Speculative Skinny: Inside the Development of "Progressive" Talk Radio

The announcement earlier this spring that “a group of wealthy Democrats” had assembled a $10 million endowment to launch a “progressive talk-radio network” caused a small flurry of mainstream media coverage; the quotes in this case come from a widely-syndicated column by author Thom Hartmann.
The “group of wealthy Democrats,” operating under the moniker AnShell Media, are currently deeply involved in the process of creating this “progressive” talk radio lineup. The new network will launch in late 2003 or early 2004. Once the talent list is ready, AnShell will still need to invest a significant sum to create the broadcast infrastructure to distribute its programming. Given the launch date, this will likely happen within the next few months.
AnShell has two options to create this infrastructure: construct its own broadcast network facilities or buy someone else’s.
If you’ve never heard of the i.e. America radio network, you’re not alone. It is a struggling operation, owned (either wholly or in large part) by the United Auto Workers union. Just how the UAW came to own a talk radio network in the first place is a bit of a mystery, but it knows nothing about running one. It claims to have more than 100 affiliates around the country, but not many of those stations actually carry any i.e. America programming, and they are all located in rural or fringe markets. It’s not exactly going head-to-head with FOX in prime time.
Until recently i.e. America seemed to be in a rebuilding mode. Late last year it moved into a new, state-of-the-art $2 million broadcast facility in Detroit and had gone through some lineup shuffling. Some of its programming has since been picked up by the Sirius satellite radio network.
i.e. America’s most widely-carried programs to date are either niche-oriented or rather bland, but it seemed the network had begun to focus on strengthening its stable of political talk. As unions tend to lean liberal, the network’s political talk hosts do as well. Overall, the network is still losing money with only a handful of active affiliates, but it’s better than a complete death spiral.
i.e. America’s two most prominent liberal talk hosts were Mike Malloy and Peter Werbe. Malloy is the higher-profile of the two, host of a late-evening show. He mysteriously landed several gigs this spring as a liberal talking head on cable news punditry programs.
Werbe, in a midday talk slot, was the more radical of the two, both politically and socially. His was the only program to regularly explore concepts of class consciousness in American society – something Americans, in general, try very hard to deny, even though it lies at the root of many of the country’s problems.
Just after finishing his broadcast on Friday, June 20, Werbe was notified by i.e. America’s management that he was terminated for “budgetary considerations. ” It was completely unexpected – after all, Werbe seemed key to the makeover of i.e. America’s image.
It made more sense sense when Werbe was replaced by Thom Hartmann, the aforementioned cheerleader for AnShell Media.
Just because the UAW doesn’t know beans about radio doesn’t mean its network isn’t valuable. The union, well more than $2 million in the hole on i.e. America, might as well have burned the cash for all the impact its investment has made on the mainstream media environment.
AnShell is investing in the talent first but has yet to announce just where it will broadcast from. If AnShell were to buy i.e. America, everybody wins: the UAW could recoup some of its losses and AnShell gets a turnkey network infrastructure, saving money in comparison to the cost of building its own.
Perhaps budgetary concerns did play into the separation of Werbe and i.e. America. He was the only union host on the payroll (a member of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists), kind of a backwards anomaly for a union-owned network. But if Werbe was fired as a precursor to an AnShell buyout, that’s an indicator of just how “progressive” the new network will be. The fact that Hartmann is Werbe’s replacement is also worth noting: Hartmann is magnitudes milder.
“Progressive” may be a misnomer for this endeavor. “Mouthpiece for the Democratic Party” is more apt. Just last week AnShell announced Al Gore’s arrival on the scene, reportedly assisting on the fundraising front (he brings his own valuable network of “wealthy Democrats” to the table). AnShell’s Board of Advisors is already well-connected to what passes for the liberal elite these days.
Although we can’t expect the announcement of an official lineup from AnShell for several months, if these dots are connected in the way envisioned here then we already know the limits of what will be considered acceptable “alternative” discourse. AnShell admits that’s not the point, anyway: “We’ve discovered a gaping hole in the radio programming marketplace, which when capitalized on, will yield high-margin revenue.”
Oh boy, they will throw us a Coke as we drown in a sea of Pepsi. I can hardly wait.