March 1, 2004

Great Radio Hope? The tale of two radio opportunities

You may have heard that a nationwide radio network of liberal politics is poised to take to the airwaves sometime in spring 2004, but you might not have heard about another opportunity involving the radio and left-of-center politics.

What's been getting most major media attention is a network originally called AnShell Media but since renamed Progress Media. It was first announced in February 2003, and got a big boost courtesy two Chicagoans, North Shore Democrats Sheldon and Anita Droby. (The Drobys have since sold much of their Progress Media claim to a New York investor.). Money talks in media, so this proposal got a fair amount of media attention. There's also be plenty of talking to come from the lineup of non-Republicans the network has assembled, including:

  • Al Franken, who has inked a one-year contract with Progress Media to air a daily talk show called "The O'Franken Factor". This show is billed as "Drug-Free Radio", and as if that isn't enough of a potshot against Rush Limbaugh, Franken is scheduled to air at exactly the same time as Rush.

  • Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University Southern California, who is slated to host an early evening talk show about the news media.

  • two noted attorneys, Mike Papantonio and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who are slated to co-host a show called "Champions of Justice" which will discuss "the inner workings of corporations and how they influence our daily lives".

But wait, there's more. Add to the mix Janeane Garofalo as a possible host, plus one of the creators of "The Daily Show", Lizz Winstead, who has been hired to oversee entertainment programming for the network and will herself be hosting a morning show about political satire and comedy.

Progress Radio will air in a number of major media markets, including Chicago on WNTD-AM (950), which is the first station in America to approve Progress programming. WNTD used to be a sports-talk station and a Spanish-language station before its latest scheduled morph into Radio LiberalLand. And there's another Chicago connection: The network's programming will be steered by Dave Logan, a former program director of WLUP-FM (97.9).

But we must be cautious. Progress Media also has some serious establishment connections, particularly with regards to the major corporate media. Martin Kaplan was a former Disney studio executive, and the network's news programming head, Shelley Lewis, recently headed "American Morning" on CNN.

What's more, Progress Media, like any major broadcast media in this country, will likely lean on advertising as a source of funding. Obviously, corporations are a source of ad dollars, and that might threaten to dilute "Champions of Justice" before it even airs a single episode.

There's a possibility that the only redeeming facet to Progress Media would be Republican bashing, which actually might take Progress Media quite far when you consider that liberal/left/critical authors have been dominating the nonfiction bestseller lists for the past year and a half. And there's plenty of grist for the mill with Republicans being major players in American media and (for the time being at least) dominating all three branches of government.

Keep in mind that it was a group of venture capitalists that forked over the money to launch this project, and venture capital will undoubtedly be fueling this effort (you pretty much need it; major market radio stations typically cost on the order of $30 million per station). Naturally, you can bet that they're looking to get a return on their investment.

But when it comes to, say, forging a mass-based alternative that offers enlightening and critical perspectives on a daily basis and gets under the skin of powerful interests, that's another story. Progress Media might well be liberal (which is something increasingly needed, don't get me wrong), but it probably won't necessarily be radical or even progressive.

But there is an opportunity to come in 2004 which could very well help forge such a mass-based alternative: the long-awaited mass-rollout of a fleet of locally-controlled low-power FM radio stations across the United States.

Low-Power FM (LPFM) is based on the idea that Small Is Beautiful; they operate signals at no more than 100 watts. And since LPFM signals reach a smaller broadcast range than full-power radio stations, this (theoretically) allows for more small-scale stations to come to fruition.

This would effectively mean radio managed and powered by actual human beings, without ads, responsive to the communities they serve. More importantly, LPFM stations attack the restrictions on public access to radio, and may well help attack the monopoly control in radio that we've increasingly seen in radio in Chicago and nationwide in recent years.

A mass-deployment of LPFM was recommended by the FCC back around 1999, was vetted for on technical and engineering grounds, and was expected to pass approval by Congress. But that was snuffed out by lobbying efforts from two groups who usually fight each other--the National Association of Broadcasters (the main lobby for commercial broadcasters) and National Public Radio.

But LPFM is back on the deployment table, and that very fact is a delightful consequence of the 2003 fight against the Federal Communication Commission's disastrous media ownership policies. The fight over those rules is still underway and very much up for grabs (officially, they're in state of court- ordered suspended animation), but there's no doubt that FCC chair Michael Powell has metaphorically gotten kicked in the teeth on this issue.

The story is that Powell got precious little support from the major corporate media in the ensuing controversy over those rules, and signs are that, as an act of revenge against the corporate media, Powell will grant approval on LPFM and make a formal recommendation to that effect to Congress sometime "very soon".

This is not to say that LPFM is guaranteed. The NAB and NPR will all but certainly have some choice words to say on the topic. But still, it offers a tangible opportunity for a serious achievement for media activists and interested groups in Chicago and nationwide, and most analysts expect this to be the year for Low Power Radio.

How is Chicago expected to fare in the LPFM wars? Hard to say. While the FCC may well authorize LPFM, they're more likely to get the ball rolling first on what are called LP-10 stations -- LPFM stations which are no more than 10 watts strong. Opening up channels for larger wattages would open up opportunities in larger markets, though having LP-10s can't hurt either. Either way, the Chicago forecast is still cloudy.

At least Chicago will have some Progress Media for the time being, and can boast have a serious daily rival to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest. This is a good thing, especially in an ever-rightward-shifting radio environment where Limbaugh and O'Reilly are increasingly seen as "reasoned moderates". What's more, Progress Media may prove to be a key factor in mobilizing support in this election year; history says, don't dismiss the power of radio in election yers: WVON proved crucial in Harold Washington's successful campaign.

But Progress Media isn't Paradise Media for The Movement. It should be recognized for its limits, and shouldn't serve to disract efforts to establish and expand popular control as The Grand Prize in this game we call life.