Thursday, February 15, 2007

Who is Thom Hartmann?

Over the next few days or so, radio audiences in various markets will be introduced to a new voice on their airwaves, as Thom Hartmann prepares to slide into the midday slot on Air America Radio and its affiliates who choose to pick up the show.

Of course, Hartmann, 55, is far from new to the world of radio. Many liberal talk fans, and readers of this blog, are well familiar with him, and Hartmann is already on the air in many markets. His current show has been on the air for four years, long before Air America hit the airwaves.

So, who is Thom Hartmann?

Hartmann is the host of a weekday show that is becoming one of the biggest success stories in liberal talk. He's also a three-time Project Censored Award winner, bestselling author, international lecturer, teacher, practitioner in alternative medicine and acupuncture, and licensed psychotherapist with a certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). His books have covered a wide range of subjects, including politics, business, economics, constitutional law, history, self-help, spirituality, and one of his biggest pet projects, ADHD. In addition, he's written nine novels. He even established a specialized school for children afflicted with the disorder. He's had a private audience with Pope John Paul II, spent a week with the Dalai Lama, and his writings about the environment have even inspired two short web films and an upcoming documentary directed by actor and fan Leonardo DiCaprio.

On the radio, he hosts two three-hour shows every day - a local morning show at KPOJ in Portland and his nationally syndicated show immediately following. In the past, he's stretched out his broadcast day occasionally filling in for Randi Rhodes, giving him, on occasion, a 9-10 hour day behind the microphone.

Does this guy ever sleep?

Well, one has to wonder. Radio is his main job now, but he's still writing books. In the past year, he released Screwed, about the struggles affecting the working class and Walking Your Blues Away, one of several of his self-help books. He is often on the road, combining book signings with remote broadcasts of his radio shows.

Hartmann is no stranger to radio. He started in the industry as a teenager, in 1968. Over the years, he worked as a DJ and program director, and spent seven years as a radio and television news reporter during and immediately after his college years. He also wrote articles and columns for various publications, including the German version of International Business Week, The Christian Science Monitor, and Popular Computing, for which he wrote a monthly column for two years.

Since that wasn't enough to occupy his time, he successfully established seven businesses, one of which was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. The businesses he started and later sold include an advertising agency, a newsletter/magazine publishing company, an herbal tea manufacturing company, a travel agency, a training seminars company (where he has a client list consisting of all but 30 of the firms listed in the Fortune 500), an electronics design and repair company, and computer peripherals sales business. He is also both a licensed pilot and licensed private detective, though he currently practices neither (lack of time?). He's also a former skydiver.

Why do I feel so inadequate now?

In 2002, Hartmann decided it was time for a return to radio. Seeing the lack of liberal/progressive voices on the airwaves, and way too many conservative flacks, he wrote an article, "Talking Back To Talk Radio" that some credit as one of the inspirations for starting Air America Radio. On March 1, 2003, Hartmann was on the air with his own show, via the now-defunct Detroit-based I.E. America Radio Network, owned by United Auto Workers. As Air America began to gather steam, and I.E. America closed down in anticipation of it, Hartmann was left without a syndicator. Not missing a beat, he began to self-syndicate and held on to his affiliates, including Sirius Left. He even picked up a few more, most notably at WPTT in Pittsburgh. In April 2005, he moved from Vermont to Portland, OR to host a morning show at Clear Channel's highly-rated progressive talker KPOJ.

In September 2005, Air America liked what they saw in Hartmann, who had done occasional fill-ins for their hosts, and established a new separate division to syndicate his show. Hartmann quickly gained in stature with the network, even though his show ran against Al Franken, the network's highest profile host. During the next year, the network's affiliates began picking up the show, and in some cases aired it in place of Franken. On KPTK in Seattle, Hartmann dominated his talk competition, including Rush Limbaugh, in all demographic breakdowns for a year in the Arbitron ratings book. When KQKE in San Francisco dropped Franken and replaced him with Hartmann, ratings increased 25-65% in various demographic breakdowns for the timeslot. On the same station, Hartmann even bested Ed Schultz, who's show immediately follows it, by an even larger margin.

When Franken announced his departure from radio in January, the choice for a replacement was simple. Hartmann was immediately tapped to slide over to the main network feed. And his ascension to Air America's highest profile timeslot could be a blessing to the beleaguered network, as he has been winning ratings, listeners and accolades. He could possibly become the linchpin for the soon-to-be-restructured network, the show they rebuild the network around.

There are many differences between Franken's show and Hartmann's. While Franken had often leaned on his comedy background (though some say not often enough), kept his guest roster to a small stable of like-minded pundits and personalities, and rarely took listener phone calls, Hartmann draws from his own background, mixing history and encyclopedic knowledge, listener phone calls and guests that often include Vermont's independent Senator Bernie Sanders, experts on various issues, and various pundits from right-wing think tanks, such as the Ayn Rand Institute and the American Heritage Foundation. Hartmann loves to bring on right-wing guests, as he feels they make for more interesting radio content than constantly surrounding himself with people he agrees with. "I'm one of the few progressive hosts who regularly debates conservatives. I do it because it highlights for my listeners the real issues-- the deeper issues beneath the sound bytes-- and helps model for them how to win the water cooler wars," said Hartmann.

He also feels that a radio talk show should be more about personality, presentation, content and entertainment value than just merely being a liberal talk show. "Nobody is ever going to listen to talk radio because they like the format: it's the talent that makes the show," wrote Hartmann in a 2004 article at Common Dreams. In addition, the show is highly educational, but not college lecture-boring. Hartmann feels that talk radio listeners like to be informed and educated, in addition to being entertained.

Hartmann's philosophy for succeeding in talk radio is simple. "If you're good, people will tune in for you, the same as they did for Rush (Limbaugh) back when he was all there was. Just produce a killer show and you'll succeed," he wrote.

Adds Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, an industry trade journal, "My opinion is that Thom Hartmann is a far superior host, one of the leading liberal thinkers in American today. He's not a comedian, not ambitious where he wants to become a senator, he's not an egotist — he's a very earnest guy who tries to present intelligent material that makes a case for the progressive point of view."

Unlike Franken, Hartmann's in radio for the long haul. "I love talk radio. I don't want to be on TV. I don't want to run for public office. I don't want to be a movie star. I write books and I do talk radio and that's enough for me," he said in an interview.

As for the future of liberal talk, Hartmann sounds optimistic. ""There is at least as much demand for liberal talk radio as there is for conservative talk, maybe even more," he said. "For years, program directors just bought the story that was told to them, that all the liberals were listening to NPR. We have busted open a mythology. There are a lot of stations carrying this format and doing well with it."

Is he concerned about recent reports about advertisers shunning the format? Hartmann says no. On last year's leaked ABC Radio Network's 'blackout' memo, which listed roughly a hundred companies that did not want their commercials airing on affiliated stations during Air America programming, he countered, "There's a similar list for Rush Limbaugh - companies that don't want to get tied up in politics. The fact of the matter is my advertisers, from Purina to Sacred Grounds Coffee to the Organic Wine Company get great results, which is why I refer to my program as listener supported radio. It's supported by my listeners supporting my sponsors.

Hartmann's show is currently airing on Air America's secondary syndication feed, and will officially be a part of the main lineup starting Monday, February 19th. His show has been picked up by affiliates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Miami and other places. Many affiliates are airing his show currently.


ltr said...

As of this morning, this article is being linked over at Buzzflash. You can also read excerpts from it at OpEdNews. And Thom Hartmann himself dropped LTR a line:

Just wanted to thank you for the kind and thorough profile of me and my
show. It's much appreciated...although I realize that wasn't your goal
as much as to just get the info out. Well done!

Best regards,


Of course, the intent of the article was to get the word out, and to incorporate many of the articles I've read about him, the show and his ideas on liberal talk radio, which I found interesting but until now had no idea what to do with all of it. With the show poised to grow even more, now seemed like the perfect time.

I did forget to ask him if he does get a chance to sleep at night, given his busy schedule and all.

Carpool Crew said...

The great part is the revenue side of the business. More and more advertisers are realizing there is a massive shift in thinking now, and Progressives back companies supporting messages aligned with left-to-center values.

This is the time of the "Great Correction", and a positive growth indicator for liberal talk.

Krashkopf said...

As much as I'll miss Al Franken, I am very, very excited about Thom Hartmann's show coming to AAR. LEFT, RIGHT or CENTER - Thom is, BY FAR, the most intelligent, most articulate, voice on talk radio today.

velcro said...

Tom's the best at what he does.
AAR made the right choice.

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