Monday, October 03, 2005

Liberal Talk Radio Takes Off

Liberal talk radio has been steadily growing since Air America Radio launched in a handful of markets in April of 2004. Now 18 months later, the fledgling liberal talk radio network is carried in 70 markets serving over 60% of the country. However, despite the steady growth of AAR and the emergence of a few dozen other liberal talk radio hosts, the talk radio landscape is still dominated by conservative talkers. Conservative talk radio gets over 85% of the share of talk radio listeners. The other 15% is divided between liberal talk radio and non-political talkers like Dr. Laura, Dr. Joy Brown, and Phil Hendrie. In the top 25 markets there are three stations featuring conservative talk for every one station doing liberal talk. Typically, top right wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are getting shares of 4 and 5 while liberal talkers like Al Franken and Randi Rhodes are getting shares of 1 and 1.5. Stations featuring conservative talk are more powerful and commercially successful than liberal talk stations. For example, here in Los Angeles, Rush Limbaugh is on the 50,000-watt blowtorch station KFI 640-AM, that can be heard from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. I can't even hear the liberal talk stations from San Diego, KLSD and Los Angeles, KTLK on my car radio here in South Orange County.

Yet the growth of liberal talk radio over the past year and half has been very impressive. I attended a talk radio seminar hosted by Democracy Radio in Washington, DC in January of 2004. At that time, it was still four months before the start of AAR and Ed Schultz, who recently gained his 100th affiliated station was a talk radio host in Fargo, ND. I remember thinking how pathetic it was that we couldn't get a liberal talk radio host here in Los Angeles. (KABC had just canned Michael Jackson and Gloria Alred) and that even in San Francisco, that hotbed of liberalism, you had to stay up past 10 pm to hear to Bernie Ward and Ray Talifafero.
I remember what all the pundits (especially the right wing pundits) were saying when AAR was preparing to launch. They said liberal talk radio will never get off the ground. Liberals are too nuanced. They don't know how to succeed as talk radio hosts. The pundits noted that efforts by Mario Cuomo and Jerry Brown to do talk radio shows had failed and that AAR would certainly meet a similar fate. They chortled when AAR stumbled at the outset, when their original CEO, Evan Cohen, bounced a few checks and the network lost its affiliates in Chicago and Los Angeles.
But then a funny thing happened. While all the headlines were being generated about AAR's financial problems, the network had quietly succeeded to generate an audience in Portland, OR on KPOJ. That station which was owned by the radio industry largest group owner, Clear Channel, was converted from a struggling standards station which generated a share below one to a hot liberal talk station with a share of over 3 after its first book in the summer of 2004.
Ironically, it was Clear Channel, which gave 95% of its political money to Republicans and was the leading owner and operator of conservative talk radio that made AAR a success. Clear Channel owns twenty-seven of AAR’s affiliates and 65% of the network's listeners are tuning in to a CC station. Why did this happen? Why did it take 15 years after to emergence of Rush Limbaugh to get liberal talk radio off the ground? Why did a Texas based, Republican friendly, company become the networks prime benefactor. I'll answer those questions and more in the next edition of the Talking Radio Blog.