Volume 23 - Issue 1107 - Cover Story - February 20, 2002

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Red, White, and Green
A hard-luck am station takes a hard right into politics

Last refuge of a niche marketer: Patriot general manager John Hunt


Internet Links:

  • Patriot home page
  • Michael Savage home page
  • Jeff Lonto's history of WWTC, Fiasco at 1280
  • Talkers Magazine
  • Hugh Hewitt is feeling the love. It is a little after 8:00 p.m. on a weekday in late January, and the Los Angeles-based talk-radio host has just wrapped up a broadcast from an ice house on Lake Minnetonka. For the past three hours he has talked fishing. He has chatted up sponsors. He has made cornball jokes about "Minne-so-cold."

    Between the advertisements for debt-consolidation services, baldness remedies, miracle weightloss products, and all-natural memory enhancers, Hewitt has managed to interview some of Minnesota's most notable Republicans: U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman, gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan, and John Kline, onetime Congressional candidate and now vice president of a local conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment.

    Now Hewitt is making his way to a podium at the nearby BayView Event Center. The ballroom is festooned with the red, white, and blue logo of the Patriot, WWTC-AM (1280) an Eagan-based radio station that broadcasts Hewitt's drive-time show six days a week and is sponsoring the evening gathering.

    This is the station's first big promotional event since it adopted its all-talk format, and there is a giddiness in the air. About 250 fans shelled out $12.80 for the opportunity to mix with their fellow Patriot devotees and a chance to meet Hewitt. After three hours of cocktails and appetizers, they are primed when the radio host, who is still dressed in insulated ice-fishing bibs, takes the stage.

    Hewitt doesn't disappoint. Talk-radio stations like the Patriot, the ebullient host tells the crowd, don't merely aim to entertain. They are looking "to change the political and social climate" of the country, to restore "commonsense conservatism" to its rightful place in the national ideology. "And this is the type of radio that, hopefully, can turn around the type of places that elect Paul Wellstones," Hewitt proclaims. There is a robust round of applause, then Hewitt steps into the throng to pose for pictures and press the flesh.

    Since inaugurating its new format with a 24-hour marathon of John Philip Sousa marches and other patriotic songs last March, WWTC has established itself as, if nothing else, the most bombastic radio station in the market. Literally. The station's promos regularly feature the sounds of explosions: "Political correctness? [Kaboom!] Not on our watch!" goes one; another likens the Patriot's impact to that of a cruise missile. And then there are the not-so-subtle pitches to the listeners' ideology. "Finally, news talk with your perspective."

    With the exception of a locally produced Saturday-night oldies show, all the programming aired on the Patriot consists of syndicated call-in shows. Patriot general manager John Hunt says the station aims to provide listeners with national perspective, unlike its chief rival in the talk market, KSTP-AM (1500), which relies on homegrown hosts. "They're kind of like the Star Tribune, and we're kind of like USA Today," Hunt offers.

    The Patriot's hosts regularly veer into strange territory--even by talk-radio standards. On one recent show, morning host Mike Gallagher intimated that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, presumed to have been kidnapped after attempting to meet with a radical cleric in Pakistan on January 23, had not been abducted. In one of the now infamous photographs of the captive Pearl, Gallagher posited, it "looks like he's got a big wide smile, like he's laughing." Gallagher supplied no reason why Pearl would participate in such a deception.

    A few days later, late-night host Roger Fredinburg blamed illegal immigration on the availability of legal abortion in the United States. Abortion, Fredinburg explained, created a domestic labor shortage. Afternoon host Michael Medved, a former film critic and self-avowed "cultural crusader," devoted much of a recent broadcast to the sweeping contention that "commonsense conservatives are just nicer people than idealistic liberals." A subsequent Medved show was dedicated to exposing that most "despicable" and "immoral" threat to American life: body piercing.

    But without question, the edgiest and most provocative character in the Patriot lineup is the San Francisco-based Michael Savage. Now syndicated in more than 300 markets, his show, The Savage Nation, is played on the Patriot twice on weekdays, once on Saturdays. It is a peculiar blend: populist rage, spat out in a New York accent, with death-metal bumper music and over the top rhetoric.

    In recent weeks, Savage has denounced everyone from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan ("a limousine leech") to Walter Cronkite ("a seditious hack"). Al Gore is "a socialist One World-er." New York Congressman Gary Ackerman is a "Stalinist." And in an often repeated Minnesota-specific promo for his show, Savage describes Paul Wellstone, in the space of 15 seconds, as "a nitwit," "a moron," and "a schmuck."

    But Savage's chief concern is immigration. "You are going to wake up in a country that has been taken over by strangers. We have been invaded," he warned listeners last week. Most immigrants, Savage added, are coming to the U.S. from the Third World--not a good thing since "most of the people in the Third World are lazy."

    Despite (or perhaps because of) the predictable accusations of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, The Savage Nation has proven remarkably successful. The show was recently declared the fastest-growing talk show in the country by the industry publication Talkers Magazine. And in San Francisco, Savage dethroned talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh as the market's top-rated host in the last ratings period.

    "Sooner or later, Tiger Woods had to come along and give Jack Nicklaus a run for his money," says the Patriot's Hunt. "Savage gets people worked up. And you can easily listen to him and think this guy is full of anger and hates people. A lot of people don't listen long enough to see beyond the shtick. But if you look beyond the shtick, you can see that there is some really good comment. That's what our audience wants: some meat on the bone."

    Call it meat on the bone, shtick, or hate speech, Savage and the rest of the Patriot lineup have managed to put WWTC back on the Twin Cities radio map. Aside from a brief heyday as an oldies station called the Golden Rock in the early Eighties, WWTC has seldom garnered enough listeners to even merit notice in the Arbitron book, the industry's ratings bible. In the period from September to December, however, the station pulled in its best ratings in nearly two decades.

    "It's had an interesting history. There were always a lot of strange goings-on there. Management screw-ups. Staff turnover. One thing after the next," says Minneapolis author Jeff Lonto, who wrote and published a book about WWTC called, aptly enough, Fiasco at 1280. Following its glory days as the Golden Rock, WWTC changed ownership and formats with regularity: From urban dance to all-weather to news, briefly back to oldies, then to children's programming, and, finally, to religious broadcasting. The experiments had one thing in common: They all flopped.

    The signal's drift came to an end when Salem Communications bought 1280 (and another AM station in Milwaukee) for $7 million last February. The California-based chain, which owns 81 stations nationwide, specializes in commercial Christian teaching and talk, with a sub-specialty in contemporary Christian music. In the past two years, though, Salem has branched out into the secular talk format and now has ten such stations nationwide. It also syndicates its own stable of hosts, including Patriot regulars Hewitt, Gallagher, and Medved.

    Because the company already operated KKMS-AM (980), a Christian talk station broadcasting to the Twin Cities market, buying another station here made sense, says Hunt. The Patriot shares offices and staff with KKMS. And since introducing the Patriot format in March, the station has slowly built up an advertiser base.

    "We're doing something that hasn't been done in this market before. On the negative side, people say we're biased, we're racists, we're hatemongers," Hunt says. "On the other side, there are people saying, 'I'm glad someone is finally presenting my point of view.'"

    The numbers are still relatively modest. According to Arbitron, the station recorded a weekly "cume" (which measures the total size of audiences) of some 40,000 listeners 12 years of age and older during the fall ratings period. By comparison, KSTP-AM pulled in a weekly cume of 305,000 listeners; WCCO-AM (830), the market's dominant AM frequency, scored more than 500,000. Not surprisingly, the Patriot's audience is predominantly male (by a more than three-to-one ratio) and middle-aged.

    As Hunt sees it, that's just fine: "We don't intend to be as large as WCCO, and we're not a radio station everyone is going to want to listen to. It's not our goal to be the number-one or number-two station in the market. We're basically a niche direct-marketing company. And marketers know that if you can define a niche, sometimes you can command a higher price. We have very narrowly focused our audience--a little older, a little more affluent, and a little more educated. We think there's money in that demo."

    Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, says the competition for audience has become increasingly intense in recent years. In the mid-Nineties hundreds of former AM music stations switched to the format, and syndicated hosts like Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Laura Schlessinger became radio's new stars. In the past few years, Harrison adds, the growth of market share has leveled off--at around 16 percent. So stations like WWTC have increasingly staked their hopes on finding the smaller niches.

    What sets the Patriot apart, Harrison says, is not the ideological extremity; it's the promotional approach: "Conservative talk radio is a format of talk radio just like Christian talk or sports talk. It's a genre unto itself with a big following. But in terms of marketing, what they're doing is a little bit different. They're actually marketing the fact that they're conservative. Most stations try not to allow themselves to be labeled."

    If the Patriot is about nothing else, it is about labeling--from the relentless self-branding ("patriotic before it was cool") to the epithets the hosts spit out at straw men, politicians, and immigrants. Perhaps that's because these stereotypes offer a reassurance to the station's listeners that there is something absolute and definite in an uncertain world.

    And how would one label the listeners of the Patriot? A quick survey of the advertisers paints a dismal picture: The baldness-remedy folk. The weight-loss folk. The debt-management folk. The invest-in-gold folk.

    Does this mean the station's much-ballyhooed target demo is balding, fat, in debt, and yearning for a return to the gold standard?

    Maybe. Or maybe they're just pissed off.

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