Liberal Demographic

Clear Channel turns left.


As we go to press, there are 36 radio stations that broadcast talk shows from the liberal network Air America. Over a third of them are owned by Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio chain. Take out the stations that air only one or two programs from the network's lineup, and Clear Channel's share gets even bigger.

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 Lowry Mays, a friend and financier of President Bush–it would always use its market power to boost the GOP's agenda. Turns out that profits trump politics after all.

The first Clear Channel outfit to make the switch was KPOJ-AM, in Portland, Oregon, which joined Air America in March. 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 No. 26 to No. 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. The format caught on in less obviously leftish places as well, such as San Diego and Miami.

Does that mean Clear Channel's critics are wrong? It depends on which critics you're talking about. If you don't care for the chain because you associate it with cookie-cutter programming, you won't necessarily be impressed with its embrace of a cookie-cutter liberal talk format. Indeed, since the network has been known to displace left-wing, minority-oriented, locally programmed stations, there are those who would call it part of the problem.

But if the argument is that Clear Channel is snuffing out anti-Republican voices, that clearly isn't true. Air America is the first serious effort since the rise of Rush Limbaugh to give liberals a substantial space in the medium, and despite some early troubles it seems to be doing pretty well. Clear Channel has played a substantial role in that success.

American broadcasting is a government-protected cartel, not a free market. But 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 is happening with the unexpected marriage between Clear Channel and Air America. Even in blue states, money is green.