Hot Air

After long days of right-

After long days of right-wing domination, talk radio is at last returning to its roots as a medium open to all voices.

The political Right gained its hold on talk radio in the 1980s when the Reagan-era Federal Communications Commission abolished the "fairness doctrine" - the long-established practice that required radio and TV stations, as a condition of periodic FCC licensure review, to offer all voices the chance to be heard in their public affairs programming. The doctrine was the legal underpinning for a truly fair and balanced treatment of topics in the commercial radio public square.

What followed can be summed up in two blood-curdling words: Rush Limbaugh. With no remaining legal or licensing obligation to offer programs that spanned the opinion spectrum, talk radio soon morphed into a one-sided rant against anything that wasn’t right-wing conservatism. Progressive voices who tried to break into the medium in the mid-1990s - former California Gov. Jerry Brown, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Texas populist Jim Hightower - were simply squeezed out of the marketplace of ideas. Only a few emphatically progressive voices have staked out niches in radio, particularly the five listener-owned stations of the Pacifica network and the growing success of its morning news program "Democracy Now," hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez.

After defeats in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections, progressive groups began to focus on radio as a missing link in the infrastructure needed to communicate their ideas more effectively to voters. A report by one of these groups, Democracy Radio, found that while 61 percent of all talk radio listeners do not define themselves as "politically conservative," nearly 90 percent of all talk-radio programming is right wing. In June 2004, for example, that meant that nearly 42,000 hours a week consisted of "conservative" national and local talk programs, in contrast with progressive programs that totaled 3,042 hours.

BUT THE TIDE is turning. Take Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio chain with 1,200 company-owned stations. Beginning last April, Clear Channel launched a radio show hosted by Rev. Jesse Jackson. A year later, the Jackson show was available in five of the top 10 markets and in 23 markets total (19 of them owned by Clear Channel).

The company is hardly a convert to progressive causes. Its owners tilt sharply to the right, with a history of hefty political donations to Republican campaigns. In December, Clear Channel signed Fox News Radio as the primary news source for more than 100 of its news/talk stations. But at the same time, progressive talk radio - "one of the fastest-growing formats in radio," according to Gabe Hobbs, Clear Channel’s vice president of programming - was suddenly viewed as a good business decision. By April, Clear Channel was broadcasting progressive talk in 22 of its markets, and company executives were talking about doubling the number of such stations in the next year.

Then there’s the success of Air America Radio, a network launched in March 2004 on a liberal wing and a prayer. At first Air America appeared to falter financially, due to a shaky business plan, and was quickly yanked from Los Angeles and Chicago stations. But spurred by innovative talk shows featuring comedian Al Franken and actress Janeane Garofalo, among others, and infused with fresh cash from a new set of investors, Air America was on the air in 51 markets the following month, adding big cities such as Los Angeles and Dallas in a recent wave of nationwide expansion.

Industry insider Amy Bolton, vice president and general manager for news and talk at Jones Radio Network, was quoted in a radio industry newsletter as saying, "It’s staggering. And to think everybody said it couldn’t work because it had never been done." But in fact, many progressives had long contended there was a giant "format hole" in talk radio, just waiting to be plugged with the right progressive voices.

Industry executives’ eyes bulged when they saw ratings soar as stations shifted formats to progressive talk. When Clear Channel made the switch in its Portland, Oregon, station KPOJ-AM last year, ratings increased 1,000 percent. Hobbs says the story has been the same all over the country.

ED SCHULTZ, a former pro football player who has anchored a political talk show from Fargo, North Dakota, for two decades, is the latest phenomenon in progressive talk radio. Democracy Radio syndicated the Schultz show nationwide last year, and today, according to Newsweek, it’s the fastest-growing radio show since Rush Limbaugh. But to keep things in perspective, Schultz’s show was heard on about 80 stations this spring, whereas Limbaugh’s show is carried on 600 stations (with a U.S. audience estimated at more than 15 million). But the promotion of Schultz has only just begun, and the current aim is to get him into as many as 200 markets by the end of this year.

Ellen Ratner, Washington, D.C. bureau chief of the Talk Radio News Service and political editor of TALKERS magazine, the monthly bible of the talk radio industry, is one of the savviest observers of the new proliferation of progressive radio voices. She thinks that progressive programs may finally be breaking through the wall of commercial radio disdain or indifference.

"Talk media is always useful when it speaks for people on the outs," Ratner says, "so liberal media will be on the rise." Perhaps the best measure of this growing clout is that media buyers are starting to take notice. According to Matthew Warnecke, MediaCom’s vice president of national and local radio, "It’s more on our radar, but it doesn’t have critical mass yet. It’s becoming part of the conversation."

Still to be tested is whether a syndicated radio show featuring discussions of faith, politics, and culture from a progressive perspective could succeed. Ratner thinks the answer is likely to be yes. But it could prove tricky, since talk radio is a "hot" medium - highly charged, polarizing, even angry - which might make for some interesting conversations about faith.

Talk radio’s predominantly conservative slant isn’t going to be reversed overnight. But the times, they are a’ changin’.

David Hoffman, a former newspaper reporter, TV producer, and congressional press secretary, is a media consultant to progressive organizations.

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