LOS ANGELES, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Talk radio, for years regarded as something of a home field for conservative politics in America, is making more room for liberal politics with a rapid expansion of the progressive-talk format.
The talk-radio format has been around since at least the 1960s, but it came into its own as a dominant cultural and political force during the '90s, when Rush Limbaugh cultivated a nationwide audience in syndication estimated at more than 20 million listeners each week. Limbaugh was among the first talk-show hosts to rise to prominence following the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1985.
The Federal Communications Commission had required broadcasters to provide equal time for rival points of view on controversial issues of public importance and to actively engage in coverage of such issues. Unfettered by such requirements, talk radio turned into something of a "rock 'em-sock 'em" free-for-all -- with the strongest personalities reaching the higher rungs of commercial success.
Limbaugh's influence was such that after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, party leaders named him an honorary member of Congress.
With a few notable exceptions -- such as talk-show host Michael Jackson in Los Angeles -- it seemed as though talk radio was thoroughly conservative. But Michael Harrison, publisher of the industry magazine Talkers, told United Press International that's a persistent myth about liberal talk radio.
"It's always been around," he said. "Another myth is that liberal talk radio doesn't work."
Harrison said the recent expansion of liberal talk radio -- which most practitioners of the format prefer to call progressive talk -- provides a good illustration of why talk radio in general is such a hardy perennial among radio formats.
"Talk radio works best when it challenges authority," he said. "It works best when people feel that no one else is talking to them quite this way."
Companies such as Air America and Democracy Radio are enjoying market success with such talk-show hosts as Al Franken, Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes and Janeane Garofalo. Clear Channel Radio has moved into the progressive-talk arena, with three of its stations -- in Cincinnati, Detroit and Washington -- switching formats in the past month.
Gabe Hobbs, Clear Channel Radio vice president of programming, news/talk/sports, told United Press International progressive talk is experiencing vigorous growth, largely because the recent round of the format's expansion took place during the contentious election year of 2004.
"People had a heightened interest in electoral politics," he said, "and we used that opportunity to fill a need and launch a new format."
Hobbs said talk stations typically take 18 months to two years to become established, but progressive talk is connecting considerably faster for Clear Channel.
"Our stations are getting there in 30 to 90 days," he said. "That's remarkable considering most of the talent, no one knows who they are."
Franken -- the top star in Air America's lineup -- is probably the closest thing to a household name among progressive-talk hosts currently on the air. He is an Emmy-winning writer and comedian, and his profile in the talk-radio world also benefits from his notoriety as the author of the best-selling book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot."
After a shaky startup in 2004, when there were reports that the company was having serious capitalization problems, Air America is now on 50 U.S. radio stations. Since most of its affiliates did not come on board until the fall, Air America president Jon Sinton told UPI there isn't much to report in the way of ratings history -- but he said several stations have increased their audiences with the new format.
For example, he said KPOJ in Portland, Ore., is the No. 4 station overall among listeners age 25-54.
"People will tell you it's the 'People's Republic of Portland,'" he said -- referring to a perception that the area is a liberal stronghold. "But then we signed on in San Diego, which has a reputation of being the most conservative radio market in the country -- and I think in the first or second month that we put the format on KLSD, the station was No. 1 in the market among listeners age 25-54."
Sinton said the numbers have settled back somewhat since then, but he said the station is still "a big hit."
Harrison said the ratings for progressive talk indicate that the format is headed in a positive direction.
"This early in Limbaugh's career," said Harrison, "he was considered to be not even a blip on the radar."
Harrison and Hobbs both pointed out that the current expansion of liberal talk radio is most likely a product of the cyclical nature of programming.
"Just like in music radio, we see certain types of music rise and fall and rise and fall," said Hobbs. "I just hope this isn't the disco of talk radio."
Will progressive talk grow to the point that it could rival conservative talk's political and cultural influence?
"That would be nice -- I'd settle for leveling the playing field," said Sinton. "If you get some staying power, we hope that over time we can balance the discussion, and I think democracy requires that balance."
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