Clear Channel Communications—the nation’s largest operator of radio stations, which is owned by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital LCC—pulled the plug on the last vestiges of commercial AM progressive talk radio in Los Angeles and San Francisco when it flipped those local affiliates to its more familiar right-wing programming.
Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Bill Press, Stephanie Miller and their fellow travelers will be replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and others. Rhodes is gone, although she is under contract to Clear Channel and just signed a new deal.
In Los Angeles, Limbaugh and Hannity will slide over from another Clear Channel station, KFI, and join Beck on KTLK, which is being rebranded “The Patriot.” KFI will fill the gaps with different, local conservative hosts. In some ways this is a bit of a demotion for Limbaugh, because KFI has more broadcast power and a much larger audience than KTLK.
But, as Larry O’Connor at the conservative Breitbart website gleefully noted, “When the dust settles, the landscape of the Los Angeles talk radio scene will be striking. The nation's #2 market will have four conservative talk radio stations with Salem's KRLA and Cumulus' KABC joining KFI and KTLK.”
In San Francisco, KNEW will also get Limbaugh to anchor its re-branded “Right Radio” lineup. The station lost half its progressive programming two years ago when Glenn Beck and other conservative hosts joined the station. These moves complete the transformation.
The changes are scheduled to take effect January 1, prompting some die-hard fans to note that Clear Channel backed down in San Francisco in 2011 when it only half-gutted KNEW after promising total re-programming. More recently, Rhodes had been told she was going to be fired before inking a new deal at the last moment.
But Brad Friedman at Brad’s Blog warns against overdoing the optimism: “Clear Channel has closed down many of their progressive radio stations in most of the nation's major metropolitan markets without changing their mind, leaving radio listeners in the majority of the country completely unserved by anything but corporatist, Rightwing radio over our publicly-owned airwaves.”
AM radio has been a near-monopoly since shortly after Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 during the Clinton presidency, deregulating media ownership and increasing the number of stations one company could own in a single market. Clear Channel, which owned 43 radio stations and 16 TV stations, went wild. Amid its decades-long spree, Clear Channel bought Jacor Communications from Sam Zell in 1999, which had also been gobbling up companies and stations itself.
Zell parlayed his sale money into lucrative investments in real estate that netted him $39 billion in 2007 when he sold his interests to the Blackstone Group. Zell then took a tiny portion of his fortune and got back into the media business. He bought Tribune Company, leveraging the purchase with so much debt that the owner of the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, TV superstation WGN and other media outlets was quickly thrust into bankruptcy, crippling dozens of media outlets in one fell swoop.
He was a worthy predecessor to Clear Channel, the largest radio station group owner in the country, with 850 stations and more than 100 million listeners every week. It also has the largest revenue. Cumulus Media has 570 stations and CBS Radio, formerly Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, has 130. Romney’s group bought the publicly-traded Clear Channel in 2008 and took them private.
AM radio is dominated by right-wing hosts. That used to be illegal. The Fairness Doctrine, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), dictated that a balance be struck between controversial views on radio. That policy was abandoned in 1987, near the end of the Reagan presidency. Within five years, Limbaugh was the most-listened-to host on the radio, and conservative talkers dominated the top 10 list and time slots.
Progressive AM radio made a bit of a comeback in 2004, when the Air America network launched. Comedian and soon-to-be Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) was the showpiece and the network peaked in 2006 with about 60 stations, according to Peter B. Collins, a veteran radio host and producer.
It all fell apart in a few years. Financial irregularities, infighting and just plain weirdness—tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer joined the network in December 2006—brought an end to the network in 2010.