Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Top 10 Liberal Talkers of 2007

In any kind of field, genre or category, there is always one lingering question, one that nearly everyone is always wondering. Namely, who is the best?

To rank someone the best is often rather subjective, and as a result, the outcome may be disputed. Last year, this very blog decided to rank the top liberal talk radio hosts of 2006. Criteria came in the way of a combination of voting and personal analysis based on who made the biggest impact in the genre throughout the year. The choice of Ed Schultz for the top position was a rather controversial one, but he did seem to have the biggest impact of all of them for the year.

For 2008, all control was turned over to the readers of LTR. An online poll was set up and ran throughout the fall. No ballot box stuffing was allowed, since the poll limited voting to one per IP address. Thousands of votes later, an interesting picture has evolved. And we do indeed have a Top 10 list of the biggest liberal talkers of the past year. So without further delay, here we go:

10. Alex Bennett

Wow! What a shocker! Here's a guy who's show is available only to subscribers of Sirius satellite radio. He narrowly beat out a beleaguered Air America host (Lionel) and a webcaster (Head-On Radio Network's Guy James). In addition, here's a host who's not treated too kindly on many progressive blogs and online communities. Suffice it to say, Alex Bennett doesn't get a whole lot of love. And that's too bad.

What many listeners don't realize about Bennett is that he may be one of the most honest people on the radio anywhere. In an era of robotic political stances, hive mentalities, bullet point briefings from political parties and ideological think tanks, here's a guy who tells it the way he sees it. His stances may not jibe with the typical liberal talk listener, but he's living proof that everyone has a distinct opinion. Bennett's show is not a bully pulpit, it's a sounding board. A man, a microphone and a phone line. It's the old school approach to talk radio. Bennett's not an activist or politician or great thinker. He's a radio guy. And he's smart enough to know the show is not about pushing policy or changing the world. It's about creating entertaining and engaging radio. I had never really written about Bennett as much as many of the other hosts one will find on this list, so I'll go into a bit more detail here than with most of the other hosts that follow, as I personally feel that Bennett's story is a rather interesting one.

Born Bennett Gordon Schwarzmann sixty-eight years ago, this radio veteran has put in roughly half a century in the broadcasting business, starting as a teenager in his native Northern California. Carving out a career as a Top 40 disc jockey, he eventually found himself a member of the last incarnation of the fabled "Good Guys" at WMCA in New York. In 1969, as WMCA's Top 40 format evolved into talk radio, Bennett made the transition amazingly well. He became a voice of the burgeoning counterculture, as he and his listeners discussed the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and many other hot topics. A year later, he moved to the FM dial, at freeform rocker WPLJ, where typical in-studio guests were friends such as Abby Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin, Cheech and Chong and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. His controversial and provocative late night show was an institution on the New York airwaves, allegedly inspiring future radio personalities such as Howard Stern. Along with people like Jean Shepherd and Bob Grant, Bennett was one of New York's modern talk radio pioneers.

By 1980, Bennett changed gears, returning to the West Coast to host a comedy-oriented morning show for KMEL in San Francisco. The show quickly became an institution, and over the years introduced listeners to a slew of up-and-coming entertainers. The list is long. Bob Goldthwait, Bobby Slayton, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Durst, Dana Carvey, Ray Romano, and Jay Leno were just a few of the people heard on his show before they became big stars. The format of the show, which was essentially Bennett playing straight man while presiding over a wild free-for-all, has been copied over and over again to lesser results. Growing up in the Bay Area, I was a die-hard listener of the show, and to this day have never heard another morning radio show as compelling as this one. It was phenomenal radio.

In San Francisco, Bennett held sway over morning drive on and off for over 18 years, first on KMEL, then the short-lived KQAK ("The Quake") and finally KITS ("Live 105"). After KITS was sold to CBS in 1998, the new owners desired to replace Bennett with Howard Stern's syndicated show. Bennett left, and after dabbling in television and the internet, he sought to reinvent himself once again, this time on AM talk radio. A few different formats were tried, including technology talk for the now-defunct CNET Radio. The beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 inspired him to get political once again, but at the time, radio wasn't very interested in hiring an anti-war liberal voice. He had offers to switch gears and do conservative radio, but he held true to his convictions. Bennett did have a temporary gig as the sole left voice at new conservative talker KNEW, but greener pastures awaited.

Moving back to New York, he went to Sirius, who's 'Left' channel was lacking programming, and offered his services. They bit, and The Alex Bennett Program debuted in April 2004. Over time, the show became a linchpin for Sirius Left, and a favorite among subscribers. For three hours every morning, it's the oft-cranky Bennett with his often controversial take on current events, pop culture and rather mundane personal anecdotes, as well as phone calls from listeners. His opinions may not jibe with the typical listener of, say, Air America. But in an era of talking points and activist radio, Bennett takes the old school approach. It's all about the art of discussion and the sharing of opinions. And quite frankly, we need more of that in radio. There is definitely more than enough room in the world for a guy like Alex Bennett.

And like I said, you voted for him!

9. "Ring of Fire" with Mike Papantonio, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and John Morgan

Another new addition to the Top 10 this year is a weekend show. "Ring of Fire" airs Saturday afternoons on Air America Radio, and is one of the network's longest running shows. During their three hour show, hosts Mike Papantonio, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and John Morgan take on, in their words, "corporate crooks, polluters, hypocritical preachers and ugly politicians."

Papantonio, Kennedy and Morgan have a long background in the legal field. Papantonio is a prominent trial lawyer based in Florida. Kennedy, the namesake son of the former Senator/Attorney General, specializes in environmental law, most notably fighting to clean up the Hudson River in New York. Morgan, a newcomer to the show, heads a law firm that refuses to take insurance companies and large corporations as clients.

The hosts of the program have also ventured into multimedia, with GoLeft.tv, a YouTube-like venture targeting the left. "Ring of Fire," particularly Papantonio, was featured prominently in the acclaimed 2006 film documentary Jesus Camp.

8. "Democracy Now!"

A ninth place finish on the 2006 list entitled this long-running show to be in the running for 2007. And a tally of votes show that "Democracy Now!" is still a popular listen for many.

The show was started in 1996 at Pacifica's WBAI in New York City by journalists Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Larry Bensky, Salim Muwakkil, and Julie Drizin. Goodman is the program's principal host, with Gonzalez as co-host. Jeremy Scahill is a frequent contributor.

Media critic Bob McChesney calls "Democracy Now!," which reports primarily on news stories seldom reported by the mainstream media and how they really affect people, "probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time." 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. Guests run the gamut of Presidents, politicians, journalists, activists, newsmakers and controversial figures. Essentially, you won't hear about Britney Spears' exploits here. But you will hear about global conflicts, personal liberties, and other stories that the so-called mainstream media deems uninteresting to viewers.

The show refuses to accept donations or funding from any government entity, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Much of the funding is derived from foundations,,listener donations and some carriage fees.

There are a few news programs out there that are hard-hitting and serious. "Democracy Now!" raises the bar for broadcast journalism.

7. Ed Schultz

I caught a lot of flack last year when I named Ed Schultz the top liberal talker of 2006. It seems as if I was trashed everywhere but the message board on Schultz' own site. But I still stand behind my choice. Because, more than anyone else in the format, Schultz was the one who was most effective in gaining credibility.

Schultz made a wise move by aggressively building his show on his own terms. He knew that advertisers were wary of liberal talk. And he knew that attracting listeners to the AM dial, and liberal talk to rather conservative program directors and station owners, was an uphill climb. But four years and roughly a hundred stations later, he did it. To this day, he's the most-listened to liberal talk show host in the country, on a show originating from, of all places, Fargo, ND.

The show features a who's-who of newsmakers and movers and shakers. Politicians, journalists, bloggers and many others in the know have appeared on Schultz' show. When beleaguered toe-tapping Idaho Senator Larry Craig's exploits were revealed, the news came as no surprise to Schultz' listeners, as the topic of Craig's sexuality was oft-discussed with BlogActive's Mike Rogers on the show months earlier.

What even his most die-hard detractors will admit is that Schultz' strength is his appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners, rather than merely die-hard liberals. His small-town midwestern sensibility, as a self-described 'gun-toting, meat-eating, football loving lefty' appeals strongly to average folk who have yet to wrap their heads around Air America. In markets where he airs head-to-head with the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity, he does better than many would expect. And with the 2008 elections on the way, Schultz's show will obviously be a focal point for listeners and politicians alike. Not too long ago, Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich even made a special trip to Fargo to spend an entire show with him.

Regardless of what you may think of him, Schultz will be a must-listen for political junkies in the coming year. And he can even hold his own in a bar fight.

6. Randi Rhodes

A year ago, I wrote the following about Randi Rhodes:

As her network went through much turmoil throughout the course of the year and (Al) Franken has made overtures to leaving radio, it was up to Randi to keep Air America on course.

Sure enough, after Franken hung up the headphones in February, Rhodes became the focal point of the network, even more so than Franken's replacement, Thom Hartmann. Rhodes also became part of a focused effort by the new management of Air America to gain new affiliates. She was able to clear live slots in several markets, and her ratings and stature also rose in prominence. A controversial accident a few months ago, which sparked quite a bit of unintended publicity, also increased her stature.

I said last year that the show itself seemed at times to a bit unorganized. I also took her to task for taking fewer and fewer calls than in years past, and also chastised her tendency to take topics too far via windy rants that could cause listener fatigue. I wished that she could also lighten up a little more and make the show a bit lighter in 2007. she hasn't completely come around, but her listeners still love her. And seeing her growth in the past year, she has even more. All hail The Goddess!

5. Rachel Maddow

What a year it's been for Rachel Maddow. Originally taking a back seat to better known names in the early days of Air America, she has risen to greater prominence in 2007. a popular early evening show, coupled with frequent appearances on MSNBC and CNN have given her one of the highest profiles of any air America host. Her television presence was so well-received that she reportedly is even in the running for her own show on MSNBC.

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 canceled, 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. 2007 was a good year for Maddow, and 2008 looks even brighter.

4. Stephanie Miller

Many critics of liberal talk claim that many of the hosts take themselves way too seriously. Evidently, Jones Radio Networks' Stephanie Miller didn't get that memo. Many other hosts do tend to get themselves in a trap where their show becomes way too dour and depressing. Miller, a comedian and former television personality, has found her niche via comedy. And it's paid off handsomely. In many West Coast markets, Miller's show has been picked up for the coveted morning drive slot. With silly sound effects, celebrity impersonations, gags and jokes galore, the show is a fun and breezy trip through the previous day's headlines.

Dubbed by Miller and company as "a MENSA meeting with fart jokes", the show has been a hit in its three years on the air. Her show has dominated the liberal talk format so effectively that she's virtually shut out much of the competition in the genre. Jerry Springer left radio a year ago, and rival Air America has been trying to compete with the Stephanie Miller juggernaut ever since, currently with Lionel.

3. Thom Hartmann

On many progressive talk stations, Thom Hartmann's show immediately follows Miller's. While Hartmann's more educational, serious and straightforward manner may seem to some as the polar opposite of Miller's, the shows do flow together well. Chalk that up to Hartmann's engaging and friendly manner.

2007 was the year that Hartmann's show really started to get noticed. When Air America decided to syndicate the show in late 2004, it wasn't deemed a top priority. The show, which airs from noon to 3PM ET, went up directly against the network's designated star, Al Franken. Eventually, as Franken toyed with leaving radio to enter politics, radio stations decided that they preferred Hartmann's show, which had already had huge success in the ratings books in markets like Seattle (where he actually beat all other talk competition, including Rush Limbaugh, in all demographic breakdowns) and Portland. When Franken finally hung up the headphones earlier last year, his successor was obvious. Since then, along with Randi Rhodes and Rachel Maddow, Hartmann has become one of Air America's most prominent personalities.

Hartmann is a busy man. In addition to his nationally-syndicated Air America show, he also appears on the morning show of KPOJ in Portland (though he has cut back a bit there). He is also an acclaimed author, releasing at least two separate books in the past year. Oh, and he's also a public speaker, activist and owner of several companies. On top of this, he also reportedly does get some sleep at night.

James Brown may have been the so-called 'hardest working man in show business,' but it is not known whether he met Hartmann before he passed away a year ago.

2. Sam Seder

Here's an interesting scenario. It concerns a guy who got knocked-around, beat up and disrespected even more this past year than Griffin Dunne's character in After Hours.

Yet he's still a favorite in the eyes of many. So much that endless lobbying and campaigning yielded a massive swell of votes for this iron man of liberal talk.

Yes, you really like Sam Seder.

Seder started out the year with a late morning show on Air America. The ultimate fate of the show was unknown, as the network was in limbo waiting for its white knight to come and fetch it out of the ashes of bankruptcy. When the Green brothers took over, they had their own ideas for the shift and ultimately lured Lionel from WOR. Seder was banished to what could have been known as the wasteland known as Sunday afternoon. But it didn't work out that way. While not a force in the mainstream scheme of things, Seder maintained on of the most dedicated followings of any Air America host. Was it sympathy for his treatment by his bosses? His direct style on the air? His strong relationships with his listeners? His anti-authority mischievousness? The "SammyCam?"

Whatever it was, Seder was and still is a favorite of liberal talk listeners. So much that his handlers realized their mistakes earlier in the year and slowly began to bring him out of exile and integrate him back into the fold. Recently, Seder became the head blogger for AirAmerica.com. And he's still the go-to substitute, filling in occasionally for Rhodes. Let's see what 2008 has in store for Sam Seder. Last I checked, Air America needs a new morning show...

And now, the top banana. The numero uno. The host with the most. Yes, it's time for the Top Liberal Talker of 2007. As voted by you. And the winner is...


1. Mike Malloy

Truthseekers of the world unite!

When voting was opened up for this list, the biggest vote getters by far were Seder and Mike Malloy. It was a neck-and-neck race throughout. But one was triumphant.

Malloy was the Seder story of 2006. He was unceremoniously dumped by Air America that year, and spent a few months on the beach before being rescued by another liberal talk network, Nova M Radio. It was a tough climb back. An affiliate network had to be built from scratch, but he still wound up in some plum markets. Prior to a satellite deal, the show was fed via ISDN line to stations in a rather difficult way.

Thanks to Malloy, Sheldon Drobny's upstart Nova M Radio was able to build somewhat of a structure to an organization. Sure, they're a network with only one syndicated show. But flagship station KPHX in Phoenix was able to build around it, creating one of the most extensive rosters of any progressive talk station. There were misfires, of course (a conservative former CIA agent named John Loftus had a short-lived nightly show that was unanimously panned). But while not growing at an Air America-like pace, Nova M/KPHX has at least started in building a foundation. Whether it works in the long run remains to be seen.

This year, Malloy added just a few new affiliates, but was also able to land on both Sirius and XM. Via streaming audio, listenership is very heavy.

In last year's list, I wrote that I couldn't think of any other talk show host who has become as much as a force as he has via the internet. every night, thousands of listeners tune in via webstreams to wind down their day with the outrageously outspoken Malloy. How strong is web listenership? So much that a daytime-only station, WCPT in Chicago, added his show just to the station's webcast feed. 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 Malloy.

Malloy's act is not for everyone. Often dropping trademark phrases like "flying monkey right" and "Bush crime family," Malloy is no Alan Colmes. He gets nasty. And his adversaries are taking note. Even stuffy right-wing gasbag Bill O'Reilly name-dropped him, claiming that the FBI should investigate him for saying he's had violent fantasies about White House spokespeople Scott McClellan and Dana Perino. One could only imagine Malloy's response.

I also wrote last year that time will tell if Malloy and his fledgeling network, Nova M will succeed. Will it all work in the long run? Last year, I also mentioned that he had a history of burning bridges with his former employers. But with Nova M Radio, he finally seems to have found his proper home. He almost seems happy (believe it or not). And his following has remained stronger and stronger than before.

Forget Leno, Letterman, et al. The real king of late night in your eyes is one Michael Malloy, the Top Liberal Talker of 2007. Congratulations!

8 comments:

Jim said...

I don't disagree with the names on your list, but the order is all wrong! Rachel Maddow is not only the best left radio personality -- she's the best broadcaster in any category. I can't think of anyone on TV, radio, or web whose opinions are as sound, whose research is as deeply relevant, or whose manner is as engaging and trustworthy. Definitely headed for the majors.

And how can you mention Stephanie Miller without mentioning Jim Ward? Together they make progressive politics frolicsome and irreverent -- certainly a long, welcome way from Malloy's dreary, depressing danderfests.

No Marc Maron? How could you!

But please keep it up -- I love this blog and only wish for more frequent postings and interviews!

Brady Bonk said...

LTR and its readers as usual has its finger square on the pulse. Outrage builds with each passing day, so it makes sense that this audience is feeling Mad Mike more these days. I for one have really come to appreciate Big Ed this year as I watch AAR waste away. Comments here regarding him are right on. Like him or not, Big Ed may very well be the future of this genre. Though I will say I agree with previous commentor: Rachel was my #1 vote as well.

ltr said...

Thanks for the comments. As I said, I had nothing to do with the choices, aside from putting up 20 or so names to choose from. All the rest were based on over 2000 votes from readers.

There were a few names that I thought would be higher, and a few surprises on the list in general.

Cat Chew said...

Seder's fans are avid. I think you referred to us as rabid one time. Not so. Most of us have had our shots. The foam? Brewskis and lack of napkins!

I took the poll with a grain of salt, as I do most polls, but enjoyed it very much indeed.

I'm a long time radio fan who was terribly disappointed in the way the radio landscape changed about 15-20 years ago. The way it got tight and hard and constipated. What I love about Seder is he is not business-as-usual radio. Like the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" he brings something good and real and sincere and also fun and flaky and fresh and recalcitrant to the medium the likes of which I haven't heard in a long while.

I also like that Malloy came out on top. I live in the Detroit, MI area and the last couple of radio shows I enjoyed over the airwaves were Malloy from his Chicago gig (long ago in a galaxy far away), and a few local shows from a Canadian station which since has gotten as sucky as a CBS or Clear Channel station here in the states. Radio, radio... I miss it. I hope we can get somethings good over the "public" airwaves again, but I'm not holding my breath.

Here's to better times. Thanks for your writing. It's a treat.

Harold Marshall said...

I think you might have included information on the percentage of votes cast. There was a very wide spread between Mike Malloy (at #1 with around 600 votes, if memory serves) and so-called leftist, Alex Bennett, (#10 at around 27 0r 28 votes, to my recollection). Bennett only really got about 4% of Malloy's vote, and 1.4% overall. Hardly impressive, and frankly, this hack deserved no better. Bennett, and fellow "in house" host, Lynn Samuels, continue to weaken the Sirius Left lineup.

pjs said...

What, no Lionel?

Harold Marshall said...

The only good thing about the notoriously sexist Bennett being on the list is that he polled below most of the women he has recently bashed on his show...A history in the business doesn't mean you are still competent to do a show, nor does calling yourself a "leftist" make you one.

thx1200 said...

Shorter LTR: Hardly anybody likes Bennett, but he's super duper awesome and that's why everybody should listen to him!!!!!111!!!! L4MeRz


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