Progressive radio fans and broadcasters gathered in Seattle’s Pioneer Square on January 18th to discuss the future of the media. A standing room only crowd listened to guest speakers including Norman Goldman and local journalists Geov Parrish and David Goldstein. The event was organized by Progressive Radio Northwest.
PRNW was founded by former listeners of KPTK(AM 1090). The station was broadcasting progressive talk shows until CBS decided to convert its format to sports radio last year. KPTK’s programming included Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Norman Goldman, Mike Malloy, and other former Air America network broadcasters. PRNW was formed to bring progressive media back to the Seattle area.
Progressive radio has been suffering all across the country. Brad Friedman of Bradblog recently posted a map on his website showing the number of red stations versus blue. To put it mildly, the conservative stations have been expanding rapidly while progressive and liberal programs are disappearing at an alarming rate. A few hundred miles to the south in Portland, Oregon, KPOJ also discontinued their progressive talk show programming. That station is owned by Clear Channel.
Most of these talk shows are now heard exclusively online. The major complaint from many progressives has been that corporate networks have dropped all support for progressive media, leaving only sports, religious and right-wing broadcasting. The irony here is that two of the most progressive cities in the country (Seattle/Portland) have no commercial progressive media.
Blogger/broadcaster David Goldstein talked about his experience as a local talk show host after he created his popular blog reporting on local politics. Goldstein hosted a talk show at KIRO and he is currently a blogger for The Stranger newspaper. He described how his program was dropped when the radio station was purchased by a conservative group of investors.
Geov Parrish has been a political writer for the Seattle Weekly. Currently he is a broadcaster on KEXP’s public affairs program “Mind Over Matter”. He gave a presentation on the history of progressive media in Seattle, including a discussion about Seattle’s legendary independent radio station KRAB. Parrish also talked about the influence of local public stations KUOW, KBCS and KSER. He explained how subscriber based media began in Berkeley California with the Pacifica Radio Network. The network grew as a result of the Berkeley free speech movement and Pacifica flagship stations were established New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Houston. Today the network has grown to include affiliate stations across the nation. Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” and Free Speech Radio News are two recent examples of the Pacifica Network’s cutting-edge programming.
Norman Goldman was the keynote speaker at the PRNW event in Seattle. As an attorney, he was a frequent contributor to the Ed Shultz Show until he launched his own national radio program. Now Goldman finds himself in the middle of the progressive media transition from radio to the web. Along with Mike Malloy and other progressive talk show hosts, Goldman’s program has been dropped by by radio stations in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. His message is very simple – “Everything is moving online.” He pointed to his smartphone, referring to it as the “new transistor radio”.
According to Goldman, the traditional radio industry no longer exists. He described how most US radio stations are owned by large corporate interests such as Clear Channel and Culumus and their subsidiaries (Premier, etc.). Corporate investors have purchased hundreds of stations around the nation through what he described as “leveraged buy-outs”. Clear Channel now controls over 800 radio stations.
To fund this monopoly, Clear Channel borrowed huge sums from hedge funds managed by Bain Capital. Goldman claims Clear Channel currently owes $20.4 billion and is guilty of practicing the same kind of financial scam that caused the national economic crash of 2008. Cumulus has borrowed $2.25 billion to fund it’s own media buying buying spree.
Since their true loyalty is to the investors, not to their audience, radio station owners have raided these businesses by firing employees and automating the broadcasts. They have created national networks which do not serve local communities. FCC allowance for corporate media ownership consolidation has resulted in a situation where the majority of all US media is owned by just a few corporations.
The unfortunate casualties of this corporate raiding party have been: 1) journalistic credibility; 2) the idea of publicly owned airwaves; 3) all practices of the “Fairness Doctrine”.
These traditional ideals have been thrown out the window, replaced by corporate greed. Media bosses have been blinded by their need to make huge profits in order to pay back these enormous debts. In this type of Mitt Romney style corporate takeover, CEO’s pocket large fees by skimming off the top, and most of the rest of the income goes to pay the investors. Clear Channel is reportedly paying 11.25% interest on the debt, which Goldman described as comparable to mafia loan shark rates.
In a desperate attempt to pay back investors, large media corporations continue to dump the burden of their loans onto local radio stations. This is being accomplished by the enforcement of economic austerity measures which have resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. Goldman told his Seattle audience that 80% of all radio jobs have been eliminated in the US.
In the United States, alternative, independent and progressive media has been left struggling to survive with little or no funding. Lacking the multi-million dollar advertising budgets that corporate networks possess, these programs continue to experience financial crises on a regular basis, and many of them languish in obscurity. Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio news recently went off the air due to lack of funds. Broadcasters Nicole Sandler and Jeff Santos are now broadcasting on the web from their own living rooms. The challenge for these independent broadcasters is how to invent new economically sustainable networks.
Meanwhile, corporations like Clear Channel have decided to buy their conservative “talent” by signing Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to exclusive contracts. Limbaugh is being paid $28 million per year and Beck receives $20 million. Yet Goldman points out that most of the top neo-con talkshows are still losing much of their audience. He estimates that Sean Hannity has lost up to 60% of his listeners around the nation. In Los Angeles, Limbaugh and Beck’s shows are being moved by Clear Channel to a smaller station with less broadcast coverage. Although the corporate executives are obligated to honor their expensive contracts, they see the writing on the wall. In many US markets, radio is dying.
It’s being replaced by online content.
As I have often tried to explain to alternative media network representatives, the radio station antenna tower is no longer essential to broadcasting. In fact, going online can gain the station access to listeners worldwide. Seattle’s music station KEXP is a prime example. Bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen, KEXP even sponsors music concerts in New York City. Their fans live all around the earth. No radio transmitter or antenna can compete with this unlimited coverage. Granted, much of the planet is still not wired for the internet. Surprisingly, it is still impossible to go online in remote regions of Alaska, but the world is changing fast and the technology is spreading rapidly.
Norman Goldman maintains that the only sustainable model for broadcasters today is subscription based programming. The goal is to recruit subscribers who will pay a nominal fee for media content which can be accessed through any computer or mobile device. He emphasized that this also applies to listening to programming while commuting in your car.
The “drive time” audience has always been a major reason that radio talk shows have flourished in the past.
Another model is to fund the program through underwriting/sponsorship. Jeff Santos’ talk show in Boston is sponsored by a labor union. In Portland, progressive radio fans launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised $250,000 to help fund a new radio station.
Currently there are many ongoing discussions and forums among US alternative media folks regarding these political. economic and technological issues. Media democracy is an important part of these discussions for the simple reason that new progressive media networks have been instrumental in helping to elect progressives and Democrats during national elections.
President Barack Obama’s election campaign benefited directly from progressive and liberal radio networks and their daily political talk shows. Presidential candidates Rocky Anderson(Justice Party) and Jill Stein(Green Party) relied almost exclusively on progressive media to get their message out to the voters. If the recent trend towards conservative corporate owned media continues without a serious challenge, we can expect direct political results from this development as well.
When democratic voices are stifled or censored, the entire nation suffers. An effective, participatory democracy requires opposing viewpoints and alternative analysis. The constant echo chamber of neo-liberal and neoconservative viewpoints in US media represents a regressive tendency towards uniformity and authoritarianism. Although no commercial media will report on this fact, the US is currently ranked as 37th on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (rsf.org). In other words, due to the corporate dominance of US media, there are now 36 other countries where you will find more freedom of the press. Finland is currently ranked as number one.
As a US journalist I must admit that I am not proud of our ranking on the World Press Freedom Index. We can do much better than this! One conclusion I’ve drawn from this low ranking is that public broadcasting has not provided the necessary balance to heavily funded conservative media programming. I am also sadly aware that freedom of the press is taken for granted by the majority of the public and by most of my colleagues. After reading the Reporters Without Borders report, any responsible journalist, editor or producer should immediately address the issue with adequate news coverage and analysis. We may not have state controlled media in the US, but corporate control leads to less diversity in reporting and less interest in investigative journalism or political criticism of national policies.
With any luck, this negative trend in US media can be checked by a growing number of new innovative and progressive networks. Though many of the details have yet to be worked out, organizations like Progressive Radio Northwest and the Northwest Progressive Institute are dedicated to making this new media possible. PRNW plans to sponsor future forums and eventually, they hope to help create a new progressive media network that will broadcast, podcast and live stream new cutting edge programs from Seattle.
Originally published at OpEdNews