The reaction by the shop clerk in that little second hand shop was astounding. When I said I had a show on a local commercial Progressive station, you might have thought I’d come it to announce that I was molesting pigeons in the street.
“I listen to National Public Radio, “he replied, wielding the words like some soulful shield.
“Right now,” I replied, “we’re being told that we can pretty much say and do anything legal as we try to cover the grassroots and activism scene, you know all those real stories that never seem to get covered in the mainstream media.” (I was proud and eager, BABY!)
“Right now,” he shot back, punching the wind from my sails. “Look, I don’t have a lot of faith in commercial radio. No offense. Like I said, I get my information from NPR or the internet.”
I nodded respectfully and shook his hand, asking him to at least give us a chance. This whole episode might have been brushed away if it hadn’t happened time and again though.
When we were invited to contribute to WCPT, Brian and I were new to this radio thing. We believed we could do something positive. Our goal was to un-cluster some of this grand fervor over larger-than-life national political spectacles, and wrestle a few issues to the ground so that people could deal with them. We’ve always said that there’s no need to go outside of Chicago to find national news. It seemed all too intuitive for a Chicago-based Progressive radio station (or any current events station) to want people passionate and engaged in such work on the air. I mean, why wouldn’t they? However, no matter how sincere we are about dealing with real issues, we constantly kept running up against the lousy reputation of talk and commercial radio.
Air America Radio, Helllllooooooooo out there…
Let’s now take a step back and recall the days of Air America Radio (AAR). The concept was to serve as a balance against the wild proliferation of Right-wing and corporate media. From the start, AAR was plagued with problems; both internal and external. For one, the mainstream media and it’s reactionary offspring never had to explain who and what it was to its very targeted base. It disingenuously positioned itself as “fair and balanced,” for example. When all you have to do is be sensational enough to draw-in advertisers, you can get away with a lot. Being able to quickly stir-up your core constituency, by simply throwing some red meat at them at a steady clip, is a HUGE example of the benefit. Gaming working class conservatives, by pandering to their fears without addressing the root causes of their problems, seems to be a lethal and effective mix of hyperbole and entertainment that really sells ads and attracts leveraged investors. But to do it the other way…well, that would be radical.
Right-wing media positioned itself as the voice and champion of traditional (W.A.S.P.) America. With 80% of the market owned by conglomerates that shat out right-wing stations across the nation faster than an Amish elder after his first trip to White Castle, this was an uphill struggle from the start.
AAR had to fight for every inch of the market, arguing against “patriotic” stations carrying Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other nationalist demagogues (quite the statists, I might add, before the skin color of the head honcho went darker). This truly regressive coalition of right-wing behemoths was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Large corporate clients avoided the new hip, media savvy progressives, perversely arguing for a citizen-centered nation. Right-wing entities organized campaigns to bully potential advertisers to AAR stations, which severed key ad revenue. Then there was the crop of mobilized, enraged working-class whites, fundamentalist Christians, and newly assimilated “middle class” Latinos, who were roped-in by W and Rove’s rodeo machismo. This flag-waving monsoon of hysterical straight-talkin, bargain-huntin real patriots, clung to cheap Walmart appliances—the same Walmart decimating small town economies across the nation—with pride in a redefined era of “Murcan Exceptionalism.” Opposing viewpoints were “fightin words,” and with the newly-crowned Muslim enemy to the world, Sadam Hussein; this mob was ready for war against the Liberal enemy within our sacred borders. Unfortunately, we’re now witnessing the destructive power and impact of this hysterical vacuum chamber.
Oh, you’re not off the hook either
But there was something even more fundamental to the decline and illegitimacy of so-called Progressive Radio, and that was the people who ran those stations. From the start they were rocked by scandal and infighting, poor business models, not enough experience, and perhaps a fundamental misunderstanding of what real Progressives believe in and fight for. But for many Progressives, particularly those in the hinterlands, so to speak; any Progressive voice is like a rescuing embrace in an otherwise hostile forest of Right-wing stations choking the national discourse. And while most true Progressives, and other real lefties, eschew dogmatic party loyalty; Progressive radio seemed better than nuttin’.
The Establishment of Chicago’s Premiere Progressive Talk Station
In Chicago, on Monday, May 5, 2005, WCPT AM 850 became the city’s premiere Progressive talk station, with hosts like Marc Maron, Jerry Springer, Randi Rhodes and Al Franken. Two and a half years later WCPT moved to AM 820, which gave it a stronger daytime signal, but as with 850, it powered down so severely between dusk and dawn that during those hours it sounded as if the station was broadcasting from the Republic of North Korea. Meanwhile, better than five conservative, Right-wing, or fundamentalist evangelical stations in the Chicago market churned-out content 24 hours a day. During the winter months, WCPT is still lucky to get in 9-10 hours of listenable programming per day.
So there is the background, and as I said, real Progressives and Lefties hate the party flag-waving and lock-step ideology. Sadly, that is what so-called “Progressive Media” has become. The stark evidence for that was illustrated plainly when national hosts like Stephanie Miller, Randi Rhodes, and Ed Schultz either ignored or decried the Occupy movement once it proved it could not be co-opted into a ready-made Obama zombie army. Despite this, WCPT never hesitated to run its snarky, self-made scolding of what the “99% movement is all about.”
I confess, we have not been in talk radio for very long, but I have been a careful observer of the media for some time. With several dozen media interviews, apart from that year in radio and television broadcasting, over the last 20 years I have garnered some insights. Paramount among them is that there still is no consideration for the audience. There’s also the over-emphasis on national spectacle to the degree of distracting people form engaging issues in their own locality.
Don’t get us wrong, we love some “Smiley & West”
In Chicago, WCPT simply seems to assume that calling itself Progressive and Liberal is enough to attract listeners. Proof that the model has failed utterly is that a “Progressive” station like WCPT, in a predominantly minority and Democrat city, is barely 42nd in the market. You can ask Obama’s Super PAC, it ain’t due to a lack of capitol in the hands of its ownership. It could and should be in the top three, and without a great deal of effort in such a marketplace.
Recently the station abandoned its Arbitron rating subscription, dooming local programing, and telling the audience quite literally that the station could care less who and how many are listening. Their model now seems to only be interested in syndicated and brokered programs—those in which people pay to get on the air. Shows that set out to engage and activate grassroots and activist movements across the city were abandoned, and the tone of the station, with the addition of a convicted corrupt politician, Jim Laski, a grudgingly; barely-Left-leaning legal show; and the Stephanie Miller ass-clown show—a three hour entertainment and DNC commercial. By contrast, the right pounds and pounds issues to death.
WCPT and other Progressive show-boaters could become true powerhouses for the working-class, but aside from having the trust of many Progressives and Liberals, they’re squandering it; and perhaps far more than that of their adversaries on the right. At times, it’s just so damn boring.
We’d venture so far as to say tolerance is much more a Leftie attribute than a Right-wing attribute. This is a center-Left nation right now, largely due to the open-mindedness of the majority of American people around issues that do matter—although that’s in jeopardy. Tolerance of a great many things, as part of the socially progressive tendencies of the “middle class,” (Brian prefers “working-class”) has helped maintain some ground. The key is integrity and adherence to a greater cause. Willingness to fight injustice and social regression. Amid the halls of WCPT the talk is that the station is largely a tax write-off for its wealthy and Democrat party supporting owner, and that it is a vehicle to help get a Gay Marriage amendment passed in Illinois. There is ample concern that once the amendment is achieved there will no longer be any use for WCPT’s Progressive format. One indication of such a thing is their lack of support for most of the local programming that has existed on the station. Only the strongest of the local crew have survived in the flash flood of Nationally syndicated, and quite predictable, commentators. But I look at sell-out stations like WLS, which boasted legendary and historic legacies. The damage done to Progressivism and to the nation by squandering the potential for what a station like WCPT might attain seems to me, well, rather regressive!
Catch WC Turck and Brian Murray only at RevolutionandBeer.com. Watch us every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m., on Chicago Cable Channel 19. Please don’t forget to Like us on Facebook.
ACTIVISTS AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZERS: If you have a cause to champion, please let us know. We proudly stand with you in the important work of strengthening the grassroots support network for the city of Chicago.
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