Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Buzzflash interviews... Me!

In the four and a half years since I started this crazy thing (for reasons I sometimes don't understand), I have always held the desire of keeping a somewhat low profile. I don't crave personal attention. I don't see myself as any kind of expert or guru. And I'm certainly no pundit. Definitely not an attention whore. Actually just preferred to casually lurk in the shadows. That's just my personal style, kinda modest in that way. I'm really just an aggregator of information, who also likes to dispense a little opinion once in a while. No big deal, really.

Over the years, I have gotten many requests for interviews, writing assignments, P.R. puff pieces and whatnot. We're even talking a few notable media outlets. Because of the reasons stated above, I have always turned them down or ignored them (sorry, it was nothing personal). As far as I was concerned, whatever I really needed to say was written on my blog. I'm also not Mr. Know-It-All. Serious writer? Moi? Maybe I just didn't give myself enough credit. Perhaps I just didn't feel this blog, while better than most similar ones out there, was all that fantastic. There are certainly some people who do it better than me. Yeah, I guess I am a little humble. And I was certainly a bit bashful about all the attention and fuss. It was, however, inevitable that I would crawl out of my little hidey-hole and come clean with a third party.

And that's when Mark and the gang over at Buzzflash came calling. He'd been meaning to interview me (of all people!) for quite some time, to get some kind of opinion as to the ever-increasing world of liberal talk, which they have written heavily about. And since I'm one of the few bloggers left writing about just that, hey, why not me?

So, why now? Well, liberal talk has been on a wild ride as of late, as even a casual glance of the contents of this blog can attest. Most of the analysis of the various situations have come from right-wing blogs, which have dispensed much disinformation, spun nonsensically in ways that attempt to support their often flimsy, misinformed arguments. Analysis from the other side often sounded a bit like Baghdad Bob and his clueless affirmations, or gleamed a 'sky is falling' response after reading the right-wing blogs. It was time to cut through all the spin and bullshit.

Enter Buzzflash. Buzzflash has always been kind to me. They're all big fans of the blog, and have sent a ton of traffic this way. They were also one of the first left-leaning sites I had ever discovered, all those years ago, when I wanted to get away from obtaining my news from frivolous sources like Drudge Report. I figured, if I was to do a very rare interview, why not with friends? There was really no good reason I could come up with to say no. And I guess I owed it to them.

So, with this rare, exclusive interview, I hope to clear the air a bit about what I feel is going on with progressive talk radio, what I feel is a rather honest and realistic assessment. What the world needed was some plain speak, and someone to break up some of the misinformation and misunderstanding of it all, without the lies, grave-pissing and idiocy. Some of it's positive, some of it is pretty blunt. But above all, I think it's all a fair assessment. The entire interview can be found at Buzzflash, and below as well, though I did correct some grammatical errors and made it a little easier to understand.

So, here we go...

1) You've been an excellent resource for BuzzFlash on news relating to progressive radio. Anyone reading your site knows that it's been a rough ride. Do you think progressive radio is in better or worse shape than 5 years ago?

Yeah, things have been a bit crazy lately. But you know what? I think progressive talk is in better shape nowadays, even with all the chaos. It is certainly a bit more established than it was five years ago. The problems affecting the format now are similar to those affecting the radio industry in general. The economy has really battered the radio business, particularly in decreased advertising revenue. Whatever Air America, Nova M, mom-and-pop outlets, etc. are going through, the big guns like Clear Channel, CBS and especially Sirius XM, are experiencing even more of, though they have a softer cushion to fall back on.

And the big radio owners are going with cheaper, homogenized programming, in order to cut costs and go for the lowest common denominator. They're trying to play it safe, as opposed to doing something original, creative and more personal that may actually attract listeners. How many music stations are currently building afternoon drive shows out of canned talk breaks from Ryan Seacrest's L.A. morning show, in place of a live-and-local personality? Listeners aren't gonna go for it in the long run. Add to that new technology. As a result, more people find that they can simply load their iPod with whatever they want, listen to streaming radio and even discover new music via MySpace and other sites. Radio is becoming a dinosaur, because listeners are becoming more and more savvy. The industry has no clue how to deal with this.

I've been expecting a bit of a liberal talk shakeup for years now, with lesser shows and content providers falling by the wayside, and the strongest ones getting stronger. As it turns out, the biggest player in the format now is Dial Global, which is actually a very successful radio network that recently swallowed up Jones Radio, another successful player in the marketplace. They've been doing well with Ed Schultz, Bill Press and Stephanie Miller, and now they're bringing in Thom Hartmann. That move is a game changer. Dial Global succeeds because they're a radio company. Sure, they carry conservatives like Neal Boortz, and a bunch of music programming. But selling radio content is what they know. What's on the shows is secondary, and as a result, it's not as distracting to their inevitable goal. They don't care what it is - they just move it. As a result, they've indirectly carved out a nice niche for themselves.

When Jones started with Schultz, they set out to prove that a liberal show could play the same game as any other ones. Schultz prides himself on attracting blue chip advertisers like Office Depot and GM. And that's a good thing. Small businesses with progressive owners don't wield that kind of advertising muscle, though it's great that they're buying time on radio shows. But sadly, too many outlets have been concentrating and relying too much on these kinds of businesses, at the expense of the big advertisers. After all, you're not selling the content, you're selling the people listening to it. And left-leaning listeners buy the same stuff as right-wingers do. They drive the same cars, eat the same food and drink the same beer. For liberal talk to succeed, they have to know how to play the radio game, rather than just build an ideological wall around themselves.

So, you've got Dial Global, which is doing good. Then you've got stations in places like Madison and Portland, which recently had huge ratings books. And you've got a few strong, stable hosts anchoring the format, along with a few erratic ones. So all in all, things aren't all that dire. It just takes time. After all, Rush Limbaugh's show started out on a few crappy AM stations before things really got rolling. It takes time to build.

2) Is the challenge that progressive radio faces insufficient capitalization, the wrong models, or obstruction from a largely Republican corporate radio infrastructure?

There are a lot of people involved that don't really understand the radio business. It's much more complicated than they think. And it involves a lot of game playing and a different sort of inflated ego.

Another problem is the funding is very lopsided. We all saw the ridiculous stuff the early investors and management teams of Air America were spending money on, as opposed to things they should have been investing in. And just last night, I was reading the whole 16-page lawsuit recently filed by John Manzo against Nova M. In it, he claims that there were too many instances of the whole operation being run on the cheap, with management not paying the right bills on time for whatever strange reason.

A really big problem is that too many people running these operations are concerned too much with the message, or content. Sure, that's ultimately what it's all about, but it's much more than that. They often fall into the trap of trying too hard to be a megaphone for their ideas. But that's not the way broadcasting works. For example, how many commercial FM stations are run successfully by hardcore music fans nowadays? Not very many. Look what happened to Indie 103.1 in L.A. last month. A station run by music fans for music fans. And it was a great station. Unfortunately, they're no longer on the air. But here's how the radio business works. First, you have to have a strong business model. Second, you have to make it entertaining, or worth listening to. And if those steps are taken, the content will take care of itself. Keith Olbermann's successful because he knows how to do a show. He didn't even come from any sort of progressive background - he's a sports guy! Jon Stewart isn't an ideologue. He's an entertainer. Yet, they both know how to build compelling shows, how to inject the right amount of personality and humor, and how to get people to tune in. The ideology is just icing on the cake.

As for the corporate infrastructure, yes and no. Keep in mind that the most successful progressive talk stations in the country are run by companies like Clear Channel and CBS. In the markets where they program the format, they stick with it because it delivers listeners and revenue. I get the feeling that the big owners really don't care what the programming is, so long as it yields results. Look at Entercom. A big radio company that donates as heavily to Democrats as Clear Channel does to Republicans. Yet they've done a mostly crappy job with the progressive talk format. The only station left doing it is in Buffalo, and who knows how long that will stay around. Meanwhile, there's Saga Communications. I have no idea what the general ideology of their upper management structure is, or who they donate to, or if they even give a rip about politics. Yet they run the format in quite a few mid-sized and smaller markets, and do well with it. They keep progressive talk around because it works for them. And that's what most radio station owners do. They stick with what works.

I do think we'd see more of a commitment to the format if there were more independent owners, and fewer corporate monopolies. In addition, we could see more of a local approach, which is something that iPods and webcasters can't provide that radio can. But ironically, there is a problem with some of the mom-and-pop owned stations. Many are shoestring operations. They have a tough time competing with the big guys. And all too often, they don't make as much of an effort to sell advertising, or just don't have the infrastructure to do so. Witness what happened in Santa Cruz, where the owner just expected people to walk in off the street to buy ads. He got pissed that they weren't doing so, and pulled the format. There are some stations that have tried to go with a listener-supported model, which almost always fails, because a) their fundraising is not as organized and established as most noncommercial operations, b) commercial radio listeners typically don't like to pay for something they assume they can get for free, and above all, c) it smacks of desperation. That's part of what happened to Nova M.

3) When progressive radio has succeeded, it appears to be based on the brand "personality" of the host. In short, Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow -- and until a couple of weeks ago, Randi Rhodes -- created their own personal followings, just as Limbaugh and Hannity have. And one of the biggest impacts progressive radio had was that some of these people crossed over into television and provided a counterbalance to the right wing blowhards in the last couple of years. Of course, Rachel Maddow is the best example of this. What are your thoughts on the marketing the personality issue?

Maddow was certainly effective in crossing over. Luckily, Keith Olbermann helped pave the way. As for personalities, that is important. That's how Rush Limbaugh became successful. He was a Top 40 jock back in the 70's, and that kind of situation was very personality-oriented. People come back to listen to personalities they like, the ones that they are entertained by, and the ones that keep them from turning off the radio. That's the key in broadcasting - keep 'em coming back and keep 'em tuned in.

4) Back to the capitalization issue. Has Air America just been underfunded and at times poorly managed financially -- or has the model of a progressive network been flawed from the beginning. For example, Air America has had a revolving door of hosts. When a host leaves, his or her particular audience doesn't necessarily transfer to the new host, does it?

With Air America, there were too many rich people who wanted to play radio, but didn't have the experience or the stomach to fight it out in such a crazy environment. In the early years, it was a clash of egos. At least now, Air America has hired some actual radio people, though they've hemorrhaged a lot of talent in the past few years. Now, they're trying to do a more web-based approach, a sort of Huffington Post with audio. It's a good idea, but HuffPo does the web content thing a lot better than Air America, which has a lousy reputation to combat in regard to their web approaches. As for their on-air lineup, they're kinda like a baseball team rebuilding after losing their best players. They have to work on the shows they have now, just like in the early days. Rachel Maddow was once a mere bit player there, and look what happened. And they have to make sure it's about the entertainment value, rather than the message. I've been saying that for years. After all, they can't get the message out if nobody's listening.

5) Although BuzzFlash has been on a lot of progressive radio programs, I've personally felt that progressive radio producers, owners, and hosts have never really grasped the potential for a synergy between the liberal Internet sites and the promotion of their shows. An enormous audience for progressive radio gets their news from the Internet. What are your thoughts on this?

It seems the more progressive hosts are better at synergy with the web than the conservative ones. And a new kind of format has the advantage of tapping into newer forms of technology. I've often joked that conservatives dominate the old, fuzzy, antiquated AM dial, which has been around for 90 years, while we on the left dominate the new and innovative internet. Nice metaphor, huh? Which has more future potential? I'll take the web.

As for the synergy, you're probably right. Radio people in general need to keep doing more and more to meld with technology. Air America, for example, has kind of the right idea, in that they're trying to push their web content. But they need to make it better. Huffington Post, for example, is a very good example of what can be accomplished. It's a very good, informative site with a little of everything to bring in readers, and their web traffic is simply amazing.

I think one area that just hasn't been taken advantage of enough is podcasting. I criticize Clear Channel for many things, but their podcasting is impressive. I can download Thom Hartmann shows from three different stations. One smart thing some stations do is to sell sponsorship for their podcasts. No commercial overkill, just a few messages and perhaps a couple short spots. NPR does this too. Podcasting costs money, and while some operations and shows charge membership fees to pay for bandwidth and the guy who edits and uploads them, a sponsorship approach could cover that. Besides, it gets the advertiser more involved with the station. I think some shows could grow if they went with this approach and offered free downloadable episodes. Someone who just wants to sample Ed Schultz isn't just going to fork over an annual fee to do so. If I can download the entire audio from Bill Maher's HBO show for free from iTunes, why should I have to pay to get whole Stephanie Miller shows? I'm sure it's a question many people have. Better availability will draw listeners.

6) Rush Limbaugh has, at times, claimed he's really just an entertainer. Is progressive radio, with the exception perhaps of Stephanie Miller, just too serious? (No one would accuse Stephanie of being too serious, yet she is distinctively progressive.)

I think Rush used to be more of an 'entertainer' than he is now. Now, he's got too much of a messiah complex, thinking that he has the power to single-handedly influence government policy, and I get the feeling that most of his listeners tune in nowadays just out of habit. The 'entertainer' claim is basically a cop-out.

And yeah, some hosts are a bit too serious. Again, it's easy to fall into the trap of message over entertainment value, and dry, dour rants can get a bit exhausting after awhile. Hardcore liberal talk listeners may chastise someone like Ed Schultz, who goes off-topic with things like football and fishing, but it breaks things up. Hey, you chew your food before you swallow, right? It also makes him more personable. Listeners like people who seem to have lives. Talk radio listening is, often, about companionship. You're driving alone in the car, and sometimes you want a traveling companion. People like Schultz have a human quality. More so than robots barking talking points.

There are many shows that are just way too serious, and not entertaining enough. Often, they fall into the trap of being too angry. As far as more serious shows go, Thom Hartmann is one of those who can pull it off. Sure, the show gets a bit wonky when he debates the Ayn Rand folks about supply-side economics. That's a bit too heavy. Perhaps he needs to loosen up a little. However, Thom does have a strong, positive personality, which comes from many years spent working in radio. He's pleasant to listen to because he's enthusiastic. Rachel Maddow is another example - she has the right kind of personality to pull it all off. Not a vast resume, but a natural talent who has a feel for what her listeners want. Both liberal and conservative radio have way too many dull personalities that are all about pounding ideology down peoples' throats. That may appeal to some people, but not to all. It's like a music station playing nothing but Frank Zappa. Very intense music that may appeal to a small, die-hard crowd, but not the kind of thing one would do if looking to make a viable mass-appeal business venture out of it. That's the way the game is played.

7) Why, in your opinion, haven't the big bucks liberals invested in progressive radio in the way Republican corporate America has?

I really don't know. Perhaps some were turned off by the business models. The backers that filtered in and out of Air America in the early days did have some pretty strong egos. Could this have been a turn-off? I don't know. Perhaps there were too many question marks with some of these ventures. Although I do recall that Ed Schultz did have some help from well-heeled people when he got started in syndication. Bill Press got help from a liberal think tank. Perhaps there was more of a realistic game plan here than the 'if you build it they will come' idea.

In addition, the corporations that invest in conservative radio do so primarily as a business decision. They're radio people, mostly. Not a lot of outside investors, except for stockholders. Some of the smaller groups, like Salem and the religious networks, are an exception. And I've always held the theory that conservative radio grew because of Limbaugh. Radio is a copycat business. They imitate what works. Rush Limbaugh, like him or hate him, got listeners. That's why we see so many Rush clones. Remember, Howard Stern inspired a ton of imitators. If a liberal host all of a sudden exploded on the marketplace and became a massive success, we'd no doubt see lots of imitators. That's how the business works.

8) WCPT here in Chicago has really gotten creative in its marketing and appears to have picked up a lot of actual paid advertising. That is because the owner of the station is a committed liberal and understands marketing and advertising. How important is owning the bricks, mortar and radio license?

WCPT is fortunate in that it is owned by a very experienced broadcaster, Fred Eyechaner. He used to be in television, and built a successful independent UHF station virtually from scratch. He sold it to News Corp. a few years ago, at the perfect time, for a ton of money. With that, he bought a bunch of small suburban Chicago stations, some that he leases out and the AM, and now three FM, stations that carry WCPT. Ironically, we have Rupert Murdoch to thank indirectly for giving Chicago a progressive voice on the radio.

They'll never be a ratings monster. Not in a market like Chicago, with some pretty dominant stations that cover the entire area (which is huge). But they can most certainly carve out a successful niche. And Eyechaner has hired some salespeople who know how to sell the format. Plus, he makes some money leasing out the nighttime hours, when talk listenership goes down, to the Dance Factory folks. Kind of a weird combination, liberal talk and club-mix music. But it works.

As for owning the whole operation, it's definitely a plus. Eyechaner is definitely dedicated to the format - he's a big Democratic fundraiser - and is not at the mercy of some crazy owner that people have to pay rent to. And some of the small owners that own the leased stations can be a bit peculiar. We've seen many examples of shaky leased time scenarios. There's one going on in Boston as we speak, and I don't really hold out much hope for it, sadly.

9) Progressive listeners can make a difference, however. Tell us a little about how the Madison, Wisconsin, liberal radio station was kept from dropping progressive programming.

WXXM (92.1 The Mic) has some big initial success, but then had a really bad ratings book. As far as I can tell, ultimate programming decisions are often made by regional managers. Around that time, they evidently saw the revenues the station was bringing in and felt it was time for a change. As I said before, all too often we see operations where the account executives are intimidated by the format, or are too set in their ways with their own accounts. In short, they don't know how to sell it. And we saw a perfect example when a listener, who had no sales or radio background to speak of, actually went out and lined up a long list of area businesses that were willing to advertise on the station, getting more results than the highly-paid sales department ever accomplished. That had to be embarrassing.

In short, the listeners rallied around the station, and the local Madison management told the regional manager, who had killed the format in three Ohio markets, that the station should stay as-is. It paid off. In the most recent Arbitron ratings book, The Mic actually tied its sister station, the top country station in the market, at #6. For a midwestern market, that's huge. Ironically, that book came out after they tried to swap in Dave Ramsey for Thom Hartmann, and the listeners once again revolted. Whether that ratings success was a fluke, during the election season, or whether they can build on that, remains to be seen. Look at it this way - the station is dirt cheap to run. The syndicated shows they run are offered virtually for free (via a barter deal). There are currently no local personalities to pay. They pay a guy to cut on-air promos and liners, and that's probably it. It's as simple as a computer in a closet.

10) Finally, is having a Democratic president good or bad for progressive radio?

It's definitely a paradigm shift. Now that Bush and Cheney are gone, who's the bogeyman now? Actually, I'm being simplistic here. Right-wingers use that meme. But remember, conservative radio thrived even after they didn't have the Clintons to kick around anymore. Progressive radio can succeed with Obama in the White House. With the stimulus package, the war and whatever else is going on, there's plenty to talk about. Plus, it removes a common crutch that all too many rely on - bashing Bush. Not that he doesn't deserve it, but it becomes a cliche after awhile. And if further in doubt, there are quite a few liberal talk personalities today who were doing talk radio during the Clinton years - I'm thinking Mike Malloy, Randi Rhodes, Amy Goodman and others - so they know how to do it.


The whole interview can be found here.


raccoonradio said...

For now it looks like the Senate may have tabled the revival of the Fairness Doctrine. The vote may have been 87-11
(not sure). Who knows, could be other attempts later (localism action?) by the FCC once Democrats get more members...?

senate may have tabled revival of FD

"The Senate has barred federal regulators from reviving a policy, abandoned two decades ago, that required balanced coverage of issues on public airwaves." The article also points out that the abundance of various media makes enforcement "unneccesary", thus
the F.C.C.'s abandonment of it in 1987.

raccoonradio said...

More details:


FAIRNESS DOCTRINE: Senate vote to bar the Fairness Doctrine was 87-11, however it's unclear
if this amendment--attached to a D.C. voting rights bill--will survive. This is Sen
Jim DeMint's bill, but:

LOCALISM: Another bill, sponsored by Sen Dick Durbin, won 57-41 --an attempt to break
up big companies like Clear Channel. Some are calling this a back door attempt to
bring back the Fairness Doctrine

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