Progressive talk radio
Progressive talk radio is a talk radio format devoted to expressing liberal or progressive viewpoints of issues, as opposed to conservative talk radio. In the United States, the format includes syndicated personalities such as Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Bill Press, Alan Colmes, Stephanie Miller, Mike Malloy, Jeff Santos, Arnie Arnesen and Ed Schultz.
Liberal talk radio programs in scattered local markets have existed for many decades. In the 1960s, freeform rock stations featured outspoken air personalities who mixed progressive rock with controversial commentary and news reports on current events such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. A few talk stations, such as WMCA in New York and WERE in Cleveland carried controversial counterculture talk programming. Politically oriented talk radio stations often featured liberal hosts such as Alan Berg and Alex Bennett sharing the schedule with more conservative personalities. One of the most notable liberal talk-show hosts was Michael Jackson, who had a show for 35 years at KABC in Los Angeles, often commenting on both political and national issues.
Two developments in the late 1980s – the struggle of AM radio music formats against FM, and the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "fairness doctrine" – set the stage for the growth of more political talk programming. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh became one of the early success stories of this new radio environment, helped by a syndication arrangement that was financially appealing to local stations. Many other radio hosts used his show as a model. During the 1990s, radio stations found that a schedule of mostly conservative radio developed stronger listener loyalty (higher ratings) than liberal or mixed programming.
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, few liberal talk hosts had national exposure. Shock jocks Don Imus and Tom Leykis were sometimes described as liberal, though their shows were not based on political ideology. Syndicated efforts from Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo were short-lived. There were some notable local liberal hosts during this period: Ed Schultz in Fargo, North Dakota, Randi Rhodes in West Palm Beach, Florida, Bernie Ward in San Francisco, Mike Malloy in Atlanta, and Michael Jackson in Los Angeles. The UAW-owned network i.e. America had over 30 affiliates, including Sirius Satellite Radio, and a lineup of Doug Stephan, Nancy Skinner, Thom Hartmann, Peter Werbe, Mike Malloy, and The Young Turks. New management at the UAW was unenthusiastic about being in the network radio business and in 2003 went silent. Doug Stephan (not an overt liberal), Thom Hartmann, and The Young Turks continued on the air, with Stephan on over 300 affiliates, Hartmann holding about 25 (plus Sirius), and the Turks holding their spot on Sirius, all three being independently owned and syndicated.
In September 2002, Democratic strategist Tom Athans and radio veteran Paul Fiddick joined forces to create Democracy Radio, a production company focused on creating and funding progressive talk programs. Their concept was to develop and incubate liberal oriented talk talent and enlist radio networks to market their programs to stations around the country. Democracy Radio developed and produced talk shows that launched the national careers of Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller, among others.
In December 2002, Thom Hartmann wrote an op-ed for commondreams.org titled "Talking Back To Talk Radio" which posited - based on Hartmann's experience as both on-air talent and being a program director back in the 1960s and 1970s - that progressive talk radio could be a profitable format if done right. That article interested Sheldon and Anita Drobney, venture capitalists from Chicago, who bought Hartmann on as a consultant and hired Jon Sinton to form what would become Air America. (Detailed in Drobney's book "The Road to Air America" including a reprint of Hartmann's early article.)
The dominance of conservative talk radio caused concern among some liberals, who viewed it as an integral part of promoting conservative policies and Republican Party candidates. After the failure of i.e. America, and with the aid of private investors, two projects came to fruition in early 2004 as an alternative to right-wing talk radio.
The first was the January 2004 debut of The Ed Schultz Show, featuring a "meat eating, gun-toting lefty" out of Fargo, North Dakota. Created and produced by Democracy Radio and distributed by large radio syndicator Jones Radio Networks, the show picked up 70 stations by the end of its first year of syndication. The second project was the March 31, 2004 launch of Air America Radio, a liberal full-service talk radio network. The fledgling network started with only a handful of stations, mostly lower power AM signals. Early financial difficulties led to the loss of affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Air America's original flagship affiliate, WLIB in New York, had some early ratings success despite a modest signal. In their first month, their midday block featuring Al Franken drew more listeners in the demographic category desired by advertisers than competing stations featuring Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
Another original Air America affiliate was KPOJ, a struggling AM station in Portland, Oregon with a 25 KW signal but an underperforming oldies format. They ran the entire Air America lineup with one exception, replacing the early "Unfiltered" show (with Rachel Maddow) with Schultz's afternoon show on a time-delay — a schedule that several other stations would soon emulate — and called the format "Progressive Talk". In its first ratings period following the switch, KPOJ went from the bottom to being one of the market's top-rated stations. The station's owner, media giant Clear Channel Communications, decided to roll out the format on many of their other struggling AM stations across the country. More than 20 of their stations switched to liberal talk within the following year, which included major markets such as Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Seattle, and Miami.
By early 2006, approximately 90 stations were carrying at least part of the Air America lineup. The growth of the format created opportunities for additional programming. Democracy Radio and Jones Radio rolled out shows hosted by Stephanie Miller in September 2004. Bill Press launched in (September 2005). Established hosts such as Alan Colmes and Lionel saw increases in the number of affiliates carrying their shows. On September 1, 2006 Air America's flagship station moved to WWRL.
After its growth spurt in 2004-2006, the liberal talk format had some setbacks. In the months following the November 2006 elections, Clear Channel changed several of its liberal talk stations to other formats, most notably in Boston. Their announced plan to change the format in Madison, Wisconsin was dropped as the result of a successful listener campaign, but a similar campaign to get the station to retain the format did not work in Columbus, Ohio. An unrelated Columbus station (WVKO) picked up the liberal talk programming later that year. Air America filed for bankruptcy in October 2006, and was sold to new investors in February 2007, though they maintained operations during that time. Air America's highest-rated host, Al Franken, left in February 2007 to run for Senate and was replaced on the network by Thom Hartmann live in the noon-3 PM ET daypart. Hartmann has held Franken's ratings in most markets, regularly beating O'Reilly in Los Angeles, and beating Limbaugh in Portland and Seattle in 2007 and 2008.
Currently, there are fewer than 100 U.S. commercial radio stations carrying liberal talk programs, compared to around 600 stations for Rush Limbaugh, 500 for Sean Hannity etcetera. A good example of the format's struggles is in Boston, where Clear Channel put it on AM 1200 and 1430 from 2004 until 2006. A short time later, host Jeff Santos began buying time on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston airing his own show plus syndicated offerings such as Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller. As money dried up, and after other national hosts were offered such as Al Sharpton, his brokered time on WWZN shrank to his own show, and then that was cut loose in the fall of 2012 as the station went to all sports. Santos does have a few other stations in other areas carrying his show but is currently off in Boston, thought of as a left-leaning city (it is possible National Public Radio stations in the area cater to this audience already.)
On January 21, 2010, Air America announced that it would immediately cease programming, and the company would file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; citing some of the following reasons on their website:
"The very difficult economic environment has had a significant impact on Air America's business. This past year has seen a "perfect storm" in the media industry generally. National and local advertising revenues have fallen drastically, causing many media companies nationwide to fold or seek bankruptcy protection. From large to small, recent bankruptcies like Citadel Broadcasting and closures like that of the industry's long-time trade publication Radio and Records have signaled that these are very difficult and rapidly changing times."
Despite Air America's demise, other programs have endured and some have thrived. Democracy Radio's contributions to the creation of the progressive genre seems to have had the most lasting impact with the on-going success of Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller. Now with Dial Global, talkers Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, and Bill Press all enjoy a strong following with Schultz and Hartmann arguably leading the way as the only liberal talkers on both radio and television with The Ed Show launched on MSNBC in April 2009 and Hartmann's "The Big Picture" on RT TV. New successful stations have popped up including progressive radio WFTE FM's Dietrich And Brookz Show in Scranton and Mt Cobb, PA and WXPI FM in Williamsport, PA.
Premiere Radio Networks, Clear Channel's national syndication division and home to Rush Limbaugh, signed its first liberal host in 2009. Clear Channel-owned WJNO personality Randi Rhodes, who had been dropped from both Air America and the now-defunct Nova M Radio, will return to the airwaves on May 11 of that year on the satellites of Premiere, with Clear Channel's Progressive Talk stations, many of which previously carried Rhodes' show, serving as the linchpin of a national syndication effort.
In Portland, Oregon, KPOJ was the Progressive Talk radio station on AM 620 from the time of Air America Radio. Its success netted it a stronger signal strength, and it could be heard to the coast and to Mt St Helens in Washington State, etc. The station was profitable and had been mentioned as a model for other progressive talk stations. Listeners supported the station and there was a growing base. The format was changed without any public announcement on 11/10/2012 at 5:30PM to Fox Sports Radio. The change was originally to be on 11/12/12, but was moved-up when the word got out.
On December 2012, Seattle's progressive Talk announced it was switching formats from progressive talk to sports in January 2013. Despite many efforts to keep KPTK, it switched to CBS Sports Radio; both KPOJ and KPTK's new formats have earned them dead last in ratings. According to a report in June 2013, there are grassroot efforts to bring progressive talk back to the Sacramento and Seattle region.
Currently, KPFA, a Pacifica Radio Affiliate, can be heard from the Bay Area to parts of Southern Sacramento County in California.
Internet and satellite
The internet has become an important factor in the distribution of liberal talk programming, with many radio stations streaming their schedules, and most individual shows available through podcasting. Air America Radio's webstream has consistently ranked in the top ten of most-listened to webcast stations and networks. When podcasts became available through iTunes, Al Franken's show was the second-most popular. Smaller providers of liberal radio shows such as Head On Radio Network have made streaming and podcasting integral to their operations.
Both U.S. satellite radio providers carry one channel of liberal talk. Sirius XM Left, channel 127 on both providers, airs the shows of Press, Miller, Hartman, and Malloy, and originates the shows of Alex Bennett, Mark Thompson (Make it Plain), Dave Marsh, Mark Feder, and the duo of David Goodfriend and Mark Walsh (Left Jab).
Another notable example of liberal talk online is The Young Turks. They were the first original talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio and the first live, daily webcast on the internet.
The liberal non-profit Pacifica network has existed for many years, though their programming is broadcast on mostly small non-commercial radio stations in a limited number of cities. The flagship program for Pacifica is Democracy Now!, which is also carried on many National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates, as well as the nationally syndicated talk radio and television program Midweek Politics with David Pakman.
Critics have long accused NPR of having a liberal bias, though the network as well as parties on both sides of the political spectrum state that it reflects a diversity of views. The programs produced for non-commercial outlets are generally not "talk" programs—in that calls are not taken, with the focus on the opinions of the hosts and/or guests.
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