with the Sirius Satellite Radio system (standard option on Ford/Chrysler/Mercedes/Jeep and many other cars) to providing live programming for "Sirius Left," stream 145.


Openly liberal/progressive in their programming, the i.e. America Radio Network is shaking up the world of talk radio, causing many in the industry (including an outspoken VP at Clear Channel) to openly question the conservative conventional wisdom that AM listeners only want to hear rants of the right-wing variety.


This is not, of course, news that right-wing radio talk show hosts want you to know.


In the August 1, 2003 issue of the radio industry's "R&R" magazine, Rush Limbaugh said, "Liberal Talk radio isn't going to work. Who wants to listen to a bunch of people run down the country and run down the institutions and traditions that made this country great?"


Apparently Limbaugh has forgotten his own performances during the eight years of Clinton's presidency, and hasn't bothered to learn about the many forward-thinking and positive visions of America being put forth by the Democratic presidential candidates.



The reality is that liberal talk radio is the conservatives' worst nightmare, and - as Clear Channel's Randi Rhodes has proven for years in Florida - in those markets where it's well established it regularly draws huge market shares. As Limbaugh knows - and fears - Liberal Talk radio could lead one of the most important political trends in modern American media by balancing the dialogue to which Americans have access.


Even more important to radio station owners, Liberal Talk radio is poised to produce a huge infusion of cash and energy into the AM radio industry.


Recently Sean Hannity proclaimed to the world that more than a decade ago Rush Limbaugh had single-handedly "saved AM radio." And there's more than a grain of truth in the usually-hyperbolic Hannity's comment: AM stations were losing music listeners to better-sounding FM stereo stations steadily through the '70s and '80s, and the advent of right-wing political talk brought listeners back into the AM fold.


According to Michael Harrison, publisher of the leading industry publication Talkers Magazine, there are today "approximately 1300 commercial talk stations in the United States." This is a substantial uptick from the 75 or so such stations that existed in 1980, and it's generally a profitable niche.


From the advent of Limbaugh in the late 1980s to today, however, nearly all of that talk radio programming has been of the right-wing variety. Limbaugh's success spawned an entire industry of Rush-wannabees and Rush clones, even shifting long-time non-political talk hosts into making right-wing proclamations in order to retain market share. The industry discovered right-wing talk radio, found it profitable, and thought that conservative talk was the only kind of talk that could work on the AM dial.


In the meantime, the i.e. America Radio Network waited until August, 2003 - when they felt their programming lineup was solid and stations were starting to solicit them - to run industry advertising. As a result, many people - even in the radio industry - are just now discovering that liberal talk radio is already here. In most cities, existing contracts and inertia mean its going to take some time - as it did for Limbaugh - before i.e.'s liberal programming reaches into all the nation's radio markets.


As Hendrik Hertzberg comments in "Radio Daze" in the August 11, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, although "Al Gore's margin over George W. Bush [in New York City] was four to one, and the city's congressional delegation consists of twelve Democrats and one Republican," there is not a single commercial station in New York City that carries liberal talk radio all day and "four powerful stations feature 'conservative talk.'"


But the i.e. America Radio Network and the possibility of other liberal startups like Chicago's Anshell Media mean that liberal talk radio has set the stage for a second great explosion in growth for AM radio. The number of AM talk stations will once again expand, the airwaves open up politically, and the radio industry will see a revival similar to the early boom years of right-wing talk radio.


It's dawning on radio programmers that 54 million people who cast ballots for Gore and Nader (and another 50 million who tell pollsters that they lean liberal but didn't bother to vote) represent a huge market opportunity, and that the boom potential for the radio industry is extraordinary.


For example, in most markets Rush Limbaugh owns the noon-3 pm EST slot. If a second AM station wants to move from an unprofitable music format to talk radio, they have to get a second-tier conservative host like Bill O'Reilly to compete with Rush. The predictable result, as reported recently by Matt Drudge, is that the conservative listener half of the pie got split into smaller slices - the Rush station does a little worse and the O'Reilly station never quite makes the profits the Rush station does.


Enter liberal talk radio. Increasingly, stations are realizing that the biggest difference between conservative and liberal talk is that conservative talk is well distributed and market-saturated, while liberal talk is virgin territory brimming with possibilities for any station willing to invest the time it takes to build an audience base.


And the time is right. Just as Bill Clinton was a gift to conservative talk radio, today's liberal/progressive outrage at the behavior of the Republican president, Congress, and Supreme Court are fueling an explosion in demand for liberal programming. Still in its early stages, this groundswell first transformed non-commercial FM, where in just the past year Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" has become one of the fastest growing and most successful programs in national syndication with over 140 affiliates including most major markets.


On the AM dial, stations are picking up commercial progressive/liberal programming, and doing very well. Old radio hands like Peter B. Collins and me have come back onto the air, and high-profile progressives are starting their own programs. Fueling their growth, Democratic candidates, unions, and progressive-minded companies are considering the powerful synergy of advertising on liberal talk shows, just as Republican candidates and conservative companies have benefited from message-consistency with right-wing hosts over the past 15 years. For over a decade, rich conservatives and right-wing corporations owned the airwaves - now it's the workers' and the unions' turn to speak to their constituents.


Programmers once thought liberal talk wouldn't work, noting radio listener studies that showed many Democrats and progressives had left AM radio for FM. But is that cause, or effect? As one liberal listener wrote, "If every day people turned on the AM radio and heard just static, they'd stop listening and go to FM music. Right-wing blather is static to me, and so as an AM non-listener I'm not even considered in the ratings and market analysis."


But that can change, as this listener noted: "...give me talk that resonates with me, and I'll turn my AM radio back on." A hundred million Democrats, Progressives, and Greens are waiting for their local stations to carry programming they can embrace - and advertisers are eager to reach this upscale market.


Now that there's a whole day's lineup of progressive/liberal talk programming for this listener and the hundred million or so like him, we're seeing the early stages of a Second Great Renaissance in AM radio.


And, many believe, a renaissance in American democracy as well.


Thom Hartmann is the author of over a dozen books, including Unequal Protection and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. (www.thomhartmann.com). He is host of a talk show carried coast-to-coast from noon to 3 pm ET on the i.e. America Radio Network. He started in commercial radio in 1968. He can be contacted at: thom@thomhartmann.com


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