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Published: Sunday, 2/8/2009

In Democrat-led Toledo, talk radio still leans to right

BY KIRK BAIRD
AND ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

It starts at 6 a.m. every weekday in Toledo and continues nonstop for hours, a persistent drumbeat on the radio air waves:

Barack Obama's stimulus plan is larded with corruption, pork-barrel politics, and waste.

Liberalism is destroying the country.

The Democratic party is fundamentally flawed, labor unions are ruining the economy, and if we're not careful, socialism is just around the corner.

On and on it goes without a peep from progressives or more liberal-leaning voices.

Never mind that Toledo voted almost 2-1 in favor of Barack Obama or that the city for decades has been a Democrat-ruled bastion of unionism.

Local talk radio is dominated by an ideological position that would seem to be the polar opposite of the city's demographics and political leanings.

Why?

It's a question that has long perplexed people like Steve Fought, communications director for liberal Democratic Toledo Congressman Marcy Kaptur.

"There are a lot of people in this market that would rather listen to a food fight from the left than a food fight from the right," but they don't have the opportunity, he said, referring to the combative nature of most talk radio shows.

Toledo's radio market is the 91st in the country, between Des Moines and Spokane, according to the fall 2008 Arbitron ratings.

It is dominated by two corporations: Clear Channel, which owns six local stations, and Cumulus, which owns eight.

The major news talk radio station is the Clear Channel-owned WSPD-AM (1370), which, in addition to local talkers Fred LeFebvre and Brian Wilson, carries conservative heavy hitters Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity.

On the Cumulus side, WTOD-AM (1560) features libertarian Neil Boortz, former Reagan Cabinet member William Bennett, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Savage.

In general, all of them espouse a distinctly right-wing view that has controlled national airwaves since the Fairness Doctrine was dissolved by the Federal Communications Commission during the Reagan years.

The doctrine, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, was "an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan stepped into the debate last week when she told national radio host Bill Press of The Official Morning Show of the Obama Generation that she thought broadcasting should have more balance and suggested hearings would be held in the Senate on reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

Asked whether it is time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, she said, "I think it's absolutely time to pass a standard."

She tied the effort to Mr. Obama's pledge of more accountability and transparency, saying, "I think in this case, there needs to be some accountability and standards put in place."

Ms. Stabenow's comments infuriated WSPD's morning and afternoon radio hosts, with Brian Wilson telling his listeners, "She's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier."

The afternoon talk show host then went on a rant about her call for Senate hearings on fairness in radio.

"That's their wet dream," he said. "That's what they wish, that's what they want it to be, so they talk about it as if it's actually fact and it's not. It's not fact at all. That was the Fairness Doctrine, but it's not the Fairness Doctrine any longer, because there is no Fairness Doctrine anymore."

In December, while on a trip to Washington, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner met with staff members of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) to urge Congress to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

The mayor accused WSPD of not giving him equal time to respond to "diatribes" against him, and he was angered by the role of Andy Stuart, Clear Channel's general manager in Toledo, as a member of the Take Back Toledo committee trying to get a recall question on removing Mr. Finkbeiner from office onto the Sept. 15 ballot in Toledo.

Mr. Waxman is the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission.

Mr. Finkbeiner gave a Waxman staff member a copy of his speech in which he attacked his critics from Take Back Toledo, and he promised to help Mr. Waxman's investigation by providing tapes of WSPD broadcasts.

The rise of conservative talk radio, and its subsequent domination, was a long time coming, said Al Peterson, president and editor of NTSMediaOnline.com, a national daily newsletter directed at the talk radio market.

But its control of the markets - even as progressive syndicated shows from Air America and Dial Global gain some footholds - has nothing to do with politics, he said.

It's all about money.

"I don't subscribe to any grand conspiracy theory or anything else," he said in a telephone interview from his San Diego office. "The only real political philosophy that broadcasters have for the most part is capitalism."

Mr. LeFebvre echoed that sentiment.

He suggested that if a Toledo progressive station would be a money-maker, certainly someone would have tried it by now.

"We've had Democratic mayors, Democratic councilmen, Democratic county commissioners ever since I've been here and certainly way before that. It is a Democratic town," Mr. LeFebvre said.

"You would think if Air America or liberal-leaning programs would work, it would work [in Toledo]. But if Cumulus or another company thought it would work, they would have done it."

Others, such as Mike Stern, news, talk, and sports editor for Radio and Records, an industry trade magazine, reject that argument.

"It would need to make money to be successful. That's true as far as it goes," Mr. Stern said.

"But to say it wouldn't make money because no one has done it is circular logic. No one was doing conservative talk until somebody did conservative talk. The logic of, 'Somebody would have figured it out already,' is kind of hollow."

He said the biggest challenges facing progressive or liberal talk radio aren't necessary financial issues but involve star power and listener conditioning.

Progressive radio lacks a breakthrough radio personality along the lines of a Limbaugh or Hannity, although Air America's Rachel Maddow, who also has her own hour-long talk show on MSNBC-TV, comes close.

Liberal audiences also haven't been taught to tune in to the AM frequency, where most talk shows air.

"I don't know if liberal or progressive people who would enjoy those stations are using that band," Mr. Stern said.

And then there's the National Public Radio factor.

NPR is generally considered to be progressive programming, Mr. Stern said. Toledo, in fact, receives NPR broadcasts from two stations: WGTE-FM (91.3), a Toledo station that offers a mix of classical and NPR programming, and WUOM-FM (91.7), which broadcasts out of Ann Arbor.

"The NPR station may be fulfilling that niche enough that it makes it hard for a commercial talk entity to get off the ground," Mr. Stern said.

"If you can have forward-thinking, liberal-leaning progressive talk with no commercials in the form of NPR, it makes it doubly difficult to launch a commercial effort in that area.

"People don't think of [NPR] that way, but it does hold that place in a lot of people's minds."

With the success of conservative radio talk shows, Air America Radio, later renamed Air America Media, looked to be the lone liberal voice on the AM dial. When the company made its debut more than five years ago, it featured Al Franken and other liberal talk show hosts.

But Air America was not without its share of problems. It filed for bankruptcy in 2006 but has emerged from its troubled financial straits and now has 60 affiliates nationwide.

Bill Hess, Air America's senior vice president of programming, is certainly open to more growth, including Toledo.

"We're interested in having affiliates in all the top 100 markets and beyond," he said. "We're in conversations with radio station owners in many markets to add affiliates or to upgrade affiliates to better signals.

"We see an opportunity given the results of the election and the mood of the country to expand our radio stations and, therefore, our listener base."

The challenge, Mr. Hess said, is to create a level playing field for Air America affiliates.

"Where progressive stations are on competitive signals, with management and staffing levels similar to the other stations, we're perfectly successful," he said.

"Where there is Clear Channel in Madison [Wis.] or Portland [Ore.] and CBS in Seattle, those stations are treated as well as their conservative or sports sister stations and do just fine there."

Progressive radio is growing - gradually - in markets such as San Francsico and Portland, Mr. Peterson said.

"It is probably more slowly than some of its proponents would like. But it's not just there are more Democrats than Republicans in Toledo," he said.

"It's how many people are going to spend their money on advertising and how many people are going to listen to it. It's just a business; it's not philosophical."

Mr. Peterson noted that it took a long time for the conservative talk shows to gain traction and their growth was slow.

None of them - Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, or Mr. Savage - is new to the field, he said.

"I'm quite sure in 1990, Rush could've walked thorough any mall in America and no one would have known who he is, two or three years into his career. The person who takes a position first is the hardest person to push out of that position. It's really a matter of hang time [more] than anything else."

Peter Cavanaugh, a retired radio personality who was on the air in the Toledo area for decades, said radio stations jumped "lemminglike" onto the conservative talk radio bandwagon when Rush Limbaugh became successful. In the meantime the liberal alternatives lacked talent and charisma, he said.

He was especially critical of Al Franken, who was originally on Air America. Mr. Cavanaugh described him as "horrible."

But he said current liberal talkers like Thom Hartman, Stephanie Miller, and especially Ed Schultz are as talented as their conservative counterparts, which Mr. Cavanaugh predicted would fuel a drive toward more progressive talk shows.

"I think down the road a little bit I'm going to see a surge, and as these people get on more high-powered stations, they will come more to the forefront," he said from his California home.

If progressive or left-leaning radio is going to work in Toledo, it will require someone with deep pockets and patience to invest in purchasing a station and making it happen, Mr. said.

"I've thought about it many times. There are several people who've talked about this - buying one of the existing stations and retooling it into a talk radio station, and it could be liberal too in Toledo," he said.

Mr. Peterson agreed, saying that the rise of syndicated shows on Air America and Dial Global from people such as Ms. Maddow, Ron Reagan, and Bill Press provides programming for local stations to use to fill up their airwaves and sell advertising.

"I think the possibility to make it a paying proposition and to make it a profitable operation is certainly there again," he said.

But even if a liberal-oriented station came to Toledo, local Democrat consultant Jim Ruvolo said he's not sure he'd become a loyal listener.

He said he's not sure he's ready for another station with a narrow ideological perspective.

"If they're giving me info that's more than their opinion and there is some news and analysis, I might listen for a while," he said. "But if they're just going to say things over and over again that get me fired up, I don't need that. I'm already fired up."

Staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

at 419-724-6734.



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