Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Top 10 Talkers of 2008 (Reader Poll Edition)

So, another year has come to a close, and for many, perhaps a year that's best left far in the past. Granted, 2008 did see some really good things. We elected a very promising president in Barack Obama, but otherwise, it was a grueling year of foreclosures, failures and $4 gas. Let's hope 2009 will be a marked improvement. Could it be any worse?

So, given the weird year that was 2008, what could possibly be more fitting than a really weird year-end readers' poll. I conjured up a variety of ideas on how to carry this one out, and improve on last year's experiment, which was flawed but fairly effective. Of course, strange things will always happen. And this time around, they certainly did. And the outcome certainly did surprise me.

When I initially set up this poll, there were some problems with it. I left off some important names. And there was some sabotage. I had to reboot and start over, with the promise to retain the previous results, as several thousand readers had already cast votes. When the poll was rebooted, many more people discovered it, including a few radio personalities themselves. Imagine my surprise on one occasion when I found several thousand votes that had been cast virtually overnight, particularly for one group of hosts. But that's the way it goes. As previously mentioned, it ain't scientific. And if Obama and McCain can campaign for votes, why not the hosts themselves, right?

As I vowed earlier, I combined the results of both polls into the final outcome. Strangely enough, it worked in rather interesting ways. It also produced a startling outcome. And it minimized the possibility of box stuffing as well. The vote tallies of the two polls have not been altered, except to add them via a simple calculator.

From the get-go, I didn't care who won. It was all up to you. Sometimes it's quite interesting to just see where it all goes. And whatever the results, that was fine by me.

It's not a scientific poll. No web poll ever is. But quite frankly, the resources just aren't there to enlist Gallup or Zogby to do a meaningless survey. Let's face it, it's all for fun anyway, right?

Will there be controversy in the results? Absolutely. Lots of pissed-off people? Sure. Hurt feelings? I hope not. At least controversy does tend to lead to spirited discussion. While the poll did have some flaws, it was the several thousand of you who voted who determined the outcome. As we learned from controversial votes like with Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage, the ones who cast the votes are the ones who decide the outcome. You may agree or disagree with the results, but it is what it is. And with that said, here's how it all turned out.

10. Sam Seder

Sam Seder is kinda like the Rodney Dangerfield of radio. He just gets no respect. At least he doesn't by his radio handlers. His listeners, meanwhile, absolutely adore the former screenwriter/actor turned radio talk show host.

Seder held sway in middays on Air America until April 2007, when his show was dropped in a controversial move that brought Lionel to the network. Following that, he started a Sunday afternoon show that lasted a year and expired when the contract did. But Air America, to their credit, still saw value in Seder. They named him webmaster for their site, as they slowly ramped up their anemic online presence. He also auditioned for the open afternoon slot vacated by Randi Rhodes, which was given to New York talker Ron Kuby.

But that was not the end of it. There were rumors of him leaving the network and heading to greener pastures. But Seder segued into another gig with Air America, teaming up with pal (and former Air America host) Marc Maron for a regular online-only offering, "Maron vs. Seder." The new show is basically no-holds-barred. No time clock. No restrictions. No real structure. And no prohibitions, particularly when it comes to profanity. With terrestrial radio becoming stifling and restrictive, and fading in popularity to the wide variety of other options out there, have Seder and Maron latched onto something? Could web-only be a sign of things to come? Whatever the answer is, we'll be looking forward to see what happens in 2009.

9. Randi Rhodes

It's an all too familiar tale. An entity hires a controversial, outspoken personality to be controversial and outspoken, and distances itself from said individual when the proverbial shit hits the fan. It didn't quite work that way with Randi Rhodes and her former employer, Air America Radio. But it sure appeared that way.

Back in March, Rhodes was in San Francisco, making a public appearance at an event thrown by her affiliate, KKGN. It was at a popular comedy club in town, and anyone with any knowledge of the San Francisco comedy scene knows that things can get quite bawdy. And with Rhodes on that night, it most certainly did.

In the heat of the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama primary fight, things were getting pretty hot. The Democratic Party split into two warring factions, and even divided many politicians, pundits, personalities and bloggers along with it. Geraldine Ferraro, a former representative who made history in 1984 when she was tapped by Democratic nominee Walter Mondale to be the first female running mate on a major party ticket, was among the most outspoken in her support for Clinton and her disdain for Obama. She tarnished much of her well-earned credibility in the process.

Rhodes was likely speaking for many of her listeners when she lashed out at Clinton and Ferraro onstage that night in San Francisco. Clinton "is a whore," she said. Ferraro "is a fucking whore." Not much was made of the incident until a short clip hit YouTube. The pro-Hillary blogs went nuts, calling for Rhodes' head. Air America soon stepped in, issuing a statement 'suspending' the host for an indefinite period. In the meantime, listeners and affiliates alike were confused as to what was really going on. Soon, KKGN and a few other stations, including longtime flagship WJNO in West Palm Beach announced they would carry the show themselves, with or without Air America. Then, an announcement that Rhodes and Air America had parted ways, and another announcement the next day that Rhodes had joined the fledgling Nova M Radio.

So what really happened? As it turned out, the departure had little to do with the San Francisco incident. As it turns out, Rhodes and Air America were involved in heavy contract negotiations. The new management team offered more money, but they wanted to insert a non-compete clause, which could have stifled her career if she were to be fired at will. Coincidentally, her last day at Air America was the last day of her contract. The 'suspension' was merely a cover-up. And that YouTube clip? That was allegedly circulated by her former bosses, as a way of measuring her popularity.

But as we all know, Rhodes quickly rebounded, retaining most of her affiliates and gaining a few in the process. Along the way, listeners noticed a more upbeat Rhodes, as she stripped away most of her frustration and anger and returned to what she did best - being funny.

8. Bill Press

When The Young Turks departed from Air America last January and the network declined to fill the slot with live programming, syndicated liberal talk in morning drive in the eastern half of the country was left to Bill Press.

Thanks to the lack of competition, Press' show landed on even more affiliates that prefer going the syndicated route in mornings. Both Sirius and XM air his show, as do many terrestrial stations. Stations in the western half of the country by default air him as a live offering in the wee dark hours of the early morning. And with Jones Radio Networks being swallowed up by an even bigger fish, Dial Global, Press was backed by a bit more network muscle.

But this lack of competition is by no ways a means of disregarding Press' show. It's good. Press, a longtime television personality, has a knack for broadcasting, and is by no means a slouch. Unfortunately, his show is held back somewhat by a lack of web presence. Searching for podcasts of his show is akin to finding a mint-condition Honus Wagner baseball card in the attic. Given the heavy web presence of many of his peers, Press would surely benefit from a little online exposure.

7. Mark Thompson

With Air America and others seemingly dominating the scene and the dialogue, Sirius Left, which boasts three exclusive daily programs, is still worth noting, and in the past I have made sure that they not be ignored. Likewise, listeners made sure their voices were heard.

One of the beneficiaries of the groundswell from Sirius listeners is their newest host, Mark Thompson. Airing during the evening hours, The more amiable Thompson has garnered a favorable response from listeners who haven't warmed to the more caustic approach of Sirius Left's two other hosts.

6. Stephanie Miller

An item I read in radio industry pundit Tom Taylor's daily newsletter last week pretty much sums up Stephanie Miller:

Who had a good year in 2008? “Progressive/liberal talk show hosts,” says longtime Boston-based radio pro and Lesley University professor Donna Halper. She says “it’s true the progressive and liberal talk personalities weren’t on as many stations as righties like Limbaugh and Hannity. But for those who had long predicted that progressive talk could never survive, the format demonstrated in a number of cities that it did have staying power.” She says “Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller both turned a profit (again) and both picked up more affiliates and were regularly seen on TV as pundits.”

When her show began in the fall of 2004, Miller satisfied a unique niche. While other hosts veered toward being quite droll and serious, Miller went for laughs. Airing in morning drive in the western half of the country, the show turned into a three hour laughfest, skewering the newsmakers in a way similar to that of "The Daily Show." And the light approach has translated into massive popularity. Most of the progressive talk stations in the country carry her show. A Top 40 FM station in Pennsylvania even carried it at night. Her dominance of the time slot has even wedged out rivals such as Sam Seder and Lionel. It's to the point that other most other liberal talk entities and stations don't even bother to compete with her.

5. Lynn Samuels

I admit, I'm not really all that familiar with on-air stylings of Lynn Samuels. I do know that she has long been a fixture in afternoons at Sirius Left. I also know that she has quite a long history in New York radio, most notably on venerable talker WABC. And I know that she is very, very confrontational. And yes, I realize that she was a beneficiary of the Sirius Left wave that hit this site in the past few weeks.

I had only heard her Sirius show on a few occasions. Thick New Yawk accent. Outspoken. Lots of profanity. Somewhat prickly demeanor. Yeah, I guess it's a bit much for a laid-back Midwestern boy like me to wrap his noggin around. And I get lots of emails and read a lot of blog and message board postings from people saying how much they despise her. That reached a head earlier this year when Samuels, initially a Hillary Clinton supporter, continuously lashed out at chief rival Barack Obama throughout the campaign, as the Democratic Party seemingly and briefly divided into two factions. Even as Obama successfully fought his way through the general election, many did not forgive Samuels.

But at the same time, there are people out there that absolutely adore her. And that's what matters, right? I realize that it's a big tent out there, and one of the key principles behind this blog is that generic groupthink is pointless. And in a country that values free speech, people should be encouraged to speak their minds and ruffle a few feathers. Living in a land of over 300 million distinct personalities, we would all be hard pressed to find someone who agrees with us on everything. And while those on the right behave like drones and most parrot identical agendas across the board, we should be thankful for the culture of diversity laid out on paper by dapper guys in wigs over two centuries ago. Lynn Samuels might not be your cup of tea, but give her credit for at least carving her own niche.

4. Rachel Maddow

What a year it's been for Rachel Maddow. With the departure of many of top Air America talents, such as Randi Rhodes, it's been up to promising up-and-comers like Maddow to step up. When she first started with the network almost five years ago, as an unknown personality on the morning ensemble show "Unfiltered," her primary radio experience had been hosting a morning show on a station in Massachusetts. But as many know, pure talent will always shine through. When "Unfiltered" ended its brief run, Air America management saw something in her and gave her a solo show, running in the early morning hours. That show later moved to a higher profile early evening slot and she soon became an important cornerstone in the network's lineup. MSNBC saw something in her as well and enlisted her for frequent pundit appearances. Earlier this year, as MSNBC was looking to build around their top host, Keith Olbermann, they finally decided Maddow was ready for her own prime time show, immediately following the highly-rated "Countdown." The results surprised even them. Soon, Maddow was even getting higher ratings than Olbermann on some nights, and even beat CNN stalwart Larry King on quite a few nights.

Liberal talk has been derided for many years, with many saying it just doesn't work. As it evolves, however, there are obvious people who have shot to the head of the pack. One of them is Rachel Maddow. As I said in the past, the future does indeed look bright. And it keeps getting brighter and brighter.

3. Alex Bennett

Now, here's one of the main focal points of the controversy. Frequent readers of this site by now know that Bennett has been actively campaigning on behalf of himself and fellow Sirius Left hosts via his weekday show. They even plugged this blog and the poll via the displays on Sirius radio receivers. Many pissed off readers fired off emails, letting me have it. Yeah, I was a bit bemused by the whole thing. But hey, I didn't say he couldn't plug Sirius. In fact, I finally decided to just encourage anyone interested to plug the heck out of themselves. It was best to just let it all play out. Plus, a spirited campaign kinda makes things more fun. And we did get a lot of new traffic, and that's not a bad thing.

Of course, when the dust settled, many thought the results would be a foregone conclusion. But, as I mentioned earlier, there was that first poll I had to deal with. So while Sirius hosts clear and away rocked the house on the second poll, the results of the November one provided for a rather interesting outcome.

Like I said, that's exactly what happened. The numbers speak for themselves.

But perhaps its time to praise Bennett, not to slay him. After all, he did get a lot of votes. At least a few thousand people like him enough to stand up for him, right? And he was at least honest enough to come here and communicate with his many critics on this very blog. Perhaps it even inspired to create his own blog. So I guess the guy does deserve some props.

Essentially, you either love him or you despise him. There's not much of a middle ground. But give the guy some credit. He's been in the game since he was a teenager in the latter years of the Eisenhower era, and spent much of his younger years roaming the nation as a Top 40 disc jockey. He wound up at WMCA in New York in the late 1960s, just before they transitioned from their famed "Good Guys" hits era into talk radio. Bennett made the move with them, and found his niche as a default radio voice for the emerging counterculture. His late night show featured many of the New York radicals of the day, guys like Abbie Hoffmann and Paul Krassner. And yes, even John and Yoko.

As the years went on and the national mood settled during the 'Me' decade and the Reagan era, he moved to mornings and held sway on the airwaves of his hometown of San Francisco throughout the 80s and most of the 90s. And in recent years, he's transitioned once again, into a somewhat controversial no-holds-barred talker on satellite radio, given carte blanche by management to say whatever the hell he wants. After all, isn't talk radio supposed to piss you off? For that, I certainly can't fault the guy. Hey, why should you?

2. Thom Hartmann

Finishing just 22 votes ahead, readers went with a familar, friendly voice, Portland, OR-based Thom Hartmann. Although up against heavy competition in his time slot, he is one of the most successful progressive talk voices out there.

Hartmann's current show has been on longer than most on this list. He was part of the old I.E. America network, along with Mike Malloy. When that network folded five years ago, Hartmann continued to self-syndicate to a small number of affiliates. He hooked up with Air America a few months after they began and with the departure of former host Al Franken gained one of the network's highest-profile time slots, in addition to a strong affiliate base. Along with Rachel Maddow, Hartmann is a cornerstone of the network.

And that still isn't enough. Hartmann is also a prolific author, having written many books over the years and still releasing 1-2 each year. He has also done well as a businessman, which helps when he goes head-to-head with the Ayn Rand types who typically appear as guests on his show. In the past, Hartmann has credited a conservative talker, Michael Medved, as giving him the idea of bringing in on-air guests who disagree with him, as a way of spicing up the show. Not many liberal hosts tap conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation for guests.

So, as the smoke and dust has settled, you voted Thom Hartmann as your #2 Top Talker for 2008.

So, that brings us up to the winner, the one you all voted for. And the winner of the reader's poll, for the second year in a row, is...

1. Mike Malloy

He's on late at night. And only on a handful of stations. Yet there perhaps is no other host who possesses the passionate following that Mike Malloy does.

And he's been at it for longer than most on this list. A former writer for CNN, he moved into radio during the 1990s, with stints on well-known talk stations like WSB in Atlanta and WLS in Chicago. As ABC abruptly moved their talk stations hard to the right, Malloy's popular show was unceremoniously dumped from WLS' airwaves, and he returned to Atlanta to begin a syndicated effort via I.E. America, where he carried on during events such as the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003.

I.E. America went belly-up in early 2004, just as Air America was set to launch. Passed over at first, and unable at the time to broadcast remotely from his hometown of Atlanta, he soon was tapped for the late-night shift at the fledgling network.

Malloy's relationship grew icy in 2006, after a myriad of executive turnovers. In August of that year, he was unceremoniously dumped by the network, amid a vast outcry from his devoted listeners. He soon rebounded, thanks to former Air America boss and faithful supporter Sheldon Drobny, who proceeded to launch a new network built around the host. More than two years later, Malloy is still doing what he does best.

A revolutionary aspect of his show is how popular it is via the internet. Shut out by many radio stations and tape delayed by others, he gets most of his support and listeners online, via live webstream and podcasting. And with terrestrial radio going through very tough times now, due to decreased advertising revenue and stale programming practices, Malloy and his listeners are exploring the new frontier of broadcasting.

You voted for him in a landslide, and yes, you named Mike Malloy the Top Talker of 2008. Really.

(NOTE: In the companion entry, posted immediately before this, is a list of the Top 10 picked by this very blog, rather than the reader poll. Consider them to be companion pieces.)


pureprairie said...

Samuels comes out ahead of Steph and Randi.. And in other news: HELL FREEZES OVER!!

Nor could I ever imagine Bennett could surpass Ed (outside of New York). You're right. The poll is brutally unscientific, if not tainted. I'd pretty much go with your list, except to put Mark Thompson in the 9 spot. Thanks for your efforts, Mr. LTR, and please keep up the good work. You've a very informative blog.

Chriss Pagani said...

Well, the poll was never about ratings or audience size, was it? Else Ed Shultz would stand alone.

Nor was it about the number of stations carrying the program, which is a contest Alan Colmes wins easily.

Like you said, it wasn't scientific. My only nitpick left was your comment about Lynn Samuels where you said, "Even as Obama successfully fought his way through the general election, many did not forgive Samuels."

My disgust with Samuels is NOT about the past; I would happily forgive her. No, Lynn Samuels to this day continues to repeat vile right wing myths about Obama as if they were fact. Her favorite rant is about how Obama is not really an American citizen and can't be President.

Forgiveness, my friend, requires repentance.

Bryce Baker said...

Any poll of the top progressive talkers where Ed Schultz is not even in the top 10 has something wrong with it. That's why I'm so glad to see on your own list he's up at #2.

P.S. Mike Malloy is insane

Unknown said...

Mike Malloy and Thom Hartmann are my two favorites, and in no particular order: they appeal equally to my two sides. Thom puts together calm, coherent progressive arguments you can use when a conservative tries to pin you in corner with their "logic", and Mike gives voice to my fierce anger at the BS we've been experiencing the last 8 years.

It's ironic Mike Malloy is #1 on this list, has the biggest following, and yet you can't get him on iTunes! It's an injustice worthy of a Malloy screed!

Anonymous 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.

Alex Bennett said...

Correction, The Young Turks was not the first daily internet video show by a mile. Not unless they were doing it in early 1998 when Play TV broadcast 12 hours a day of live video programs and even we didn't claim to start Internet TV although we may have since I don't know of anyone else prior to us. Cenk as been made aware of this and still makes this outlandish claim.

maronista said...

I never heard that the Young Turks was the first national liberal radio show. I always thought that Mike Malloy pre-dated everyone still on nationally. Jim Hightower was doing a national show in the mid 90's on ABC and UBN.
Glad to see Mike and Thom at the top. They deserve it. Thom never ceases to amaze me. Sammy made the top 10, yeah. Where's Maron - without Marc's funny I couldn't handle the rant's from the others.
I am particularly pleased to see ass-kisser Shultz not in there. I'm amazed that fellow middle-of-the-road Jonesers Press and Miller made it - they are way too straight for this hippie leftist. Bill Press has to be the most boring, meally-mouthed guy on the radio. He'd never have had a shot if it weren't for Danny Goldberg canning Morning Sedition.

Bob Kincaid said...

A minor correction: Malloy's been doing radio since the mid-80s. That's when I first heard him doing nights at WSB. He really is the Dean of Liberal Talk and from a listener standpoint, it's great he's receiving this recognition.

Thanks also for noting the move toward broadcasting on the InterTubes. The medium really does provide a level of freedom that terrestrial radio can't match.

Shucks! Maybe one of these days folks like Guy James, Mark Levine, all the other folks at The H.O.R.N. ( and I might make this list!

Great idea with the poll!

ltr said...

Bob -

I do know Guy was on the list. I thought I had put you on, but I'd have to go back and wade through the original list...

After the whole thing ended, I did receive a few inquiries about you. Therefore, I will include you next time around.

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