Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Clear Channel backlash in Madison

Clear Channel/Madison says high school and college sports are a better fit for listeners here than progressive talk radio.

Those are fightin' words in Madison, a place where politics are fought between Democrats and liberals and "Impeach Bush" yard signs are common.

The decision to replace its highly rated progressive talk station, WXXM (92.1 The Mic), with Fox Sports Radio has sparked a major backlash. Some advertisers have threatened a boycott, more than 5,000 people have signed a petition and a rally is set for Tuesday night to urge management to reconsider.

"There is a mix of shock, outrage, disbelief and a little bit of anger," said Valerie Walasek, a 28-year-old listener who helped organize the movement to save the station's format. "I'm not really doing that much, but I'm standing in front of thousands of people that really want to keep it on the air."

But so far, the company shows no signs of backing down from the format change planned for Jan. 1.

The company's market manager in Madison, Jeff Tyler, said too many advertisers stayed away from The Mic 92.1 because of opposition to the 2-year-old format mixing nationally known liberal talkers such as Al Franken with local hosts who discussed everything from city politics to animal rights.

The station is making money but has consistently ranked dead last out of 14 Madison stations who report earnings, Tyler said, noting that liberal talk has faced similar problems nationwide. Air America Radio, the progressive talk and news network that provided some programming to the Madison station, filed for bankruptcy protection in October.

The format change on WXXM will answer a growing demand for high school and University of Wisconsin sports coverage and feature highly rated sports personalities Jim Rome and Dan Patrick, Tyler said.

"Madison is a sports town in a sports state," he said.

But some liberals here believe something more sinister is at play in the decision, announced three days after the Nov. 7 election that had the left celebrating Democratic victories across the country.

"I'm wondering if the switch to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports means the liberal station was more successful than certain people wanted," listener Yvonne Gagliano wrote in a local newspaper.

Jack Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin journalism professor who had a 30-year career in public radio, said he doubted politics were at play. Clear Channel, which operates more than 1,000 radio stations in the U.S., must believe it can make more money with a sports format -- even one with lower ratings -- because it would cost less to produce and be easier to pitch to advertisers, he said.

"The backlash doesn't prove anything more than the ratings did: There are a lot of people that like the station," Mitchell said. "People in Madison think they can make a difference, but they may be disillusioned."

Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon, a live music venue that advertised on The Mic, said she doesn't understand Clear Channel's decision and would not give her business to a sports station.

"We have the progressive station that a lot of people follow that gets good ratings, but we already have multiple sports stations," said Dethmers, who volunteered her club to hold Tuesday's rally.

The station had the second highest ratings in Madison for news talk and the 11th highest in the market overall over the summer, according to Arbitron, Inc., a media research company. That means about 30,100 listeners in a media market of 468,800 tuned in during any given week.

The top rated news talk station, WIBA-AM, features a mix of straight news and conservative talkers.

National hosts featured on The Mic have joined in the outrage. Ed Schultz, whose daily show is heard on more than 100 stations, blasted Tyler on the air for what he called a failure to turn high ratings into ad sales.

"This is not a ratings issue because the station is No. 1 in Madison. It's an issue of management," he said. "Instead of changing the format, maybe we ought to change Jeff Tyler."

Tyler said the company was exploring ways to continue progressive talk in Madison, including picking up liberal hosts on one of its other five local stations.

"Our company sales team embraced the station, the format and enthusiasm we all had for the station and its role in our community," he said. "However, there are many advertisers, local and national, who have been at conflict with the programming or stay away from controversial programming."

A rally and press conference is being held at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, Wisconsin tonight, December 12th, from 7-8PM. The event is being organized for businesses and citizens to show their support for the Mic 92.1 and their desire for Clear Channel Madison to keep the station on the air. Oh, and Glass Nickel Pizza will be providing free pizza to show their support, so bring your appetite.

And the petition is still active, with 5,077 signatures as of this writing.

Speaking of The Mic, former morning host Lee Rayburn will be filling in for Air America's nationally syndicated the Rachel Maddow show for one week. He'll fill the chair December 26 - 29. The show will air on delay on The Mic from 7-9PM that week.

Rayburn was let go from the Mic the same week the announcement of the format change was made. Today also marks the final day of Rayburn’s podcast. For the past three weeks Rayburn and cohort Jodie Shawback have been recording a podcast on Tuesday’s at the Escape Java Joint on Willy Street. The final broadcast can be heard here.


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