Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Top 10 Talkers of 2008 (The LTR Picks)

With the posting of the readers poll results of 2008's Top Ten Talkers, a severe storm of shit will likely rain down upon this silly little blog. I assure you that I played as fair as I possibly could. I merely put up the poll. I just added up all the numbers, and delayed posting by a day or so in order to accurately check and double-check the results. It was up to you all to vote in it. All I asked was that you refrained from cheating by casting multiple votes. And no real evidence of that was determined. So, it is what it is.

A couple years ago, I did the list on my own, before the poll idea came about. I created the list of who I saw as the most influential hosts of the year that had passed, and who made the most impact. In creating the list, I tried to remain impartial, to take a step back and judge who made a difference. It wasn't my own personal preferences, just fair judgement calls. And just to show where my loyalties lie (I try not to play favorites), here is a similar list compiled by yours truly. Again, this is not a list of my own personal favorites (that kind of list would look radically different than this one). Rather, I chose the people who I thought were the most listened-to, the most talked-about, the most influential, the most noteworthy and most generally liked of the past year. I also tried to figure how many of you would rank them. Here is that list:

My list

10. "Maron vs. Seder"
9. "Democracy Now!"
8. Alex Bennett/Sirius Left
7. Bill Press
6. Mike Malloy
5. Randi Rhodes
4. Stephanie Miller
3. Thom Hartmann
2. Ed Schultz
1. Rachel Maddow

So, how did I arrive at this list? Well, the one person who made the most impact this year, Rachel Maddow, was far and clear the big winner in this list. No comparison. She did have one hell of a year. After building an impressive affiliate base, she was tapped by MSNBC for a high-profile slot following the highly-rated "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." As her show exploded in the ratings, and sometimes even beat the high-profile competition on CNN and FOX News, she far exceeded expectations. Her radio affiliates love her and have done quite well with her show. If there is a future in progressive talk radio, the name Rachel Maddow is perhaps first to come to mind. In 2008, she was The Beatles. Everyone else was Gerry And The Pacemakers.

Most of the hosts on this list have already been covered in depth in the accompanying entry, so there isn't much more that could be added. One that hasn't, and barely missed the cut of the readers' poll is Ed Schultz, arguably, the top dog in progressive talk radio. This week, his show reaches its fifth birthday, and it's still going strong. Schultz also employs the advantage of being on quite a few small-market stations that program a mostly conservative talk lineup. So yes, in some areas, one can potentially hear Schultz and Hannity back-to-back on the same signal. In addition, Schultz often gets the best guests, with the A-list of Washington insiders appearing on his show. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made frequent appearances. He had Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich on for a whole show, since he flew all the way to Schultz' home base in Fargo to appear. Needless to say, Schultz still has serious pull.

Why didn't Schultz fare stronger in the reader poll (he finished #11, just shy of the Top 10)? The only answer is to guess. Schultz' popularity is a bit more mainstream, where he has often aimed. Rather than a passionate hardcore following from the left, a la Mike Malloy, Schultz' draw is much wider and not as deep. And its possible that a "gun-totin' meat-eatin' lefty" may be a bit off-putting to some. But I'm a Midwestern guy, and I can relate to Schultz' North Dakota populism. I also like the structure of his show, very polished, tight and professional, countered with Schultz' folksiness. And where else can one hear about the biggest stories of the day, including interviews with the newsmakers themselves? Schultz' listeners were the first to hear the infamous allegations against Idaho senator Larry Craig over a year ago, and months before the embarrassing 'toe-tapping incident' at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was revealed to the public.

Being successful in a small format is a challenge when up against strong competition in the same time slot, but both Schultz and Thom Hartmann pull it off. Often, they're both on the same station by way of delay (Schultz also feeds replays of his show in late afternoons and early evenings). Hartmann has been at the talk game a bit longer than many of the names out there, and many are drawn to his friendly, direct style. And his show is still growing, both in popularity and in the number of stations carrying him.

The recent brewhaha over Randi Rhodes' departure from Air America has solidified her popularity. Her show barely missed a beat when she moved over to Nova M Radio and relocated from New York back to South Florida. The change of scenery, from New York to Florida and from Air America to Nova M seems to have resulted in a change of demeanor, as the oft-prickly host began showing a warmer, more relaxed side.

Stephanie Miller is still one of the format's biggest guns, and almost completely dominates her morning/late morning time slot. Nobody comes close to competing with her.

Mike Malloy ranks on my list by sheer fact that he has such a loyal following. While he is not carried by many radio stations, he is on both Sirius and XM, and has a very devoted following of people who listen online, which is perhaps the next frontier in radio listening. His strong online presence is a factor in his ranking here.

Bill Press enjoys a somewhat similar situation to that of Miller's, in that he has little competition in his time slot. As a result, he has gained a rather decent affiliate base. The show also includes quite a bit of organized professional polish, befitting an offering from a major radio syndicator, something I feel is important in the genre.

And yes, I did put Alex Bennett on my list. Sirius Left, as I mentioned before, is still a presence. Perhaps this is more a reflection of Sirius Left than Bennett, its most popular host. With the ongoing merger of Sirius and XM, we shall see how things pan out for the channel in 2008 as it (hopefully) gains a stronger presence.

Many of the names on this list and the shows they host have been around only in this decade. "Democracy Now!" has been around since 1995, and via commercial and noncommercial radio stations, public access cable channels and satellite TV services, they have been presenting a direct approach to the news that just isn't seen on commercial news outlets. Granted, the show at times can be a bit dry, but for those looking for a serious breakdown of serious news events, rather than missing blondes and Britney Spears' latest hijinks, "Democracy Now!" is that very tonic. In addition, "Free Speech Radio News" is another noncommercial entry similar in nature and airing on many of the same radio stations as "Democracy Now!" Air America Radio airs hourly feeds from that service.

While still a young show (only a few months, as a matter of fact), I put the new offering from Marc Maron and Sam Seder as the last entry on this list. At this time, it's only available online, offered by Air America Media. But it employs the talents of two much-loved hosts, and is an important step in branching out into web-exclusive media. Both names are included here not particularly for what they did in 2008, but what possible impact they can make in 2009 and beyond.

For results of the readers poll, please refer to the companion entry, immediately following this one chronologically.


AlanF said...

The reason I don't like particular talk show hosts generally has much more to do with their approach than where they are on the political spectrum. As it happens, conservative talk show hosts usually have an obnoxious style (based heavily on insults and untruths) in addition to their being on a place on the spectrum that's very different from mine. But there are plenty of progressive and moderate talk show hosts who turn me off not because they are to my left or right but because they're not insightful or funny and they don't really listen to their callers.

FSL said...

Interesting list and very well-thought out.

I have not had many good things to say about AAR in the past but their recent moves to embrace the Internet are noteworthy and commendable. Liberals are supposed to look forward and new media are the future.

Given their current clearances, one could also argue that Lionel and Kuby are also "web exclusive" (almost).

I wish NPR could move more in this same direction. Unfortunately, terrestrial stations control the board and have a vested interest in protecting a dieing medium, so they fired the guy who tried to build NPR's online presence. However, this gives AAR a chance to help invent the future of radio.

Clay said...

I concur on your conclusion about Maron and Seder... both the format and the show will continue to have an impact on the upcoming year.

throwingstones said...

What happened with The Young Turks (TYT) and/ or Cenk Yugar?

Cenk Uygur is the host of The Young Turks, the first liberal radio show to air nationwide. The Young Turks began as Sirius Satellite Radio's first original program, moved to Air America Radio and XM, and is now an online video talk show.

The Young Turks was the first ever live, daily internet video show, thereby starting Internet TV.

My top three are Rachel Maddow, The Young Turks, and Thom Hartmann, no particular order. It depends on my mood for the day. All three are very analytical and promote critical thinking. They are very stimulating and really make you think about what you are thinking.

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