By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Doomed to fail

It was an experiment preordained to fail.

Two years ago, Clear Channel rebranded two of its weak-signaled Boston-area stations, AM 1200 and 1430, as “Boston’s Progressive Talk,” featuring liberal hosts from Air America (such as Al Franken and Randi Rhodes) and the Jones Radio Networks (Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller).

With little promotion and a small coverage area, liberal radio has not exactly been a ratings success here. Now, Jesse Noyes reports in the Boston Herald, Clear Channel is ready to pull the plug, and is likely to turn over the two frequencies to Spanish-language programming. The move comes as Clear Channel is in the process of being acquired by new owners, including Gov. Mitt Romney’s former company, Bain Capital.

And get this: Noyes says that Clear Channel is boosting the power of AM 1200 from 10,000 watts to 50,000. Gee, do you think that might have made “progressive talk” more popular?

It’s obvious that Clear Channel executives never wanted liberal radio to succeed in Boston. It was just a way of killing time until they figured out what they wanted to do with the two frequencies. Nor is it a terrible thing that Greater Boston’s growing Spanish-language audience will be better served. Still, this is a loss. Someone else ought to give it a try.

Update: Brian Maloney has more, and he also offers this:

These particular stations have really brought out a number of lefty conspiracy theorists who believe the lack of ratings were the result of not enough signal power and a promotional shortfall by the company. But these same arguments could be made regarding a number of other talk outlets that have in fact succeeded.

Uh, Brian. If you can’t hear the station, you can’t hear the station. If I leave for work early or come home late, I can’t listen, because AM 1430, which is the signal closest to me, is a sunup-to-sundown station. I’m pretty sure AM 1200 is, too. That’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a reality-based observation.

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15 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Dan,In answer to your question of whether 50,000 watts would have made “Progressive Radio” more popular:er, no. Air America’s problems were a lot bigger than the VRWC. I like the “progressive” solution of throwing increasing amounts of money at the problem until it is solved, however. Coool!

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 8:52: So what you’re saying is, boosting the signal so that we could actually hear “Progressive Talk” wouldn’t have helped. Brilliant. And please stop with the “Air America’s problems” trope. I like Franken’s show a lot, but the most successful shows on those stations are Schultz’s and Miller’s, neither of which is Air America. They’re doing very well nationally, too.

  3. Brian Maloney

    Why should WRKO destroy itself with a format that has already failed nationwide? Keep in mind that WHJJ in Providence croaked after switching from conservative talk to libtalk and has yet to recover its ratings, even after dumping it. This week, they’ve announced the addition of Sean Hannity to their afternoon drive slot.Beyond that, the left has everything they want now: one party rule over the Bay State and almost total media domination. Why shouldn’t stations such as WRKO (and potentially the Boston Herald) exist to provide a check on all of that power? Somebody has to keep an eye on Deval Patrick, or is that what you’re afraid of?

  4. Cody Pomeray

    So Dan, do you think that this is an indication that liberals don’t like the talk radio format in general or just that CC did a poor job with it in Boston?I’m a long-time listener of talk radio and in my opinion they had some decent shows. Sure, Schultze is tedious, but Maddox is great, Miller is funny and Rhodes is good when she’s not trying too hard to be funny. The seldom heard people like Hartmann were strong, too.I guess I’m an oddity being a lib that likes the talk radio format, but there’s really no choice left anymore…especially with da brunz cutting into Sullivan’s air time all winter.At least Felger provides a good alternative to the unlistenable Big Show.What kind of a crazy world is it where a hack like Severin can succeed but good lefty talk fails?

  5. Dan Kennedy

    I don’t think talk radio is particularly fertile ground for liberals, as I’ve written before. But radio is all about niche marketing, and I would think some station ought to try it rather than fighting a losing battle with the lesser of the two conservative talk lineups. We won’t know whether it can succeed in Boston until someone gives it a real tryout.

  6. man who's a radio fan

    From a Bostonian’s perspective, WXKS 1430 and WKOX 1200 are daytime-only signals because of the physics of AM radio; both have much weaker/directional signals at night. However, 1200 comes in pretty well in Metrowest at night, and 1430 is quite good to the north of Boston at night, too.I freely concede, however, that having such a gaping hole in coverage over the core Boston/Cambridge area…might as well mean that they’re daytime-only stations.No choice left? What about NPR? Okay, perhaps more “moderate” than “liberal”, but certainly more left-leaning than any of the non-AA outlets out there.Brian – AA has not failed nationwide, it’s doing quite well in some markets (Portland, OR comes immediately to mind). I think the problems AA has had stem more from bad ideas in how to roll out their programming; the concept of buying signals outright was far too expensive to be sustainable.And hey, if WRKO can show up in the ratings with its train wreck of a lineup, I’d say that having a 50kW signal does indeed make a format more popular.

  7. raccoonradio

    >>Beyond that, the left has everything they want now: one party rule over the Bay State and almost total media domination. Why shouldn’t stations such as WRKO (and potentially the Boston Herald) exist to provide a check on all of that power? True enough, and some have felt conservative talk radio’s rise cameas a reaction to the Clinton presidencyand the liberal media elsewhere.AAR’s signal strength was debatable;during the daytime when most listenit may not have been all that bad,depending on where you were…though certainly not as strong asWRKO or WTKK overall.POSSIBLY WRKO or WTKK could try one of the Jones shows on tape delay to see how it works out (certainly cheap enough to run a barter show)…though conservative talk works best there.Consider also that the AAR stations didn’t have a DAILY local show here,plus many listeners may have preferred a WBUR or WBZ…Idea: Have one of the prog talk shows run on a certain FM station owned by a paper you’re quite familiar with,and see how it does. Oh Mr. Mindich…

  8. Donna L. Halper

    I don’t care what your format is — if you have no signal and no promotion budget and no live, local programming, you are not gonna succeed. It bothers me that progressive talk didn’t get a fair chance here, and as a radio consultant, I believe the format CAN work. The stations where it is working (and yes there ARE some) all have a budget, all have a signal, and most important, they all have a blend of entertaining hosts and local talk. Ed Schultz didn’t get into the top 10 nationally by accident. He understands how to do radio, and it means being interesting, not just preaching to the choir. Stephanie Miller, Rachel Maddow, and Thom Hartmann understand how to make progressive talk worth listening to, and so do Lionel and Jay Marvin, just to name several others. More cities are developing some local talent, but Boston didn’t get a local show till several months ago, and now it’s gone. It’s a shame that nearly every talk host in Boston is identifiably conservative, or leaning that way. And please don’t tell me the media are liberal– that’s patently false. When all is said and done, the media are corporate. But it’s good for democracy to have both sides of the spectrum represented. Right now, Boston has basically one side. Here’s my theory: Clear Channel had a long record of donating huge sums to right wing causes, and when they wanted to buy some more stations last year, they knew they would get lots of opposition, so they wanted to show the FCC they were a bit more balanced; they threw progressive talk on some of their weakest signals and hoped it would seem as if they were now a more moderate company. The couple of stations with strong signals, interestingly, ended up getting good ratings and are still running the format. But now, CC is divesting of 400 stations, and there’s no longer a need to seem like they are behind progressive talk. Thus, they are pulling the plug in a number of cities. Air America may or may not survive, but progressive talk has shown that it CAN win– Ed Schultz has been turning a profit for over a year and getting solid 25-54 numbers, and Stephanie Miller is bringing in respectable 18-34 numbers as well as making money. I only hope some Boston station will do progressive talk the right way, with local news, local talk, and the BEST of the national talkers.

  9. MeTheSheeple

    If they have to go for another language, demographically it might make sense to add Portuguese instead of two Spanish stations, given that huge portions of Revere, Allston, Framingham, the South Shore and other areas have much Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdean descendants.

  10. Anonymous

    A couple of thoughts…1. You are going to blame Clear Channel for the failure? With the news every week that AA is “going out of business” or “bankrupt” or that “Franken is leaving”…who can blame them for not feeling like they can count on AA to be there in the future. 2. Strictly speaking, 1430AM is NOT a sunup-to-sundown station…they are 24 hours. I listen in the evening every night on my way up Rt 93. I listen from Boston…till I can’t hear them anymore….around Rt 128.3. Brian Maloney is not someone I would count on for reliable information. He is an AA basher with suspect information. He is a radio wannabe….trying to pass himself off as an “expert”….however, I can’t see much in his background that makes him an authority on such.And:>>lear Channel had a long record of donating huge sums to right wing causes, and when they wanted to buy some more stations last year, they knew they would get lots of opposition, so they wanted to show the FCC they were a bit more balanced; they threw progressive talk on some of their weakest signals and hoped it would seem as if they were now a more moderate company.<<Ah, yes, the conspiracy theories abound!

  11. gregrocker

    Clear Channel is a lot more than a funder of right wing causes. It was the career sponsor of George W. Bush, after it bought up every available AM radio station in the nation with investment returns reaped when Bush’s backers bilked the taxpayers of Arlington County, Texas, into building a stadium for his Texas Rangers. Real radio business analysts – not Brian Maloney, a GOP dirty tricks operative running a disinfo operation to weaken Air America – originally thought that CC was filling out the AAR network in order to hedge its bets against future Dem control of Congress and, in particular, the FCC which has traded ownership waivers for media obesiance. Whether it was that or a dirty trick, Clear Channel is beset with haywire automation, non-existent sales departments, and is now being sold to Mitt Romney’s investment firm. All bets are off, probably lost.Sam Seder, an excellent host whose new solo show carries on the brilliant merger with the blogs of the pioneering Majority Report, seemed to confirm today rumours of top Showtime execs buying AAR in order to apply top-notch management.And Ed Schultz has backed into Al’s noon slot so he can be sold as a package with Jone’s stellar Stephanie Miller’s morning show. This allows stations to have access to a first rate liberal block of programming. At a minimum, Congress should hold hearings to expose the mammoth lying disinformation operation that is GOP talk radio, and pressure station owners to bring back some balance in order to use the publicly owned airwaves.

  12. raccoonradio

    >>if you have no signal and no promotion budget and no live, local programming, you are not gonna succeedVery true. No daily local show? No budget for it? Bring in someone young and fresh and hard-working. Mighty oaks from small acorns.While Boston lacks many liberal-leaning radio shows, outlets like the Globe and Phoenix; TV stations,and various other media are around.What is odd is how the GOP is practically non-existent here yet conservative shows seem to be the ones people listen to (or at least moderate ones).Interesting “what if”: what if WEEIwere on an FM signal and Entercommade 850 progressive talk withpromotion, local hosts, etc. Would it have clicked?In R.I., WHJJ has gone full circle back to conservative talk–but with the loss of all but one local show.Cheap Channel has brought in syndie shows like Hannity, Levin, and Quinn & Rose…It once was Air America but the ratings plummeted. Yes, some syndie shows are fine, be they liberal or conservative, but local content is a must! And in radio these days it’s a dying institution (most places)

  13. raccoonradio

    >>bring back some balance in order to use the publicly owned airwaves. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine…bring back a “must carry” attitudethat will force stations to carry both sides instead of a free market. Watchtalk stations switch to gardening shows.Heck, let’s bring it to TV, too. I want Bill O’Reilly to host the newson NBC. I want THREE Fox News Channelsto counter the three liberal ones.The CBS Evening News with RushLimbaugh. You want balance? 🙂

  14. Anonymous

    >>At a minimum, Congress should hold hearings to expose the mammoth lying disinformation operation that is GOP talk radio<<And replace it with a mammoth lying Liberal-Leftist-AA Radio operation!Thats the kind of unbiased thinking we need!

  15. Dan Kennedy

    The real problem is that the FCC and Congress have allowed a handful of corporations to scoop up large numbers of radio stations in the same market. Let’s not forget — there are only so many frequencies available, so all but eliminating ownership restrictions led to the depressing oligarchy we see today.We don’t need censorship or regulation of speech. We need enforcement of the antitrust laws. At least until the day comes that Internet radio makes broadcast radio obsolete, we should return to a limit of one owner controlling no more than two stations (one AM, one FM) in a given market.

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