Clear Channel Turns Left

Head-scratching media-watchers should not be surprised to see Clear Channel Communications flipping dozens of its radio stations to liberal talk formats, industry analysts say. Despite a conservative reputation, 22 Clear Channel stations have already moved to the format, and 20 more stations are expected to make the change this year.

Is this the same Clear Channel that’s been accused of banning the Dixie Chicks, distributing a do-not-play list of songs suspected of anti-war sentiment and sponsoring pro-war rallies with its stable of right-wing talkers?

Clear Channel has consistently denied those accusations, saying such decisions are made at the local station level and are not mandated from corporate headquarters in San Antonio. Still, the corporation and CEO Lowry Mays’ hefty financial contributions to Republican groups in the last election cycle leaves many observers skeptical.

But according to analysts, the format flip is all just a matter of improving the bottom line. In other words, it appears liberal money is just as green as conservative money.

“There is a tremendous appetite out there for progressive talk,” Democracy Radio consultant Todd Webster said.

He pointed out that even as recently as a year ago, no one thought Clear Channel would ever become partners with upstart liberal talkers.

“There has been a tectonic shift in the industry from all of the big brains and the head honchos saying, ‘Nobody wants to listen to a bunch of whiny liberals on the radio,'” Webster said.

Air America Radio seems to have changed all that, with personalities like Al Franken and Randi Rhodes taking right-wing talk’s shtick and smashing it through the looking glass.

The liberal talk radio network has grown from less than 10 stations to almost 50 nationwide in about a year. Many of the now-liberal Clear Channel stations are carrying Air America programming, along with that of Democracy Radio, which carries lefty Ed Schultz.

The company says politics aren’t involved in its decision to put liberal talk shows on the air.

“I’m trying to identify needs in our various communities, whether it’s German industrial music or punk rock or progressive talk,” said Gabe Hobbs, VP of news and talk programming for Clear Channel. “That happens to be good business.”

The numbers would seem to bear that out.

In Portland, Ore., KPOJ-AM had less than 1 percent of the market share before it switched from oldies to progressive talk on March 31st. By summer, that jumped to 4 percent, according to Arbitron ratings. In Ann Arbor, Mich., WLBY-AM jumped from 0.7 percent of the market to 2.2 percent after liberal programming replaced oldies in August. Hobbs said the story is similar all over the country.

Jim Goss, who analyzes the radio industry for Barrington Research, said Clear Channel is making a good decision by adopting a new format that listeners can’t get elsewhere.

“I think it’s an experiment they feel is worth taking, and what is the risk if it doesn’t work out?” Goss said. “One might think that they’d like to be balanced, but their greatest interest is in being successful. They don’t want to put a format on just to prove a point.”