The Profit Motive

Clear Channel discovers the liberal demographic


Today at noon, WCOL-AM in Columbus, Ohio, becomes the latest station to join the Air America radio network. It is also the latest station owned by the behemoth Clear Channel chain to embrace the "progressive talk" format. The company, which owns more than 1,200 stations, is now beaming Air America's liberal lineup over eight of them—nine if you count a Florida outlet that's only running the Randi Rhodes show, and 10 if you count XM satellite radio, which includes Clear Channel among its investors. That might not sound like much, but it's over a third of Air America's affiliates.

It's an alliance that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about Clear Channel: that as a Texas corporation that has benefited tremendously from the Republicans' regulatory policies—and is owned by a Lowry Mays, a friend and financier of President Bush—it would use its market power to boost the GOP's agenda. Turns out that profits trump politics after all.

The company's first sally leftward came in March, when KPOJ-AM, in Portland, Oregon, became the first Clear Channel outfit to embrace Air America. Portland is a famously left-leaning town, and the experiment was a success: Among listeners aged 25 to 64, the station's ratings jumped from number 26 to number 3. Managers of other outlets around the country noticed this success, and decided to imitate it: Soon such lefty strongholds as Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, were hearing Al Franken and company on Clear Channel-owned affiliates too. Meanwhile, outside the Air America orbit, Clear Channel gave Jesse Jackson a weekly syndicated show called Keep Hope Alive, currently airing on about a dozen stations around the country.

The format caught on in less obvious places as well. San Diego isn't quite the conservative stronghold it used to be: As Neal Matthews noted in The New York Times last month, it now boasts not just a Clear Channel/Air America station bearing the psychedelic moniker KLSD, but a Democratic majority on the city council and the country's first openly homosexual D.A. Still, it's not the first place that jumps to mind when you think, "Where are listeners aching for the sonorous opinions of Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken?" But the company's research said it was an untapped market, and so the station leaped. In Miami, one reason Clear Channel WINZ-AM switched to Air America, according to the Palm Beach Post, was the tremendous financial success of Michael Moore's Bush-baiting film Fahrenheit 9/11.

Does that mean Clear Channel's critics are wrong? It depends on which critics you're talking about. Those of us who don't care for the chain because we associate it with cookie-cutter programming will not necessarily be impressed with its embrace of a cookie-cutter liberal talk format. (We'll be somewhat more impressed if "Indie" 103.1, Clear Channel's freewheeling music outlet in Los Angeles, inspires more imitation.) Air America's on-air personalities have a lot in common with the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs they're competing with, and since the network has been known to displace left-leaning minority-oriented talk stations, there are those who would call it part of the problem.

But if the argument is that Clear Channel is snuffing out left-wing voices, that clearly isn't true. If anything, it's giving the left some juice. For the last decade and a half, conservatives have dominated commercial talk radio, especially where nationwide shows are concerned. Air America is the first serious effort since the rise of Rush to give liberals a substantial space in the medium; and, despite some early troubles, it seems to be doing pretty well. If it continues to succeed, and if people like Michael Moore continue to clear millions in bookstores and at the box office, then a Dem-friendly cable news outlet might be on the way as well. Not Dem-friendly the way CNN is Dem-friendly. Dem-friendly the way Fox News is Republican-friendly.

The biggest problem with radio today is the high entry barriers imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, rules that make it difficult and expensive to launch a new station—and that encourage those who do start such stations to be far too risk-averse. A few recent developments cut against this: falling prices for outlets in the AM band, a limited program to license low-power broadcasters on the FM band, the rise of webcasting. But we still don't have anything like a free market.

Yet even a distorted market needs consumers, and if an underserved group of listeners is big enough, someone will notice them. That's why Spanish-language formats boomed in the '90s. And that's what's happening with the unexpected marriage between Clear Channel and Air America. Imagine the worst-case scenario for the Democrats this election, with Not Bush getting just 40% of the country's ballots. That may not be enough voters to win an election, but it's more than enough to support a Bush-hating radio format.

We've heard so much about our "polarized" and "divided" country in the last year that the presidential campaign is starting to feel like something out of Dr. Seuss: One America, Two Americas, Red America, Blue America. Even in blue America, money is green.