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February 18, 2005

WDTW-AM personality Nancy Skinner talks on the microphone at the station's headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich.
AP

Liberal talk radio

Clear Channel adopts liberal programming on a growing number of radio stations

By DEE-ANN DURBIN
The Associated Press

DETROIT — The day before President Bush’s inauguration, listeners tuning in to the Detroit sports station WXDX-AM were suddenly greeted by the sound of braying donkeys. By the time Bush was taking the oath of office, the radio station had new call letters and a full schedule of liberal talk shows.

WXDX-AM — now known as WDTW-AM — is one of 22 stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc. that have switched to a liberal talk format in the last year. This month, KTLK-AM in Los Angeles became the latest Clear Channel station to adopt the format.

Those who track broadcasting trends say there’s money to be made in liberal talk radio. Todd Webster, a consultant for Washington-based liberal talk show producer Democracy Radio, said Clear Channel is expected to introduce the left-leaning format on 20 more stations by the end of the year.

"There is a tremendous appetite out there for progressive talk," he said.

Webster said that even as recently a year ago, no one thought Texas-based Clear Channel, a media conglomerate that owns 1,200 stations, would ever become partners with upstart liberal talkers.

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"There has been a tectonic shift in the industry from all of the big brains and the head honchos saying, ‘Nobody wants to listen to a bunch of whiny liberals on the radio,’ " Webster said.

The partnership might seem surprising because of Texas-based Clear Channel’s conservative reputation. Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays and his wife gave $65,000 to the Republican National Committee in the last election cycle, and two-thirds of the company’s federal donations went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And last summer, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group sued Clear Channel, which also owns an outdoor advertising business, after it refused to run an anti-war billboard in Times Square during the Republican National Convention.

The company also isn’t seen as socially progressive. In December, Clear Channel stations in Tampa, Jacksonville, St. Louis and Detroit awarded breast enhancement surgeries to 13 women as part of the "Breast Christmas Ever" contest; at the time, the company said it had no oversight of the contests and didn’t sponsor them. Clear Channel also pulled talk show host Howard Stern off the air because of concerns over mounting indecency fines.

The company says politics aren’t involved in its decision to put liberal talk shows on the air.

"I’m trying to identify needs in our various communities, whether it’s German industrial music or punk rock or progressive talk," said Gabe Hobbs, vice president of news and talk programming for Clear Channel. "That happens to be good business."

Hobbs said Clear Channel began programming offerings from Air America Radio, which produces comedian Al Franken’s three-hour talk show, and Democracy Radio, which produces a popular show by liberal talker Ed Schultz, because listeners were demanding an alternative to conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh during the 2004 election.

"The election dramatically raised everyone’s interest in hearing political talk," Hobbs said. "I think polarization is one of the facets of any talk radio format, regardless of orientation."

Hobbs said liberal radio is actually a return to the days before Limbaugh, when talk radio was dominated by left-leaning hosts like Alan Colmes, who is now seen on Fox News Channel’s "Hannity and Colmes."

Local station managers have the final say over the switch in programming. At WDTW, General Manager Dave Pugh was eager to give Detroiters a format they couldn’t find anywhere else.

"We are a blue state and a blue region and it just made sense," Pugh said.

In Portland, KPOJ-AM had less than 1 percent of the market share before it switched from oldies to progressive talk on March 31. By summer, that had jumped to 4 percent, according to Arbitron ratings. In Ann Arbor, Mich., WLBY-AM jumped from 0.7 percent of the market to 2.2 percent after liberal programming replaced oldies in August. Hobbs said the story is similar all over the country.

Jim Goss, who analyzes the radio industry for Barrington Research, said Clear Channel is making a good decision by adopting a new format that listeners can’t get elsewhere.

"I think it’s an experiment they feel is worth taking, and what is the risk if it doesn’t work out?" Goss said. "One might think that they’d like to be balanced, but their greatest interest is in being successful. They don’t want to put a format on just to prove a point."



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