What? No progressive talk in Boston?
To someone who hasn’t followed the story of progressive talk radio closely, the surprise might be that Boston, one of the most liberal areas in the country, should face such a struggle to put progressive talk on the radio dial. But then we liberals are used to such offenses to our common sense. For how many years did Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and another dozen conservative tub-thumpers have no one on the other side of the political divide to contend with on either radio or television?
In the 1930s, radio licenses were considered a contract between the public, who had a right to good information, and the radio stations that jockeyed to make use of the limited broadcast band that was ostensibly the public’s property. However, the 1996 Telecommunications Act (sponsored and signed by Democrats as well as Republicans, alas) severely weakened decades-old ownership limits. Suddenly, single corporations, most notably the conservative-owned Clear Channel, could buy up large numbers of stations across the country. This consolidation in corporate ownership went hand-in-glove with a consolidation of political content when Rush Limbaugh and his cronies were basically allowed to take over the airwaves. Liberal talk shows wer forced off the air. (The erosion of the Fairness Doctrine was another part of the picture, but that’s another story.)
Air America shakes things up
In 2004, Air America came along, finally giving stations enough material once again to devote themselves entirely to progressive talk. Often, stations would augment the AAR lineup with local programs, or shows from other networks, such as the Jones Network, now known as Dial Global. Progressive talk often brought dramatic increases in listenership on these stations, and the stations that had decent signals and staff became a self-evident success. However, where the stations had weak signals (not to mention a near total lack of staff or promotion), those who wanted to dismiss progressive talk could point to the stations’ small absolute audience share rather than how well they did, given the measly wattage, at attracting loyal listeners. Critics could also use AAR’s far-too-colorful management problems to tarnish progressive talk as a whole.
Even from the beginning of that 2004 wave, some progressive talk stations were being switched to other formats. (See my Progressive radio timeline for a chronological view and Progressive radio stations for an overview.) However, a particularly noticeable wave of format switches occurred in December 2006. Some speculate that the Republican station/network owners were running scared after the recent Democratic electoral victories, and feared that voters may have been listening to the faint but feisty content after all. For whatever reason, substantial rumors began to circulate that stations around the country would lose progressive talk. Madison, which had had the most advance notice, successfully rallied to convince Clear Channel to preserve the format. Columbus and Boston were not so lucky. Progressive talk was pulled off the air in Columbus one day prior to the rally that local activists had scheduled. Meanwhile, almost all progressive talk fans in Boston were caught by surprise when the station suddenly began broadcasting Latino music.
Organizing in the dead of night
One of the few who was not surprised was Robin Bergman (known as roborig at Blue Mass Group and rougegorge on Daily Kos), a local fan who had followed the forum on the station’s website. In the wee hours just before progressive talk was to be stripped, she set up a message board and pointed people to it from the station site. By the end of the day, 50 people had signed up and were busy discussing what to do next. Within a few days, they had settled on a time and place for a meeting. In retrospect, if any of these — the establishment of the message board, the placement of the notice on the site before the switch, or the scheduling of a meeting in the physical world — had never occurred, or happened too late, crucial momentum could have easily been lost. But within a few days, the despondent diaries on Daily Kos or Blue Mass Group that wondered where Boston Progressive Talk had gone were receiving comments that told them where they could go to figure out what to do next.
Madison’s success story had made a big impression on us, and our initial efforts focused on trying to talk Clear Channel into putting us back. At one early meeting, we wrote letters to the station management, pointing out that their ratings had improved as a result of progressive talk and predicting that they’d never recover (which turned out to be the case). But it became clear that they could not be moved.
Hey, big spender!
At this point, we began to think seriously about what we could do to get progressive talk onto another station. We determined that no station would switch to progressive talk as the result of our persuasion alone. We would have to raise some capital. Ideally, we’d buy our own station so that it couldn’t be snatched out from under us on a whim even if we had pulled in listeners and advertising dollars. But that would require money. In the post-1996 Boston radio market, we’d need literally millions of dollars. Cursory arithmetic indicated that we could not rely on our own funds as ordinary citizens to raise the capital. (Let’s see, one million dollars divided by one thousand supporters means — a thousand dollars per supporter?!) So we’d need to find deeper pockets, whether they belonged to private wealthy individuals, or corporations, or foundations. And most of this search could not be conducted on a message board.
We then began the tortuous (and torturous) process of conducting public events and private negotiations. Jeff Santos, the one former local host on the old station, took the lead on the private side, drawing upon his knowledge of the industry and our suggestions, leads, energy, and research. We rode the roller coaster of hope and frustration as the economy took a turn for the worse and potential investors withdrew. But we persisted for two years. Two years — the amount of time between the point when the Democrats first took back Congress and the moment when Obama entered the White House.
Reaping the rewards
Eventually we saw our first reward as Jeff reported live on Election Day. I found it a kick to listen to him in south-central New Hampshire as I drove around to do my part in getting out the vote, knowing that swing voters could hear him, too. But the real moment of triumph arrived this week, when Jeff announced on his show that starting on May 4, he, Stephanie, Ed, and Thom would be on the air from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weeknight. Wahoo!
Join in the fun!
If you live anywhere near Boston, I hope you will attend our kickoff party at the Revolution Rock Bar. Details:
There will be plenty of ways you can help us, from suggesting advertisers to spreading the word to potential listeners. If you have questions, please contact me at alanfordean AT-SIGN yahoo. We invite you to join our message board.
Is this all a dream? Only one way to find out! Listen to us, either at 1510 AM or online at RevolutionBoston.com.