Friday, December 08, 2006

Schultz on 'The Mic': "That's no way to run a railroad"

The following article from The Capital Times in Madison goes along with a great deal of what I've been posting about lately, and frankly, I couldn't agree more.

When he first heard the news that Clear Channel was dropping the progressive talk format in Madison, radio host Ed Schultz assumed the station wasn't really serious.

"When I heard about this, I thought it was a radio stunt," Schultz, known as "Big Ed," said in a phone interview from his office in Fargo, N.D. "I thought that maybe the management was trying to figure out how much passion there is in the community for the format, and bring visibility to the format."

Now that he knows that it's not a stunt and that WXXM/FM 92.1 "The Mic" will switch to Fox Sports Radio affiliation at the end of the month, taking him off the air in Madison, Schultz is blasting station management for the decision.

"Our job is to get ratings," he says. "Not only our show, but other shows did what was expected of us. It was poor sales management and poor market management, in my opinion. It makes no business sense, and it makes no operational sense either.

"The Mic is not a heritage station," Schultz says. "The Mic has no tradition other than to continually fail with different formats. The Mic was given a pulse. The Mic was given some life and a heartbeat. And they killed it."

Jeff Tyler, vice president and market manager for Clear Channel in Madison, declined to comment.

While the financially precarious Air America Radio syndicate has gotten most of the press when it comes to progressive radio, it's Schultz, not affiliated with Air America but with the Jones Radio Network, who is considered the top liberal radio host in the country. He's heard from 2 to 5 p.m. weekdays on The Mic in Madison.

Schultz, who bills his show as "Straight talk from the heartland," attracts an estimated 2.25 million listeners, ranking him No. 10 among all talk radio hosts, according to a recent survey in Talkers magazine. Al Franken, the best-known name in Air America's stable, attracts 1.5 million listeners, putting him at No. 12 on the survey.

Schultz says ratings in the Madison market for his show and others were solid; the station posted a 3.7 percent of the overall market share in the summer Arbitron rankings, good for 11th place. He believes where the station fell down was in the job it did attracting advertisers.

"The sources that we have make it very clear that the radio station was poorly managed," he says. "The radio station did not have dedicated sellers to the talk radio format. You can't have a bunch of rock sales people having the talk radio format thrown into their portfolio, and then expect them to meet projections. That's no way to run a railroad."

Madison listeners have been organizing to try and convince station management to reconsider its decision. An online petition has garnered almost 5,000 signatures. And a rally is scheduled for 7 p.m. next Tuesday at the High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave. for listeners and especially local businesses and organizations to show their support.

"I think it's great that the community is showing passion for the format," Schultz says of the uproar. "I think that it's important that they remain positive and continue to communicate with the management of the station, so that maybe they'll change their mind."

Some listeners have pointed to Clear Channel, a media conglomerate that owns more than 1,200 radio stations in the United States, as having political reasons for killing The Mic. But Schultz notes that the company has more progressive talk stations nationwide than any other, while fellow radio network ABC Radio has none and Infinity Broadcasting has just one.

"I have no bone to pick with Clear Channel," he says. "I think Clear Channel has been very aggressive in putting progressive talk stations on the radio. I do have a problem with mega-ownership not paying attention to detail. It makes no business sense whatsoever to have three sports stations in a market the size of Madison."

Advertising revenue has been a thorny issue for progressive talkers, which as a format really only was launched in early 2004 with Schultz's show and the birth of Air America. The New York Times
reported last month that ABC sent an Oct. 25 memo to its affiliates listing more than 90 sponsors that specifically asked not to have their advertising on Air America programming.

Schultz acknowledges that conservative talk "has a 20-year head start" on progressive talk, and that there's no place for a sales staff to go to learn how to sell talk radio. But he says that last month's election results illustrate that his show and his listeners are in line with the mainstream of American thought.

"The country has spoken," he says. "Our show is where America is. And all this talk about progressive talk being alternative, or progressive talk not being in the mainstream, is a bunch of hogwash that I think has affected even salespeople being timid to pitch it."

After Dec. 31, Madison listeners will still be able to hear Schultz on Sirius satellite radio and streaming online at Schultz says his network is working to get him back on the air in Madison as well.

WTDY-AM/1670 "The Pulse" originally broadcast Schultz's show when he debuted in 2004, but station manager Glen Gardner says that station is unlikely to take Schultz or any other nationally syndicated radio shows back. Gardner says the station is happy with focusing on live, Madison-based talent and is reluctant to carry syndicated hosts like Schultz that larger radio companies can lure away.

"What ends up happening with syndicated programming, because we're the small guys, we're the local guys, we don't have the clout of 1,300 radio stations," Gardner says. "We put a show on, we popularize it, we spend money promoting it and then a company like Clear Channel comes in and uses its corporate power to take the show."

Regarding the move from The Pulse to The Mic, Schultz says Clear Channel led him to believe that if he moved his show to a Clear Channel station, the company would be able to deliver other markets for him.

"We moved the show away from the AM station over to The Mic, and now Clear Channel drops the format," Schultz says. "I think that's dirty pool. Now, the station that we left, I don't blame them a bit for telling us to take a hike. If it were me, I would give them a long-term commitment. I definitely want to be in the Madison market."

Despite going dark in Madison, Schultz's popularity continues to rise, and next week his show moves from the afternoon slot to the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot, the "prime real estate" of talk radio currently occupied by Franken and Rush Limbaugh. (The Mic will tape-delay his show and run it in its existing 2-5 p.m. time slot for the rest of the month.)

Schultz says that progressive talk radio has to be run like any other radio format - like a business, with an eye on the bottom line and with sales in mind. He also says his primary focus is not to win any sort of political victory, but simply to do compelling radio.

"You can't go on the air with a mission to win elections," he says. "That's a very tunnel-vision view of how to do radio. It basically comes down to what's interesting."


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