Thursday, March 2, 2006
AM radio listeners under 65 are rare—except for those who ardently believe that Rush Limbaugh is right. For many of us, AM radio conjures memories of being forced to endure what dad listened to while driving home from visiting the aunts and uncles. Invariably, the old man favored a mix of news, sports, and increasingly, ultra right-wing commentary hosted by obnoxious demagogues—all blaring out of a four-door Dodge Monaco’s tinny speaker.
No wonder most Americans have long had the dial selector superglued to FM. But the times are changing—especially in Monterey.
Today, two talk outlets, KRXA and KOMY, are both drawing listeners to the AM bandwagon. It’s curious that this is happening in the country’s 79th largest market—most cities, even San Francisco, have only one left-wing radio outlet, and many have none.
How the Monterey Bay became home to a liberal talk radio battle is, like most things in commercial radio, a matter of economics.
Ever since conservative firebrand Limbaugh’s success in the early 1990s, the conventional wisdom in commercial talk radio has been to ape Rush’s ultra-conservative approach throughout the day. Copycatting the pundit has proven to be a gravy train for mainline AM stations that long ago gave up on music formats in part because their mono signals can’t hold a candle to the stereo sound offered on FM.
Still, the conservative AM radio pie can be sliced up only so many times—especially for outlets with weaker signals. While smaller stations on the band can still turn a profit with Mexican music and niche formats like traditional country and oldies, for the most part AM long ago became what’s known in radio today as the information band.
Even with that somewhat lofty designation, it’s still the home of floundering stations with little or no quantifiable audience. Under these circumstances, the switch to progressive talk was a gamble some station owners were willing to take.
In the Monterey-Santa Cruz-Salinas market (radio-speak for the more than 50 Monterey Bay Area stations heard locally by over 500,000 listeners age 12 and up), Monterey’s KRXA 540AM and Watsonville’s KOMY 1340AM made the switch to progressive talk last summer. Although they both flipped to the new format at about the same time, their approaches are quite different.
KRXA 540AM debuted last July, when longtime San Francisco Bay Area radio personality Peter B. Collins and his business partners Tony Seaton and Washington, DC lawyer Hal Ginsberg bought the frequency from People’s Radio. A company best known for broadcasting KNRY with conservative hosts like Sean Hannity, People’s Radio also sells time to would-be broadcasters who want to host their own shows.
Under the banner “Think for Yourself,” KRXA’s line-up includes Stephanie Miller in the morning followed by Thom Hartmann (9am to noon), Ed Schultz (noon to 3pm) and Collins in the afternoon from 3 to 6pm. Seasoned lefty radio veterans all, the hosts (except Collins) are all nationally syndicated.
Ostensibly the local guy, Collins sometimes broadcasts his show from KRXA’s Sand City studios, but often chats it up from his San Rafael, Calif. office near his Marin home over an ISDN line. The show is also heard on a Eureka, Calif. station and Collins is looking to syndicate it elsewhere.
Collins started in the business early. As a 19 year old in the early ‘70s, during the height of the Watergate hearings, he went from producing an overnight talk show in Chicago to hosting it, often bashing the Nixon administration. He moved to San Jose in the mid-’70s to work as a rock DJ, and made his mark in the ‘80s as the morning host at KRQR, then San Francisco’s premier rock station. Before moving to KRQR, Collins moonlighted as a fill-in talk host at KGO.
Collins returned to talk radio again in the early ‘90s at San Francisco’s KNBR, the most powerful station on the West Coast, when it made the transition from music to talk (it’s now a sports station, and home of the San Francisco Giants). At the time, he followed Rush Limbaugh and even went toe-to-toe with the host in a no-holds-barred on-air slugfest.
Collins says he was fired by KNBR despite decent ratings. His run-ins with management, he says, included a call for the elimination of Political Action Committees (PACs) while KNBR’s then-owner, Susquehanna Broadcasting, sponsored a conservative PAC. Collins also took the side of the Teamsters when Safeway was in the process of moving its main distribution warehouse from Oakland to Tracy in the Central Valley—a move the union was concerned would cost them all their jobs. In his view, it didn’t help Collins that Safeway was KNBR’s biggest advertiser.
Collins resurfaced at San Francisco’s KSFO in the mid-’90s, before that station was, thanks to FCC deregulation, swallowed up by KGO and eventually turned into one of America’s first all-conservative talk stations. Collins also has a political media consulting business (he works primarily with Democrats) and produces other radio shows and commercials. Most recently he hosted “All American Talk Radio”—a show he described as being “not just for right-wing nuts”—on the Sirius network.
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What really convinced Collins et al to set up shop in Monterey was the strength of KGO locally. Despite broadcasting over 90 miles north in San Francisco, KGO’s powerful 50,000-watt signal blankets Monterey, where the station regularly ranks near the top of the ratings (as of last fall, Arbitron’s ratings had KGO in second place behind number one KDON, an FM music station, with a seven share, or seven percent of the potential audience).
“KGO encouraged us in that it means that people want talk, but they weren’t finding a good local product,” says Collins from his semi-cluttered office. While KGO’s success spurred him on, Collins also freely admits that many of KRXA’s potential “progressive” listeners are also probably now listening to National Public Radio (NPR) on local non-commercial outlets such as KUSP and KAZU.
“I listen to NPR and I can hear the restraint that they work in everyday. The hosts can take no clear position on an issue. It’s great, but it’s limited. The average public radio listener is looking for more. They consider NPR to be their fiber, but what we’re offering is more spice and variety,” Collins says.
Collins and the radio industry at large have chosen to market left-leaning talk stations as “progressive.”
“I’m not afraid to be called a liberal, but the term’s poisoned,” Collins says. “Anything that’s wrong with the country is the fault of liberals who believe in unlimited abortion on demand,” he says, paraphrasing the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
A free thinker, Collins also does not, as he puts it, offer “echo chamber” services to the Democratic Party. For instance, he supports fellow progressive Chuck Pennachio in the upcoming Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary race even though the powers that be in the Democratic Party are behind pro-life, pro-Alito candidate Bob Casey, Jr. “If you listen to Air America you’re not going to hear any of this,” Collins says.
The Monterey Bay’s Air America affiliate is owned by Michael Zwerling, a former real estate investor who also operates KSCO 1080AM, a station he bought 15 years ago. Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Zwerling was kicked off KSCO as a 13-year-old guest on a children’s program for making a fart noise. Forty years later he exacted his revenge, buying the station and developing its conservative talk format, featuring Limbaugh and Michael Savage (real name, Weiner), whose vile tirades make Rush seem like a pussycat. Because of KSCO’s right wing leanings, the faculty at UC Santa Cruz has at times officially boycotted the station.
Zwerling acquired KOMY about five years ago and bounced the station’s format back and forth between conservative and progressive formats until reaching his current deal with Air America—an arrangement that he realized might allow him to tap into the Monterey Bay area’s large audience of public radio listening liberals. He says it was purely a coincidence that KOMY and KRXA started broadcasting similar formats within days of each other last July.
“It seemed like the thing to do. We live in a liberal town,” says Zwerling. “I’ve always believed that Santa Cruz would be a great place for progressive talk radio to play.”
KOMY carries three Air America programs, including the Al Franken Show (9am to noon), Randi Rhodes (1 to 4pm) and the Majority Report (4-7pm) featuring Jeanine Garofalo, but Zwerling says he’s only airing the Majority Report until he can find someone to buy the time slot and produce his or her own local show. He says he’s looking for someone who’s not going to “incite riots or advocate pedophilia.”
“I’m not a whore that’s willing to sell time to anybody off the streets,” he says.
Known in the radio industry as “brokered time,” the practice of selling blocks of time to hosts to produce their own shows is not “what a station that’s concerned about ratings and building audience size does,” Zwerling says. “But it pays the bills.”
His task with selling not just KOMY’s afternoon slot, but any time at all on the station has proven difficult—so far KOMY hasn’t been able to sell one spot to a local business. Air America sells a percentage of time per hour for itself and Zwerling does not pay the network, nor does the network pay him to air the shows.
Zwerling’s familiar with the problems inherent in selling a progressive format. When he carried former California governor Jerry Brown’s fledgling talk show over 10 years ago on KSCO, Brown received many calls from KSCO listeners. The future Oakland mayor was so impressed that he regularly called to see how ad sales were going. Dismayed to learn that KSCO wasn’t selling any time on his show, he even came to Santa Cruz and went out on sales calls, Zwerling says. Still, there were no takers.
Zwerling figures the reason the same thing is happening with KOMY now is that liberals aren’t used to paying for things. “They’ve got stipends and grants and other people paying for that stuff. The mentality carries over into advertising,” he says.
Despite the sales slump, Zwerling’s happy that KOMY at least shows up in the ratings—as of last fall it was tied with KRXA and KNRY with a .4 share.
KRXA, on the other hand, has been able to sell ads in a market that spent $21 million on radio advertising last year. The station also carries CSU Monterey Bay basketball, local high school football and even employs a staff of five, including former Channel 8 reporter K.C. Lynch, who delivers local news headlines during Miller’s morning show.
In order for KRXA to survive, Collins figures the station will have to draw a two share of the audience or roughly 30,000 to 50,000 listeners throughout the week. He says the way to do that is to take the “major market approach” of putting on quality programs and selling ads.
Only time will tell which style prevails. Either way, it looks like liberal radio may be here to stay.