"Liberals are simply not wired, intellectually or emotionally, to be receptive to talk radio."
-- Republican National Committee radio director Scott Hogenson
On a recent weekday afternoon, Rush Limbaugh is holding forth on Asheville's WWNC-AM, along with hundreds of other stations across the country. After reminding listeners that he's "America's truth-detector," the dean of right-wing radio proceeds to lambaste one of his regular targets: "the liberal media."
Meanwhile, on local station WPEK-AM, Rush is getting a taste of his own medicine, compliments of writer/comedian Al Franken. The station switched formats in September, replacing its "adult standards" music programming with syndicated liberal talk shows from Air America and the Jones Radio Network. Suddenly, Asheville's airwaves are awash in talk radio from across the political spectrum, including a new infusion of "progressive talk" (see, "Tuning in to Talk").
As part of an overnight makeover, WPEK's managers changed the station's name from "The Peak" to "The Revolution." And a frequently aired promo spot proclaims: "The Revolution starts now. Overthrow the right-wing radio status quo."
The Al Franken Show is Air America's flagship talk program, and Franken appears to harbor something of an obsession with Limbaugh. He once wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot (Delacorte Press, 1996). And these days, Franken dedicates a special segment of his show to butting heads with his childhood friend Mark Luther, a die-hard "dittohead" (as many of Rush's fans call themselves).
In this episode, Franken brings up Limbaugh's recent problems with pain pills, which sent the conservative firebrand into rehab and may yet garner him some legal troubles.
"He's suspected of doctor-shopping for his drug habit, his drug addiction," Franken tells Luther. "And you'll remember that he did say many times that people who use drugs illegally should be prosecuted and sent away. You know, Mark, we're all flawed, don't you agree? Obviously every human being is flawed. But I do think there's a difference between a flawed human being and a huge, sanctimonious, hypocritical jerk."
With that, Franken guffaws and Luther grunts, and the two old friends move on to other topics. At the end of the segment, they say amicable goodbyes and schedule another on-air chat for two days later, when Franken will likely roll out further stinging criticism of Limbaugh.
Talk about your liberal media. The sea change in Asheville's radio climate appears to reflect a broader trend, and Franken's Rush-bashing bit is a telling sign that these days, the Left may be taking off the gloves and going head to head with the Right in the often bombastic world of talk radio. Air America, a relative newcomer to the airwaves, began broadcasting in March. And increasingly, AM talk stations that have long served as conservative echo chambers are taking a chance that liberals will tune in, too.
But even some of WPEK's biggest fans might be surprised to learn who owns the station that seeks to be Western North Carolina's hotbed of dissent against the powers that be: Clear Channel Communications.
Yes, that Clear Channel.
Radio's "evil empire"?
The San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications is the biggest radio company in the United States. It's a media mega-conglomerate -- the kind that's long been a bogeyman to media critics and progressive activists, who call the company too big and too conservatively oriented (see "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is"). The kind that Jonathan Rintels, director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, calls "the poster child for the evils of media consolidation."
Even the pro-business Forbes magazine recently called Clear Channel "the Evil Empire of radio and entertainment." In an Oct. 18 article, Brett Pulley noted that "everywhere it turns, Clear Channel has an image problem: its sheer size." At press time, Clear Channel's corporate office had not given Xpress a response to these charges.
In the Asheville area, Clear Channel owns five radio stations: WKSF-FM (country music); WQNS-FM (rock); WMXV-AM (adult standards); WWNC-AM (news and talk); and WPEK-AM (progressive talk). Until WPEK's recent format switch, WWNC was Clear Channel Asheville's only talk station, with a mostly right-leaning roster of shows that includes Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. Since February, local radio veteran Matt Mittan, a more moderate voice, has hosted one of WWNC's afternoon shows.
But that's only a tiny fraction of the 1,202 radio stations, 36 TV stations, 770,000 advertising billboards and 105 live-music venues Clear Channel owns, according to reports by the company and various news outlets. That's 9 percent of the nation's radio stations -- and together they generate 18 percent of the U.S. radio industry's profits.
Clear Channel's dominance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the mid-1990s, federal law prohibited any one company from owning more than 40 radio stations; at that point, Clear Channel had acquired a mere 30 stations. But then, in the biggest media deregulation in decades, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, stripping away the national ownership cap.
After that, Clear Channel started gobbling up radio stations like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In 1997, the company bought Paxson Communications' 43 stations; in 1999, it bought Jacor Communications, acquiring 230 stations and the Rush Limbaugh franchise; and in 2000, it purchased the massive radio company AMFM, adding 443 stations. Other, smaller buys also added to Clear Channel's broadcast portfolio. By 2003, radio generated 65 percent of Clear Channel's $8.9 billion in annual revenues.
The secret of that success, company executives say, is that their stations are run, first and foremost, as businesses that hawk advertising time. "If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn't be someone from our company," Clear Channel founder/CEO Lowry Mays told Fortune magazine last year. "We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers products."
But Mays' focus on the bottom line has drawn fire from media critics, musicians and independent radio outlets who charge that Clear Channel hasn't done enough to serve the public interest and that the company squeezes out smaller voices while homogenizing music-station playlists.
"They take our public airwaves -- a national public asset -- and they're just strip-mining them," argues Wally Bowen, director of the Asheville-based Mountain Area Information Network, which runs its own nonprofit, low-power radio station, WPVM-FM ("The Progressive Voice of the Mountains").
Look who's talking
Given that widespread attitude, Clear Channel surprised many radio observers this summer when several of its stations launched progressive-talk formats and began airing Air America programming. Even apart from the company's own politics, the move seemed to challenge the conventional wisdom that the AM band would forever remain the exclusive domain of the Limbaugh set, since most recent attempts to produce a popular liberal talk show have failed.
"Liberals have never needed talk radio, because they've always had NPR," says local conservative-talk veteran Bill Fishburne, who hosts a morning show on WZNN-AM. "I don't think liberal talk radio is going to be commercially successful, because people of that mindset are not used to listening to it."
Scott Hogenson, the Republican National Committee's radio director, echoed that assessment in an October interview with CBS News. Indeed, Hogenson went so far as to assert that "liberals are simply not wired, intellectually or emotionally, to be receptive to talk radio." (A June 2004 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, on the other hand, indicated that while 45 percent of talk-radio listeners called themselves conservative, a respectable 18 percent identified themselves as liberal.)
The skepticism about liberals' support for talk radio seemed to be borne out at first. Air America was beset by financial and technical problems in the early going, prompting some industry observers to predict the network's imminent demise. But after a bit of practice and some strategic reorganizing, Air America steadied out, going on to both fuel and feed on the heated political passions of the 2004 campaign.
Clear Channel's involvement certainly hasn't hurt. At this writing, Air America has picked up 40 affiliates nationwide. Ten of them -- a full 25 percent -- are owned by Clear Channel. For Air America, gaining entree to the radio giant's transmitters may prove to be the lifeline that keeps the network on the air.
A perfect fit?
However things play out at the national level, a number of local folks believe that Asheville and progressive talk could be a match made in heaven.
Brian Hall, Clear Channel Asheville's director of news/talk programming, is betting on it. Air America and other liberal programming is a "perfect fit" for Asheville, he told Xpress. Hall's office makes programming decisions for all five local Clear Channel stations.
On the one hand, Hall says, WPEK's prior format failed to attract a substantial audience. On the other, the station's managers felt there was a niche waiting to be filled. "In Asheville, we certainly have our share of alternative-leaning sort of people," he says. "It was pretty obvious to the general manager, operations manager and myself, when we put our heads together, to say, look, Asheville could really use a liberal-talk format. There are so many people, especially in the metro area, that are Democrats and think that way, and they have no outlet, no station to go to."
Don Connelly, a former Clear Channel radio employee who directs the electronic-media program at Western Carolina University, says he thinks the time is indeed ripe for progressive talk. "You would think there would be just as much liberal talk radio as there is ... on the conservative right," he observes. "A lot of people voted for John Kerry, so what radio are those people listening to? I would think that in Asheville, this programming would find a home."
Speculation aside, there's already some evidence that local listeners may be ready for talk radio with a different spin. In its 14 months on the air, WPVM, which broadcasts several progressive talk shows, has received widespread community support in the form of donations and volunteer participation. And a convention-breaking show on WWNC, "Take a Stand! with Matt Mittan," has become a bona fide local phenomenon.
At 34, Mittan is already a veteran of the local radio scene. Back in February, he replaced Tony Dale, an entertainer from Lenoir who'd filled the station's post-Limbaugh slot.
"It was a ratings decision," Hall explains. Dale's show was "super conservative," says Hall, and "Tony would crucify people if they didn't agree with him." So management decided that a less strident voice might fare better.
From the start, Mittan, a political independent with libertarian leanings, struck a much different tone and showed a willingness to take on Republicans and Democrats with equal zeal.
At first, some of WWNC's regular listeners didn't take kindly to Mittan's approach. "There were some bizarre days at the beginning," he recalls. "We had some threats on e-mail, on the phone, some anonymous letters. ... Their beef was that I wouldn't come on and carry the banner forward as a self-proclaimed Christian conservative, so some people really rebelled against it."
But then "Take a Stand!" took off. Callers from across the political spectrum lit up the phone lines, and Mittan found himself hosting spirited but mostly civil debates on both local and national politics. "In Asheville, there's a lot of mingling, a lot of friendships that cross political lines," he says. "And I think the 'front porch' attitude of this show embraces that and empowers that."
When the show's first ratings report came in this summer, WWNC found that Mittan's "front porch" was crowded with listeners. Mittan's show was drawing twice as many listeners as Dale's had, according to Hall. And in further testament to the show's popularity, hard-core fans have launched a number of off-air projects that pay homage to the show, including a darts team, an in-line-hockey team, and a Web site (www.thecavedwellers.org).
As for "The Revolution," Hall will have to wait for the January ratings report to find out for sure if Asheville is listening. But in the meantime, he says, advertising revenue is running ahead of projections, and the station appears to be finding an audience. "The listeners are grabbing onto it," Hall says. "The reaction I've got from people has just been amazing; I've had people call up and want to make donations."
Hall also points to an incident during the recent Asheville Merchants Holiday Parade. "We were down there right around Pritchard Park, and the guy working the PA said, 'Here comes the Clear Channel float,' and he started naming off the stations. 'Revolution' got the biggest cheer of anybody."
Local enough for you?
Still, it remains to be seen whether local liberals will embrace a "revolution" bankrolled by Clear Channel.
"Even though they're airing Air America, it fits with the pattern of their nonlocal orientation," Bowen says about WPEK's new format. "I mean, given the talent in this community, they could have put together a dynamite schedule of [local] programs for 880, but they chose to go with Air America."
Bowen also emphasizes his concerns about media consolidation. "Regardless of the content of their programming, that kind of monopoly control over advertising rates is really their bread and butter -- along with reducing costs by being nonlocal and centralizing production."
And in a recent interview, the noted media critic Robert McChesney voiced similar concerns. In his latest book, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-first Century (Monthly Review Press, 2004), McChesney calls Clear Channel a menace to democracy. And he says he's hardly heartened by the company's decision to dabble in progressive talk.
"This has not mitigated my concerns about Clear Channel at all," he told Xpress. "Any company that size has way too much power and discretion over our lives, whatever their political views. Even independent of politics, that sort of power is inaccessible, and it's very bad for our society because they're going to strip out the localism and ratchet up the commercialism.
"If you look at Air America, which I actually adore -- some of the shows are terrific -- that's different than having an Asheville-based station with local Ashevilleans," McChesney continues. "That would cost them a lot more money; they're not going to do that. Only a locally owned station would ever consider doing that."
Hall, however, counters that WWNC does broadcast one daily, locally hosted talk show -- Mittan's "Take a Stand!" And Hall says he plans to introduce a similarly formatted local show on "The Revolution" early next year -- and he doesn't expect his employer to stand in his way.
"I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions about Clear Channel, that it's a Republican-run money machine that is all about becoming a dominant force and cutting off local radio and local artists and all this kind of stuff," he says. "From a local standpoint, we are empowered to make all the decisions necessary to make these stations good, local radio stations."
But having one or two locally produced shows is not enough, argues Bowen, whose WPVM produces many of its programs in-house, using local staff and volunteers, though it also airs some nationally syndicated shows.
As for the competition, Bowen says he's only mildly concerned that WPVM may lose listeners to Clear Channel's progressive-talk station. Although WPVM is hard to pick up in some areas due to the size and location of its transmitter, WPEK has its own logistical limitations, Bowen notes. The station is authorized to broadcast only during daylight hours, so it can't compete with WPVM at night. In addition, he maintains, "The Revolution" is constrained by its corporate ownership. "I just don't think they can match us, in terms of content. The format's so chopped up [by advertising], it still has all the weaknesses of commercial radio -- and we have all the strengths of noncommercial radio."
Still, Bowen allows that there's some benefit in having Air America on Asheville radios, even if Clear Channel is the source. "It's a different voice, absolutely," he says. "Given how homogenized and uniform the broadcast environment has been here, you know, having Al Franken on the air has got to be an improvement."
For his part, Franken is predicting that the next four years could launch a new golden age of progressive talk. "You could argue that the best thing for us was the re-election of George Bush," he told The Washington Post last month. "The country may be swirling down the toilet, but it's given us great stuff to talk about."
[Xpress contributing writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]