In response to the recent dropping of the Thom Hartmann show and departure of local morning host Lee Rayburn from The Mic 92.1, a group of concerned listeners came together to discuss the future of the station. Friends of Progressive Radio met at the Dardanelles restaurant Monday night for a passionate, sometimes rowdy discussion of what a station that calls itself "progressive" should carry on its airwaves.
Station operations manager Mike Ferris and programming manager Brian Turany both came to the meeting to tell their side of the story and take questions from the nearly 40 people who'd assembled on a bitterly cold Tuesday night.
Several audience members spoke about how much they respected and appreciated Hartmann and Rayburn. Most were unsure, at best, about the Dave Ramsey Show, a Christian financial advice program that had been moved into Hartmann's timeslot.
"We do hear you," Ferris told the gathering. "We heard you two years ago when you amassed a petition drive of over 5,000 signatures to save the station." That prompted the station's owners, Clear Channel, to rescind their decision to drop the progressive talk format.
But Ferris went on to say that, while The Mic had initially done fairly well for itself, its ratings and shares have since dropped to where changes needed to be made.
"We haven't done terrible," Ferris said. "We're number 11, but we haven't been able to break the top 10. My challenge, then, was to find a program that could perhaps bring in additional listeners. You are great listeners and I appreciate that, but I thought the time was ripe to find a nuts-and-bolts financial issues show that might appeal to a larger audience."
Most of those in attendance were not convinced the Ramsey program was the best pick for the station, especially in Hartmann's old timeslot. Many complained that they found his frequent referrals to Christianity and God to be pushy and offensive, and wondered if there hadn't been a better, less polarizing choice for a financial advice show.
Ferris explained that he didn't know of anyone with better ratings, but conceded that, if Ramsey didn't perform as well as hoped, the station would consider looking at someone else.
"I told Thom that his show was wonderful, and that our decision to drop it was in no way a reflection on him," Ferris continued. "We liked his thoughtful, intelligent, conversational tone and his ability to debate without raising his voice. He understood and accepted our decision. I'm not going to say he agreed with it, but that's life in syndicated radio land."
Complaints from the audience continued to roll in, sometimes resulting in tense interruptions and booing. Stu Levitan, who has a weekly show on The Mic, tried to mediate by insisting that they shouldn't "make the perfect the enemy of the good" and pointed out that the station is still probably the "most progressive" on-air voice in the area.
Barbara Wright, owner of the Dardanelles and one of the meeting's organizers, took frequent soundings of the opinions of those gathered. She asked how many would listen to Ramsey's show and what their specific objections to it were, meeting with fairly uniform, oppositional responses.
Turany tried to argue that the people at the meeting, though "exceptional listeners," were not an accurate sample of the station's wider audience. "You all get it and you're dedicated listeners and we're thankful for that, but we need more listeners, and just being that left-leaning channel has not been able to grow the audience."
"Things are changing rapidly," Ferris said. "I don't want to lose you -- I may and I obviously have -- but there are opportunities to reach a new audience. Currently, we reach an average of 27,000 people weekly. My point is that I can't survive financially as a business at that number. Going to 37,000 in the next week would be a wonderful boost for my bottom line. Point is it's not just about keeping a one-track message. Nothing is all one track anymore."
But the changes, Ferris stressed, are not part of some wider conspiracy or business plan to choke out The Mic's progressive format, as some have speculated.
After nearly two hours of debate and discussion, the two representatives announced that they'd already planned to put Hartmann back on from 2-5 p.m. every day, with the Dave Ramsey Show moving into Rayburn's old timeslot from 5-8 a.m.
The revelation drew cheers, but some audience members were incredulous that the station reps had not mentioned this straight away. Ferris and Turany said they'd wanted to hear everyone's opinions first, and explained that, through a strange twist of fate, Rayburn's decision had allowed them to make the switch.
"Lee stated that he wanted the station to stay all progressive, but he's not the program director," said Ferris. "I respect the daylights out of him for sticking by his principals. When Lee put in his resignation, though, we wanted to talk him out of it, work something out. But there was nothing I could do when he put it forth that he'd quit and continued to talk about it with others inside and outside the building. I couldn't protect him."
Grievances aired, a few amends made, and some significant questions still remaining, Ferris and Turany took their leave just after 8:00. It was at that point that Rayburn himself showed up to explain his decision and take a few questions from those who'd stuck around.
"I regret what happened," Rayburn said, "but it is what it is. If my leaving meant that The Mic kept Thom Hartmann on the air, then I'm happy." He went on to note that he deeply appreciated all of the support from the community, and that he missed his work too much to give it up entirely.
Rayburn discussed his desire to revisit Willy Street Media, a nonprofit news outlet featuring Madison-area activists and artists, something he'd launched in 2007 with business partner Joe Connelly. He reiterated some of what he'd told me in our phone interview from the previous day. Now, however, he sounded surer of himself and of his determination to find a new broadcast venue, giving voice to local issues, in the very near future.