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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Dems Leverage Radio’s Power?

At Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson has an interview with Thom Hartmann, who reaches more Americans via radio every day than any other liberal political commentator. Some of Hartmann’s observations about the potential of radio for helping to build a pro-Democratic majority include:

….The number one talk radio show in America, in fact, prior to Limbaugh, was Alan Berg out of Denver. And he was doing a show that you could hear in 27 states. It was on a giant station, it was blowing a huge signal across the western states. And he was assassinated by a couple of skinheads in the parking lot of the radio station. And they made a movie out of it: Talk Radio….The number one show in America before he was assassinated was left-wing. And with the Alan Berg assassination, there was just this collective, oh my God, across America, where for several years nobody wanted to do talk radio. And then Limbaugh rolled out his show in, whenever it was—‘86, I think—and then there was this herd mentality that kicked in across broadcasting.

….when Air America [progressive talk radio network from 2004-2010] rolled out, I wrote the original business plan for Air America and when Air America rolled out, we leased stations, we leased time on—I think—54 Clear Channel stations around the country. And as I recall, when Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital took over Clear Channel, suddenly we started losing stations until basically it just bankrupted Air America.

On another occasion, there’s a another very large radio network with over 900 stations, and I met with the one of the two billionaires who owned that network in the offices of a United States Senator, and said “Why don’t you put”—and he had hundreds of right wing stations—and I said “Why don’t you put some left-wingers on?” I would offer myself, but just generically. And he simply said straight up, he said, “I’m never gonna put somebody on the air who’s gonna argue for raising my taxes.” This is a guy who owned 900 radio stations.

….we were on 54 Clear Channel stations. Clear Channel also had probably at that time 400 or 500 right-wing stations…..Every single one of the stations that we were on was part of a pod of stations owned by Clear Channel that also had a right-wing show. The right-wing shows had been on for years and years. So their sales guys had developed networks that were right-wing show friendly. They had gotten to know the movers and shakers in the local Republican Party. They had gotten in tight with the Chamber of Commerce. They’d gotten to know the car dealers who were big Republican donors. They even hired people out of that universe. So we were suddenly on 50 radio stations across the country. And every single one of those radio stations had a sales team that was almost entirely either made up of right-wingers or had a customer base that was largely right-wing friendly.”

Hartmann adds that “Half of America is Democrat, half are Republicans. It’s not like we’re wired differently in really major substantial ways. I realize there are arguments about authoritarianism and all that kind of stuff, but still, left-wing talk radio works. It worked before Limbaugh; it’s worked since Limbaugh.” Further

….what really made Limbaugh and what really made right-wing talk radio was the Bill Clinton presidency, when Bill Clinton got elected in 1992….They’re preaching a message of tax cuts and deregulation. And so, of course, the very, very wealthy and very powerful are going to be pouring money down their throats. And I’m preaching a message of “raise taxes on rich people.” And I don’t know how many rich people are therefore going to go out and buy a radio station to put me on.

That’s when they really took off. That’s when it became a multi, multi, you know, $100 million business rather than just a million dollar business. And left-wing talk radio never successfully went through that curve. It got halfway down the road. But when Air America started out, the guy who started it said that he had millions of dollars in funding and he had lied. The very first, you know, he was a con man. I did not know him. But it was a mess. And nobody has ever properly funded a progressive network in the United States.

….There are, at any given moment in the United States, hundreds of radio stations for sale, and they don’t sell for huge amounts of money, hundreds of 1000s to low millions at the very most. There’s also low-power FM, and there are increasing numbers of folks who are starting low-power FM stations. I’m on probably a dozen of them around the country right now….you can put together a low-power FM station for $25,000 and run it out of your basement for that matter, if somebody can get a decent antenna and tower location. So there is the possibility of growing a progressive network. It’s actually happening. We’ve been adding a couple of stations, four or five, six, or eight stations a year, every year steadily for four years.

Back around what must have been 2006 or thereabouts, Randi Rhodes and me and a bunch of other people from Air America went to DC to talk with a bunch of Senators, Democratic Senators, about talk radio, and we tried to convince them that that, you know, they’re raising billions of dollars every four years for elections, and with a fraction of that money, they could buy 400 or 500 radio stations or even 50 radio stations around the country. And it’s much more politically effective to have somebody 24/7 singing your praises on the radio in a way that has high credibility because people feel like they’ve built a relationship with you, than it is to buy ads every advertising cycle. And outside of Bernie Sanders, who totally understood what I was talking about, because for 11 years he had been on my show every Friday for an hour taking calls from listeners—outside of Bernie, we just got blown off, including by somebody who later became a candidate for president of the United States and lost. And I think they lost because right-wing talk radio just destroyed that candidacy.

….The Democratic Party constantly underestimated talk radio. And what’s happening right now is even more alarming. And I don’t recall if I got into that in the Nation article or not. But this is a phenomenon that has just been going on in the last four or five years. At any given moment there are a couple hundred radio stations around the country for sale, but there are also, at any given moment, probably 1,000 radio stations available for lease, where you just go in and say, I’ll rent your station for a year. This is how Air America did it with all the stations we leased from Clear Channel. And typically, on the lease stations, what you’ll hear is religious content or polka music or music that serves niche communities with niche advertisers just kind of hanging on. And what’s happening is that a group of deep-pocketed Hispanic right-wingers, mostly Cuban exiles, have been renting radio stations around the country, the best estimate is there might be 200 or 300 of them now, where they’re running some syndicated and some local Spanish language, right-wing talk radio, and in some cases, they’re playing music, but they’re hiring DJs who are delivering right-wing political messages, you know, snarky comments and things between songs. I saw an article like two weeks ago saying Democrats can’t figure out why the Hispanic vote has moved 7% towards the Republican Party in the last two years. And I’m yelling at the web page going, It’s the freakin’ radio, you know?

….You know, guys working on construction sites, listening to the music with the DJ coming on and going, “Oh my god, do you see what Joe Biden just did?” Well, here’s a new song in Spanish. The people listening are Spanish speakers. I’m telling you, you’re going to see by the 2024 election, you’re going to see Spanish language radio stations in every community in America with a significant Spanish-speaking population, pushing right-wing politics, and they’re already halfway there.

As regards the reach of conservative talk radio, Hartmann notes that there are “1,500 right-wing radio stations in this country, and probably fewer than 100 left-wing stations” and “what political radio there is, is entirely right-wing. It’s not healthy.”

Hartmann adds, “if you live in Wyoming, I mean, you might drive an hour to work, what are you gonna do, you’re gonna listen to the radio. And podcasts are great, and they’re growing rapidly, but they’re also growing rapidly in the 40 and under demographic. If you look at the 50 and over demographic, they still very, very heavily use radio. And those folks are more likely to be voting.”

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