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The Battle Hymn of the New Liberal Media: A Good Business Plan

Thom Hartmann

In the last Democratic debate, one of the questioners pointed out that fewer Americans identify themselves as either liberals or Democrats than at any time since before Roosevelt's New Deal. The implicit question was, "What's so bad about you guys that Americans have decided 'liberal' is a curse word and people are embarrassed to call themselves Democrats?"

Richard Gephardt tried to bluster his way through an answer, pointing to a few Democratic victories, but the overall response left the impression that all the candidates (and most other Democrats) are clueless about what has happened in America over the past 20 years, why it happened, or how.

It's not that the liberal ideals are too old fashioned or that Democrats have disintegrated or self-destructed. It's that American public opinion has been steamrollered.

The 1980s saw massive funding of right-wing think tanks that have engaged in blitzkrieg campaigns to overwhelm the mainstream media with conservative viewpoints. The man whose followers claim he's Jesus Christ's reincarnation, Reverend Moon, started the Washington Times newspaper in 1982, and although it has lost money ever since, it has succeeded in pushing political discourse in Washington to the far right, presumably helping the good Reverend's other military/industrial investments and lent legitimacy to his religion. Republican operative and former Rush Limbaugh TV Show producer Roger Ailes, with access to Rupert Murdoch's billions, founded the Fox News Network to openly push the Republican agenda into America's living rooms.

But the goal wasn't just to provide an alternative media - it was to influence all media.

This aspect of the conservative strategy was outlined by former Republican Party chairman Rich Bond, who told the Washington Post (8/20/92) that their main goal was to convince Americans and, most important, journalists themselves - the referees of public discourse in America - that they should become hypersensitive to any story, writer, or source that may carry Democratic bias and thus only present the Republican side of the story. "If you watch any great coach," Bond explained, "what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."

The plan started several years before Bond spilled the beans to the Post. And its most powerful component has been "conservative" talk radio.

The Reagan/Bush administration ended the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1986, and the next year saw Rush Limbaugh appear in over 50 major markets across America - with no sponsors. The myth believed by his listeners is that Americans just so loved Rush and his philosophy that those stations that altruistically carried his show quickly found sponsors. The liberal myth is that the way to replicate Limbaugh's success is to re-invent a radio network like ABC or Premiere but that carries liberals, and stations in major markets will flock to pick up the programming.

But making something like the Rush phenomenon happen isn't about networks or stations or even about philosophy: It's about quality programming, a good business strategy, and lots of cash. Particularly the cash.

Christian broadcasters have known this equation for decades. Many radio stations will sell "block time" - entire hours - for a bit less than they'd normally get if they had just sold all the ads on an existing show. The purchaser gets not only all the commercial minutes, but the entire hour to do whatever they want with. Christian broadcasters use that hour to evangelize and beg for money, and if they get more cash from their donors than the hour cost, they keep their show on the air on that station and grow to the next.

One step down are light sponsorships - where advertisers (often Bible publishers) buy one or a few "seed" ads on a local station, so as soon as the program starts on the station, management knows its downside is limited.

Talk radio has a similar past - and present.

Well-funded syndicates get together and buy block time, put a conservative host on the air, and then find sponsors to pay for it. If the income from the sponsors exceeds the cost of buying the block time, they make a healthy profit. If not, the message still gets spread, Republicans get elected, and the interests of the investors are furthered.

Less well financed shows find political candidates or sympathetic companies to advertise locally to encourage stations to pick up a show. (It's no coincidence that Limbaugh's show debuted just as the '88 election cycle was beginning.)

While none of Limbaugh's original business partners has ever gone public with the details of what it cost to first get him on the air, it is public knowledge that syndicators of some of the biggest names in conservative talk radio today are still, 15 years after Limbaugh's national debut, buying block airtime in the tightest major markets and working to bring in local sponsors in other markets.

The result of conservatives buying their way into our airwaves has been a conservative transformation in average Americans' political viewpoints. Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads tune in to coast-to-coast, dawn-to-midnight conservative talk radio, and many have come to believe the right's slogans and myths.

Thus, traditional American values of community and compassion have been replaced with the conservative notions that greed is good and corporations can better administer a democracy than a freely elected government. A vast national right-wing echo chamber across the AM dial has propelled conservative Republican candidates into office, led us into two wars in two years, and succeeded in burying the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush administration while continuing to blame all things bad on Bill Clinton.

It's even created its own mythos about who will turn on a radio. They promote the idea - and some even believe it - that only conservatives are interested in listening to talk radio. It has nothing to do, they say, with the fact that nobody on the left has yet spent the money necessary to buy or sponsor market share in major cities for liberal hosts.

As an example of how extreme things have gotten, on October 3rd, I participated on a panel of nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts, sponsored by the industry publication Talker's Magazine, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Talkers' publisher Michael Harrison introduced me to the crowd as the "lone liberal on the panel," and when Laura Ingram and I began debating, at least a dozen others in the room angrily yelled at me whenever I made a point.

It wasn't a conspiracy, but a simple fact of the past conservative investment in the broadcast industry that there were no other self-identified liberals in national syndication on the panel. Stations in small and medium-sized towns across the country have picked up liberal talk shows on a no-cash barter (free) basis, but no liberal shows have yet found the kind of investors willing to buy into a major market on the possibility of profits a year down the road (it takes about a year to solidify an audience base).

Further evidence of the economic past of talk radio is found in the Talkers Magazine's "Talk Radio Research Project," just released at the National Association of Broadcasters conference. The magazine's study shows that three times as many listeners identify themselves as Republicans or Libertarians, compared to the meager 12 percent who call themselves Democrats. Fox News Channel was the top primary news source among all talk radio listeners.

Conservatives have their spokespeople on the air in every nook and cranny of America, while liberals are much harder to find. Potential Democratic AM radio listeners, disgusted with the rants on the right, have tuned into music stations while they wait for somebody to realize they represent a vast, untapped market. So only conservatives are listening, although that doesn't mean for a moment only conservatives would listen to talk radio.

In the meantime, the conservative juggernaut feeding the media rolls on with increasing momentum.

After the Talkers' panel, I was given a tour of the Heritage Foundation, which has provided me with some excellent conservative thinkers to debate on my "liberal" radio program. I was shown the wall with pictures of Scaife and Coors, another wall engraved floor-to-ceiling with the names of conservative donors, the two radio studios, and what seemed like miles of dark wood, hushed carpets, leather-upholstered chairs, and subtly elegant meeting rooms. Demand from network news shows for conservative video clips has even reached such a point that Heritage is building out a TV set and studio.

Which brings us back to the answer to the debate question posed to Dick Gephardt about why Americans are drifting to the right.

It took several years and many millions for both conservative talk radio and Fox News to build enough of an audience to be self-sustaining and then profitable. Conservative investments in these media have now both yielded profits and also pushed American public opinion to the right with dizzying speed.

After all, the core of the conservative agenda is to transfer control of our government and our commons to big corporations; reduce taxes on the rich while squeezing the middle class; and strip labor of its power to organize while enhancing organized corporate power by supporting trade associations, Chambers of Commerce, political alliances, and monopolistic mergers. These are the mantras of conservative talk radio and Fox.

Trillions are at stake in this transformation of America from its founding ideal of government of, by, and for We, The People, into a neo-feudal state ruled by corporate-CEOs-turned-politicians and operated on the ancient but corrupt principle of crony capitalism and rule-by-the-rich.

To reverse our nation's slide toward single-party rule and the death of democracy will require nothing less than aggressive media efforts by those who still believe in the egalitarian, democratic ideals first articulated by our nation's Founders. Fortunately, we're now seeing the early stirrings of that: With the pivotal 2004 elections so close, the timing couldn't be better.

The United Auto Workers union has put money and resources into the i.e. America Radio Network, which syndicates liberal talk radio from coast to coast. Several other unions and Democratic candidates are waking up to the power of advertising on a philosophically aligned show, and supporting liberal talk programming on a local basis.

Following on i.e.'s successes, AnShell media, according to industry rumors, is on the verge of achieving funding goals to roll out America's second liberal radio network in January. Al Gore and Joel Hyatt are talking about a cable TV network to take on Fox News.

The Center For American Progress - a liberal version of Heritage - is already providing great information and research to reporters and commentators, and kicking off a national conference October 27/28. Billionaire George Soros is helping fund a political action group dedicated to revitalizing democracy.

And smaller, independent businesspeople are getting into the act. Socially conscious companies like The Organic Wine Company are sponsoring liberal talk radio shows. Two independent ventures have set up shop this fall to nationally syndicate the Randi Rhodes show and a new radio program by Marianne Williamson. Stations from coast to coast have now picked up liberal talk shows, and they're discovering large and active listenerships, often even beating the conservative competition.

Progressive business people and labor unions are learning from the success of conservative media that with a good business plan and a little patience it's possible to both advance your side's social/political goals and to reach customers and potential members. Working together with progressive talent, liberal activists, and progressive, democracy-oriented companies and unions, America's "new liberal media" just may succeed in the battle to wrest American back from the clutching fingers of the extremist conservatives who've held sway these past two decades.

We've watched them destroy our economy three times in the past forty years (the Nixon inflation, Reagan/Bush recession, and the new Bush debt crisis), drive our foreign policy into a series of questionable wars, and openly attack both our environment and our civil liberties. Like cold water on a sleeping face, conservative excesses are finally awakening Americans to the recollection that our nation's values have been fundamentally progressive since our Founding, that Al Gore got a half-million more votes than George W. Bush in the last presidential election, and that progressives/liberals are just as enthusiastic about rooting for their "team" as are conservatives. The larger half of America is finally finding its voice.

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