Monday, January 01, 2007

The Top 10 Talkers of 2006

As 2006 comes to a close, and we welcome 2007, LTR takes a look at the year in review as the new year approaches. And what better way to do this than publish a bunch of lists?

This one is the biggie. Here, we rank the Top 10 Talkers of 2006. Our list utilizes a criteria based on overall success, number of affiliates, growth of the show, contributions to the format, entertainment value, knowledge of current events and crossover potential. Granted, some factors will outweigh others, and those will be weighted. Political lean of the hosts will not be as much a factor, since everyone seems to have such radically different opinions on the topics of the day.

Sure, the list will prove to be somewhat controversial, and some of you will likely consider calling the DEA on me, but this list is subjective, and merely opinion. To help out, we asked you, the faithful readers, to send in your own lists. Granted, we didn't get a ton of submissions, but the results of this first-ever poll conclude this list of the Top 10 Talkers of 2006. And in the tradition of Casey Kasem, we're gonna count 'em down to #1. So... away we go!

10. Rachel Maddow

Maddow has come a long way in a few short years. With no prior radio experience, the Rhodes scholar and San Francisco native got her first radio job at WRNX in Springfield, MA via a station contest to find new on-air talent. She later moved on to the morning show at WRSI in Northampton and left to become a co-host on Air America's "Unfiltered". She was the least known of her co-hosts, but eventually overshadowed them, so much that when the show was cancelled, Air America gave her a morning show of her own. The show moved to early evenings in September, 2006 and surprisingly, her devoted following allowed her to pick up quite a few affiliates. As 2007 arrives, the future does indeed look bright for Rachel Maddow.

9. Amy Goodman

As I've said many times, liberal talk radio is much more than Air America and Ed Schultz. Case in point is Pacifica Radio, a non-commercial network that recently celebrated its 60th birthday. It's best known show is a hard-hitting news program called "Democracy Now", primarily hosted by Goodman. The show, which reports primarily on news stories seldom reported by the mainstream media and how they really affect people, is called "probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time" by media critic Bob McChesney. The daily program, which airs on hundreds of non-commercial and commercial stations as well as public access and satellite TV, covers issues relating to war and peace, human rights, and U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Many non-commercial radio programs are well known for their in-depth reporting style, but Goodman and "Democracy Now" take it to a whole new level.

8. Mike Malloy

He was fired from his syndicated gig in August. His current upstart 'network' just finally got satellite access. He currently only has five affiliates. And his hard-hitting, controversial show has often proved to be a tough sell to potential advertisers. So what is Mike Malloy doing on this list? Some may ask why he's ranked so low.

The reason is that I certainly can't think of any other talk show host who has become as much as a force as he has via the internet. His current show debuted on just two stations in October, low-powered flagship station KPHX in Phoenix and the much larger KQKE in San Francisco (which at first received the show via land-lines). Since then, he's added three more affiliates and Sirius Satellite Radio. Even with the lack of radio signals, thousands of listeners tune in via webstreams to wind down their day with the outrageously outspoken Malloy, who often makes reference to the "flying monkey right" and the "Bush crime family". If liberal talk has not yet taken hold on the terrestrial airwaves, it certainly has via international webstreaming. And one of the reasons for that is Mike Malloy. Many also listen to him via full podcasts through White Rose Society.

Time will tell if Malloy and his fledgeling network, Nova M will succeed. They recently secured satellite access and with that, gained three new affiliates (number three, WINZ in Miami, starts airing his show tonight, January 1, 2007), as well as a slot on Sirius Left. But will it finally take hold? The nature of his show is not exactly advertiser-friendly, and he has proven to be a bit prickly as well, burning bridges with his former employer (Air America). But he draws ears to the radio (or computer or iPod, for that matter). And his show has attracted a very rabid and devoted following. Hopefully, 2007 will be a good year for Mike Malloy.

7. Bill Press

When Press debuted his morning radio show in June 2005, it started out pretty slow. The former CNN/MSNBC personality had one affiliate - WARF in Akron. Over time, his show started to gather steam. He was picked up by Jones Radio Networks, which also syndicates Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz. Following changes at Air America, and several shufflings of radio shows, Press was able to gain new affiliates at their expense. He also picked up a prime affiliate in Sirius Satellite Radio. Granted, Press is more of a factor in the eastern half of the country, where his show airs in morning drive. But many across the country are now enjoying waking up to Press' friendly, informative style.

6. Lionel

Who would have thought that a former lawyer from Tampa would be one of the biggest forces in late night talk radio? Since debuting his show in 1999 on WOR in New York, Lionel has seen his biggest success with the advent of the modern-day liberal talk format. While Lionel may or may not be a rabid lefty, he takes a rather populist stance on many issues, and rails against the War in Iraq, FOX News and George Bush with an unbridled passion. And using his legal experience, often offers opinions from that point of view.

He is also one of the best in the format in regard to rapport with his callers, as he is not shy about taking opinions from all sides of the ideological spectrum.

5. Al Franken

I'm sure some of you will wonder why Franken is not ranked higher. After all, this established comedian, writer and actor has more or less been the public face of Air America over the past three years. But that personna has become a double-edged sword for both parties. His show has often been uneven and erratic, his reported exhorbitant salary has soured many, and his dedication to his show has been questioned, with even some of his affiliates unsure of his future plans. Some feel that the loss of co-host Katherine Lanpher hurt the show.

Nonetheless, the format does owe a great deal of thanks to Franken, since his presence in the AAR grand scheme helped bring attention to the format and to increase its affiliate lineup. He also bravely serves as the lightning rod for people who attack AAR and the format itself, as he's probably its best-known personality. But how he fits into the future of the format remains to be seen.

4. Randi Rhodes

All hail The Goddess! When Air America Radio debuted almost three years ago, the defacto star of the network was Al Franken. But Randi Rhodes, the most seasoned veteran of the network with two decades of radio experience and ten years doing liberal talk at WJNO in West Palm Beach, FL, was virtually unknown to all but die-hard liberal talk listeners who habitually streamed her WJNO show. As her network went through much turmoil throughout the course of the year and Franken has made overtures to leaving radio, it was up to Randi to keep Air America on course.

Unfortunately, her show itself can occasionally be a bit unorganized. She takes fewer and fewer calls than she once did, and her long-winded rants about various topics tend to wear down even the most die-hard of listeners. She has also become too angry, which is a shame for someone who has such a great sense of humor. This approach has even caused some stations to drop or delay her show, in favor of lighter fare for her afternoon shift. Hopefully 2007 will see The Goddess return to a much more organized and entertaining form.

3. Thom Hartmann

There wasn't a whole lot of positive news for Air America Radio in 2006, but one of the network's near-forgotten stars, and easily their hardest working one, soon became their biggest up-and-comer. After four years of doing his show, first for the now-defunct I.E. America Radio Network, then self-syndication, and finally on Air America's secondary syndication feed, author of many books, speaker, activist and radio host Thom Hartmann finally emerged as a force in the format. Late last year, KPOJ in Portland took a chance and hired him to do a seperate local morning show. Then, up the road in Seattle, KPTK started carrying him live. The result? At the beiginning of this year, Hartmann beat all other talk shows in his time slot, even Rush Limbaugh, in most key demographics. Other stations in other markets took note, and began carrying his show. He displaced Al Franken in San Francisco and Boston, among other places. And people warmed to his extremely informative no-frills show and energetic speaking style.

Granted, this is not the razzle-dazzle hyperkinetic type of radio show most are used to. The theme music and imaging are horribly dated and rather bland, and he doesn't mount the bully pulpit and scream from the mountaintops like many other hosts. But he is knowledgeable, and knows his stuff when it comes to constitutional issues, American history or electronic voting. He'll even invite the occasional conservative on for a reasonable chat. All in all, it looks as if Thom Hartmann is destined for even more success in the coming years.

2. Stephanie Miller

In 2006, more and more people chose to wake up every morning with Miller, figuratively speaking. Airing directly in morning drive throughout much of the country, Steph and company wake up America with her breezy and often humorous take on the day's news events. Morning radio should be light and fun, and Miller and her co-horts deliver it with plenty of froth, raunch and occasional lowbrow humor (or, as they refer to it, "a MENSA meeting with fart jokes"). Not to mention lots of information. Ratings seem to agree, as her show has become a big hit in many markets. So much that she's found her way onto a majority of progressive talk stations across the country. She has dominated her morning shift, to the point that many have abandoned the shift to her, including Jerry Springer.

In a radio genre that features way too many shows that are angry to the point of being downright depressing, Miller has broken away from the pack, and made the news much more fun.

And... our #1 Talker of 2006 is...

1. Ed Schultz

The top spot belongs to Big Eddie and Team Fargo. While his counterparts at Air America had some much-publicized struggles this year, Schultz turned that negative into a positive, by aggressively building his listener and advertiser base, as well as the show itself. The Ed Schultz Show was perhaps the best source on liberal talk radio for coverage of the landmark 2006 Midterm Elections, as he featured many candidates that were shut out of many mainstream news sources. He booked excellent guests, created news himself via the outing of notable Republicans, and aggressively courted advertisers, in order to bring the liberal talk format kicking and screaming into the mainstream. While some on the left may decry this move, it is most certainly the best way to ensure the survival of the format. And Schultz knows this.

Schultz is one of the best at structuring his show. He makes it entertaining and engaging by not making it too serious in nature. He won't spend too much time on news topics, preferring to mix it up a bit by engaging his listeners and callers in other topics, and even breaking away from news and politics to talk sports, hunting and business, in his typical humorous, down-home midwestern manner. Schultz realizes we all need a break now and then.

While he enjoyed increased success over the past three years, he has been a bit of a polarizing force on the left. Many on the far left feel he's too centrist, and that he spends too much time talking about things like hunting and sports. They also feel he's a bit too vicious toward his competitors, particularly Air America, though there are quite a few other hosts that the same could be said about. There are shows that are far more hard-hitting on news stories, but for the average listener, Schultz wraps it all up in an entertaining and informative package.

And what did the readers think? Here are the results, compiled from the lists that you sent in:

1. Stephanie Miller
2. Rachel Maddow
3. Randi Rhodes
4. Mike Malloy
5. Sam Seder
6. Ed Schultz
7. Marc Maron
8. Thom Hartmann
9. Bill Press
10. Lionel

Keep in mind that this is not a scientific ranking. Perhaps it would have been that way if more of you sent in your lists. Nonetheless, thanks for all who participated, and perhaps we'll do this again in a year when we ring in 2008. Happy New Year!


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