While both Brad Friedman and Sue Wilson have written in detail here at The BRAD BLOG about the recent closure of progressive talk radio stations in cities such as Portland and Seattle, along with the FCC's failure to enforce the public interest obligations of the conglomerates that own those stations, there's an interesting development on the other side of the dial, at least in Boston, where the demise of right-wing talk radio --- in a region where the format once dominated --- hints at a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.
The latest sign of right-wing radio's malaise may be seen in the apparent demise of Boston's WTKK-FM.
The Greater Media Inc.-owned smooth-jazz-turned-right-wing-talk station is reportedly preparing to undergo yet another format change in early-January, returning to music.
As a conservative who listened to WTKK for years, I'm amused by this development, especially in light of the continued industry-wide fallout over Rush Limbaugh's verbal assault on Sandra Fluke earlier in the year.
Friedman and Wilson have shown conclusively that good progressive radio is not being allowed to succeed --- that the national corporate interests of these large media conglomerates (just as predicted by some media observers decades ago, following the passage of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996) are being placed ahead of the local public interest obligations which broadcast licensees are required to meet in exchange for their use of our public airwaves.
With the challenges now being faced by good progressive talkers facing obstacles stacked against their success, is there anything wrong with enjoying the spectacle of seeing bad right-wing radio fail, as appears to be the case in Boston at year's end?...
For over a decade, WTKK's top star was former Pat Buchanan political advisor Jay Severin. Once a nighttime star on Entercom-owned crosstown rival WRKO-AM, Severin had a deep voice but a shallow intellect; as a 2001 Boston Globe profile observed...
As Dan Kennedy noted years ago in the Boston Phoenix, Severin's "Extreme Games" broadcast decreased the IQ of the Boston talk-radio crowd with these bon mots:
• On Hillary Clinton: "that cynical, criminal, sociopathic bitch ... one of the worst people on the planet."
• On Janet Reno: "she's a lesbian, evidently."
• On taxpayer-funded services he doesn't want to see: "free turkey basters for reproducing lesbians."
(Media Matters compiled a similar list of Severin's shockers in 2005.)
Severin's hot tongue and cold brain led him into a years-long feud with Boston Globecolumnist Scot Lehigh, who revealed in 2005 that Severin had falsely claimed to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. Four years later, Severin was suspended for racist invective about immigrants from Mexico, and promised to produce a kinder, gentler broadcast upon his return.
Well, that didn't last long: just two years later, Severin was fired for boasting about his sexual exploits and making light of the concept of sexual harassment. Severin soon made his way to Clear Channel-owned WXKS-AM, but found himself out of a gig one year later when WXKS switched to an all-comedy format. (He's now with Glenn Beck's entity The Graze, er, The Blaze.)
WTKK's other star was Michael Graham, who joined the station in 2005 after being forced out of WMAL-AM in Washington, D.C., then owned by ABC Radio, for declaring that "Islam has, sadly, become a terrorist organization." For most of his WTKK career, Graham, who recently announced his departure from the station, avoided Severin's shameless sleaze: in fact, I considered him a friend, invited him to appear as a guest on my own talk-radio program The Notes in April 2010, favorably reviewed his 2010 book That's No Angry Mob, That's My Mom, and appeared as a guest on his "That's a Wrap" segment on January 14, 2011.
However, I can't look past Graham's disgusting declarations about dwarfism and discrimination in August 2011, remarks that turned out to be a reprise of earlier anti-dwarfism potshots from May 2011. The remarks were not only ludicrous, but incoherent even from Graham's political perspective. Don't conservatives believe in merit? If someone with dwarfism is the most qualified person for a given job, shouldn't that person get the job, and not be discriminated against while on the job? Wouldn't it make more sense for Graham to support, not mock, the plaintiff in this case?
But such is the upside-down logic of what is promoted as "conservative" talk radio today.
While the troubles faced by progressive talk radio are often, opportunistically, regarded by those on the Right as "evidence" that Americans are simply not interested in "liberal views" over our public airwaves, less frequently noted --- largely due to the lack of a similar left-wing "echo chamber" on our public airwaves --- is that right-wing talk now faces problems as well competing in the "free market" (where such a market can be found in talk radio, anyway.)
WTKK, which carried Don Imus, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham in its heyday, and WXKS, which carried Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin before going under, aren't the only stations to fall flat in a once-vibrant, right-wing talk radio market. Salem Radio Network-owned WTTT, home of agitprop ayatollahs Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt, switched to Spanish gospel music in the late-2000s. In addition, WRKO-which carried Rush Limbaugh from 1994-2010 before losing him to WXKS, only to reacquire him this year --- let go of four hosts in 2012; the station, which features Washington Times columnist Jeff Kuhner and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, in addition to Limbaugh and Levin, is no longer a ratings powerhouse, and isn't much of a political powerhouse either (as outgoing US Senator Scott Brown, who was worshiped on the station for years, can attest).
Why has right-wing talk tanked in Boston? Simple. The shows became repetitive claptrap. The era of independent conservative and libertarian views (of the sort expressed by erstwhile talk-radio titans Jerry Williams, David Brudnoy and Gene Burns) gave way to the era of blind pro-GOP cheerleading. The quality of the shows declined, and so did the audience.
In a seminal May 1997 Boston Phoenix article entitled "The Death of Talk Radio," Dan Kennedy recognized early signs of the collapse of conservachat. Reading his piece again now is like reading one of climate scientist James Hansen's papers from the early-1980s; in both cases, it's stunning to see just how accurate they would prove to be.
Kennedy drew a connection between media consolidation, thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic President, and the overall decline in the quality of the talk radio product:
In Boston, for instance, WRKO and WHDH once competed for the talk-show audience. In 1993, though, American Radio Systems, which owns WRKO, bought WHDH, something it would not have been allowed to do prior to deregulation. For a while the company continued to operate both as talk stations; on 'HDH, [Howie] Carr faced off against [Jerry] Williams.
But as soon as it was clear that Carr had established himself as the new ratings champ, American Radio Systems moved Carr into Williams's slot on WRKO and essentially folded WHDH, replacing its spot on the dial (AM 850) with WEEI, an all-sports station and the Boston home of Don Imus.
Having a monopoly makes it easier for a station owner to fill up his time slots with cheap syndicated programming. One can hardly fault American Radio Systems for running top-rated programs such as those hosted by Limbaugh, Dr. Laura [Schlessinger], and the I-man. But WRKO now offers no local programming between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. And at WEEI, the day's local programming doesn't start until noon, even though Boston is arguably one of the most sports-obsessed cities in the country.
Although one would hardly know it from listening to the likes of the foul-mouthed Howard Stern, some observers worry that the trend toward media concentration will also result in an increasingly bland talk-radio environment.
After Disney purchased ABC, for instance, it dumped left-wing syndicated host Jim Hightower, who'd been critical of the merger.
You might think that Gene Burns, well-known for his libertarian views, would hail deregulation as some sort of triumph of the market. Yet Burns --- a founder and past president of the National Association of Talk Show Hosts --- contends there's no such thing as a free market in radio. Instead, he argues that commercial enterprises operate radio stations as government-protected monopolies. His solution: "total deregulation," which would allow anyone to launch small radio stations without the approval of the Federal Communications Commission.
"Out of that primal mix, I think, some clever operators would emerge," Burns says. "But they're never going to let that happen. If they did, they would die from a wound of a thousand cuts."
Burns' highlight of the problem (if not his proposed solution) echoes the very premise that Brad Friedman has been highlighting at The BRAD BLOG for some time: the continuing lack of real, free market competition in talk radio, and the destructive effect it has had on progressive talk in recent years. His observations on the vertical integration --- the very definition of monopoly control --- between corporate station owners and national syndicators (now, often one and the same) violates anti-trust standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court, and now all but ignored by DOJ and FCC alike, from as long ago as 1948's U.S. v. Paramount ruling which ended the major movie studio grip, and complete control, of film distribution to national theater chains which those same studios owned.
The Supreme Court case led to the major movie studios selling off their theaters around the country. In the meantime, major media corporations have been able to gobble up virtually all of the stations they like in each major market and push their own syndicated products across the public airwave bandwidth they have been allowed to license, while the DoJ and the FCC look the other way and allow the media powerhouses to establish monopolies akin to those broken up by U.S. v. Paramount.
With the incipient demise of WTKK, the previous deaths of WXKS and WTTT, and the poor health of WRKO, it's clear that talk radio in Boston is beginning to resemble Muhammad Ali in the last two years of his boxing career. Will the format begin to die off in other major cities as well? Is the Boston situation just an outlier, or a harbinger of a new trend away from Republican radio rallies?
If it's the latter, then it's a development that's long overdue. Whatever intellectual value conservachat once held has long since gone away. I'm not going to miss jokes about Mexican immigrants and the disparagement of people with dwarfism. I'm not going to miss over-the-top invective about Democrats and shameless sucking up to Republicans.
In a darkly funny New York piece about National Review's recent post-election cruise, Jonah Goldberg is quoted saying...
I'll leave the author of Liberal Fascism --- and a man who once seemed to recognize the flaws of talk radio --- to deal with his fears, imagined or otherwise. Meanwhile, here's hoping that more Americans follow Boston's lead and reject the lies peddled by right-wing radio --- the lies about climate change being a hoax, about America being a center-right nation, about President Obama's alleged fondness for Marxism, and so on.
May the anti-conservachat sentiment in Boston spread throughout the nation --- and rush more reactionaries right off the radio.
D.R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and a former contributor to the conservative website Human Events Online. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Boston Herald, ClimateCrocks.com, FrumForum.com, the Ripon Forum, Truth-Out.org, TheNextRight.com, and BookerRising.com. In addition, he hosted a Blog Talk Radio program, The Notes, from August 2009 to June, 2010. You can follow him on Twitter here: @DRTucker.