Almost nine years ago, my once and future business partner, the effervescent (that is certainly the nicest thing anyone, his dear departed mother included, has ever called him) talk show host, Mike Malloy, called to inform me of two things. One, in spite of his surprisingly high ratings, he had just been fired from WLS, the 50,000 watt, clear-channel ABC owned and operated AM radio station in Chicago, and two, I was about to get a call from some well-heeled listeners who wanted to put him on the air nationally.
I was naturally disappointed that despite our best efforts — getting him the Chicago gig was not easy, and he and his producer/wife, Kathy, had worked really hard to carve a successful liberal niche on a right wing outpost — it had all come crashing down. The general manager couldn’t stand the heat, or Mike, for that matter. Malloy stood out like an erection at a sorority party. Daytime listeners to Rush and Hannity hated Malloy even more than his boss did. Nighttime listeners kept the station under siege during business hours, for they had a righteous hatred of the right-wingers.
This, by the way, was not my first brush with ABC. A few years before Malloy took the wild Chicago ride, I had gotten a national berth for former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Jim Hightower, a kind of latter day Will Rogers. I used up a bunch of favors to get Hightower Radio on the ABC Radio Networks, never a bastion of liberal thought. Hightower, who has famously observed that the washing machine’s agitator is what gets the dirt out, did what he does: he agitated. I have to laugh when I hear about the “liberal media.” Having consulted all the alphabet media companies at one time or another, it is my experience that they are all quite conservative. Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Co. board, we were told, did not find Hightower’s public criticisms of them entertaining in the least. I was instructed to have him keep his head down. I reminded them whom they were talking about. The likelihood of Hightower toeing anybody’s line was pretty slim. We were fired in fairly short order. Malloy made liberal talk 0-2 at ABC.
When the supposedly monied-left called from Chicago, I patiently explained that the reason Malloy didn’t work out for WLS was the same reason he wouldn’t get any traction in a national syndication scenario. They were persistent, and at their behest, I flew to Chicago to discuss the idea further.
It was there that I met another guy they had invited, a fellow from Vermont named Thom Hartmann. To digress ever so briefly, it must be said that Thom is an intellectual tour de force. Everyone who knows him agrees that he is preternaturally smart and uncannily well informed on what can only be described as a too-wide variety of subjects. In addition to having owned a travel agency in Atlanta years ago, Thom and his wife, Louise, have started two schools for educationally challenged kids. Thom wrote, among his sixteen books to date, the first authoritative book on attention deficit disorder. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Shadyac have made movies based on Hartmann books. As I said, the smartest guy in the room. Always.
Meanwhile back in Highland Park, our hosts, Shelley and Anita Drobny, have Thom and me talking about syndicating Malloy nationally. I say I think it will be difficult to sell syndicators and stations on a liberal talk host. The national companies were making a bundle on right wing talk, so you would think they’d jump at a chance to placate the left with their very own shows. For a multitude of excuses that boil down to broadcasters’ fear and a rather disturbing lack of imagination, you’d be wrong. I said there was no way short of buying up a few hundred million of dollars worth of stations to get Malloy on the national radio. Hartmann explained that it was like Classical stations not playing Led Zeppelin. It just didn’t fit.
I had been a music radio programmer and consultant for twenty years, so I felt like a dope when Thom said that. In our consultancy we always touted “formatic purity.” It was so simple: delight the listener with surprising choices, but never color outside the lines. Garth belongs to Country. R.E.M. belongs to Rock, etc.
(For those who are students of media theory, this late 1970s format fragmentation was the beginning of the end of mass media. Cable television came along and added a hundred channels to our twelve music formats. Then satellite radio subdivided our dozen into a hundred channels, each with a narrow base, but a lot of depth. Now we have the Internet, the ultimate tool for fragmentation. Duly, broadcast TV has seen its last 60 million household, mass audience hit show (excepting the Super Bowl), and broadcast radio has seen its last multi-format crossover hit song—we could all Sing Along With Mitch, but no one can sing along with the Dawes).
I took Thom’s observation to heart and told the Drobnys that with enough money we could start a fully formed, 24/7 format, “Progressive Talk,” and in that way, get Malloy on the radio nationally. They had done well in the market, but not that well, so they began to send me around to their rich friends and big-budget institutional organizations.
Around this time I harkened back to a project I had created for CBS Radio with the Mayo Clinic called “The Mayo Minute.” It was a great show featuring interaction between patients and the leading docs in a given field. The problem was we had an unknown physician host it. Why is that a problem? Because, according to radio, he wasn’t a famous physician. One major market programmer told us he’d run the show if we could get Marcus Welby to host (this was pre-ER and Grey’s Anatomy). So the next ingredient had to be star power. The Chicago Drobnys had spread a lot of money around Democratic circles, so they were able to introduce me to the Clintons and the Gores, who in turn introduced me to Al Franken. Al needed time to decide if he wanted the responsibility of a daily radio show. He was teaching at Harvard and writing the “Lies and Lying Liars” book, so it took the better part of a year to convince him, but he ultimately became the anchor talent around whom, with Malloy, Hartmann, Marc Maron, Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, Lizz Winstead, and many other talented folks, we built Air America Radio.
I’ll spare you the rest of the Air America story, or at least save it for another day, because the points I want to make here are, it takes time and money to start a conventional, mainstream media business—Rupert Murdoch had spent $300 million before Fox News made a penny; the mainstream media is run by unimaginative executives motivated primarily by fear of failure rather than hope for gain, thus they play it safe and are not creatively inspired; and with fragmentation being driven so hard by new platforms and technologies, conquering mainstream media is, at this point, a Pyrrhic victory.
That’s the bad news for those of us who would like a place to get all manner of progressive news and programming. The good news is there is now another way.
First, I must acknowledge that we were twenty-five years behind the conservatives in talk radio, who had all the beachfront property by the time we got there. I also note that MSNBC doesn’t program 24/7 progressive content. Until now, the very limited number of radio broadcast licenses and the extremely high cost of starting a cable network have ensured the incumbents’ monopoly. Rather than chase their enormous leads and try again to start an old technology radio or cable business, it’s our goal to get in front of the next platform, the Mobile Internet. Consider the numbers: there are already more than 100 million smartphones and tablets, growing to 1 billion by 2013, when no one will make anything but smartphones.
So, on behalf of my partners, Reed Haggard and George Vasilopoulos, I’m happy to announce the launch of the Progressive Voices Institute, Incorporated, a non-profit corporation whose first project is the Progressive Voices App. The PV App aggregates all things progressive (text, audio, video, etc.), and delivers them to the Mobile Internet.
PV App delivers news headlines, links to all progressive organizations, plays video of everyone from Jon Stewart to Rachel Maddow, and carries all the progressive radio talk show hosts live. We are particularly enamored of the way the Mobile Internet and smartphone combine to create the contemporary correlative of the transistor radio of the 1950s: they both cut the cable and liberate content. No more being tied to a computer to read, see or hear the progressive content you’re looking for. It’s right there in your pocket, on your smartphone.
If you’re interested in seeing (and hearing) it work, here’s a link to the Apple version of the App.
You’ll find the Android version of the App here.
And we have a Web presence at www.ProgressiveVoices.com.
The app provides a user feedback screen that we hope you’ll use to be in touch with us, and to help us keep it growing and getting better all the time.
The time is nigh for a Progressive Media Universe! I hope you’ll join us in building it by downloading the app and telling your friends, enemies and relatives, assuming those are not all one and the same.