I know, right? Stop the presses, we've got a story for page one! "Local News Anchor Not Sad to See Competition Start to Fold." Somebody's sure to notch a Pulitzer on their belt for this one.
Well, before you write me off as completely irrelevent, dripping with bias, let me fill you in on some background here.
On February 1st, I'll have worked at AM 1670 WTDY for a whole year. Prior to that, I worked at the newspaper in Portage, which entailed a 45 minute commute to and from work every day. This left me plenty of time to listen to talk radio, and after switching back and forth from WTDY to the Mic for months, I finally settled on WTDY as my go-to station. The reason is as much a matter of principle as it is a matter of preference.
WTDY and a handful of other stations in Madison are owned by Midwest Family Broadcasting, a Madison-based company that has operated in the city for half a century and also owns stations in La Crosse, Springfield Illinois, Springfield Missourri and Benton Harbor Michigan.
As a company, our small locally-based operation competes primarily with Madison's Clear Channel Communications-owned stations, which include the Mic. For those unfamiliar with Clear Channel or its notoriety, try and imagine the business practices of McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the entire oil industry wrapped into one package and focused on radio and billboard advertising.
It was Clear Channel that lobbied for the massive ownership deregulations passed under the guise of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, then dropped a cool $30 billion to increase its nationwide radio station ownership to 1,200 -- the single largest conglomerate of AM and FM stations in the country.
Then, it was Clear Channel that began firing the on-air staff at smalltown radio stations across the country, and piping in voicetracked disk-jockeys that have never even been to the cities where their voices were heard. This practice, in addition to hamstringing local radio as a business and putting thousands out of work, also endangered dozens of lives in the 2002 Minot, North Dakota ammonia spill when no one was at the local radio stations to warn the populace to stay indoors.
It was Clear Channel that put together a list of songs following September 11, 2001 that were not to be played on the radio for fear that they might offend the populace or stir up dissent -- among the banned songs, Rage Against the Machine's entire body of work. It was Clear Channel that refused to display anti-war billboards or air paid commercials featuring anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan.
I barely acknowledge the Dixie Chicks as musicians, but when Clear Channel stations stopped airing their music following the band's public criticism of George W. Bush, I was pissed off as all hell.
Even before I worked for the competition, I couldn't ignore the flagrant hypocrisy of Clear Channel operating what they call "Madison's Progressive Talk." The progressive movement is one that's supposed to be rooted in the ideal of a locally-focused, uncensored public discourse.
Clearly, non-censorship is not one of Clear Channel's strong suits, but the Mic fails to meet the other tenets as well. Calling all-left, all-the-time talk radio a "discourse" does as much disservice to the term as Fox News has done to the concept of 24-hour news. I consider myself a moderate-to-left-leaning skeptical progressive when I don't have my reporter's hat on, but if I can listen to an hour of talk radio and not be upset by one thing I hear, I know I'm being pandered to.
It's not hard to see Clear Channel's original right-wing agenda behind left-wing talk. Sure, giving Al Franken a national pulpit eventually backfired when he was elected to the Senate, but for years, Republicans were able to dismiss his arguments as the irrelevent ramblings of a comedian-turned pundit when Air America could just as easily have filled his slot with someone with some real cred.
You can see the same in the Mic's morning lineup. Stephanie Miller isn't much more than a chattering, vacant floozy, discussing little of substance and spending half her program bubbling about the irrelevent goings-on in Hollywood. Ed Schultz has the potential to present a delectible conondrum as a "gun-totin', red meat-eatin' electric car-drivin' lefty," until you realize his corporate handlers keep too tight a leash on him to allow for any issue of legitimate depth to be discussed.
The closest thing the Mic had to a saving grace was their morning host, Lee Rayburn, who recently quit his post in Madison, as noted in the newspaper story above. He provided an interesting forum for local debate, but it wouldn't surprise me to discover he was driven out of his job. But with Rayburn the possible lone exception, every other piece of daily programming on the Mic is syndicated from elsewhere in the nation, sterile, safe and noncontroversial.
That's what has always perplexed me about the Mic's local following -- that a self-purported progressive city like Madison could rally around the obvious machinations of an evil empire like Clear Channel and turn its back on the locally-owned alternative. Up until budget concerns forced some massive cuts in November, WTDY was staffed by a set of live bodies at the microphone 13 hours a day, bringing a slew of differing, sometimes opposing, viewpoints on local and national issues to the airwaves. Management has assured me that as soon as we pull out of the slump, we'll be live and local all day again.
Having a radio station in town that broadcasts left wing views exclusively does little to combat the image of Madison as eighty square miles surrounded by reality. As a progressive, I welcome a challenge to my viewpoints almost as much as I welcome a substantive discussion, and the Mic rarely provided either.
I can't feel bad for the Mic's listeners as the corporate keepers in San Antonio, Texas retool what some Madisonians thought was "their" radio station. Given Clear Channel's record, it was a predetermined inevitability, and I like to think that this will serve as a wake-up call that a truly progressive radio station is one staffed by people you can bump into at a protest, on a barstool or in line at the grocery store.