On the morning of Nov. 29, Barbara Wright cut a commercial to run on 92.1 WXXM ("The Mic"), the Air America affiliate that will switch formats to Fox Sports come the New Year. The purpose of the commercial was to promote a rally that will be held tonight, Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the High Noon Saloon to demonstrate listener and advertiser support for the progressive talk radio format.
Wright is an advertiser, the owner of the Dardanelles restaurant on Monroe Street as well as the president of Madison Originals, an association of local and independently owned restaurants. After the WXXM format change was announced in November, she wanted to use her advertising time to promote the campaign. The first version of the commercial announcing the rally, however, was rejected by Clear Channel, the owner WXXM. Wright says the ad originally read: "Are you upset about the death of Air America and not ready to listen to Fox Sports? Come to the High Noon Saloon on Dec.12. There will be music, fun and speechifying, and we've even invited Ed Schultz."
Wright says the commercial was rejected because it mentioned Clear Channel by name. "Isn't this my right to free speech? I'm paying for this commercial," she says. In the end, Clear Channel accepted a rephrased announcement and ran it for free. "I'm upset I'm losing the best vehicle for advertising I ever had," says Wright.
Her reaction is telling. The demise of Air America in Madison has prompted not only a listeners' revolt, but an advertisers' rebellion as well.
Over the last two Thursdays, Wright has opened her restaurant to Air America supporters who are organizing a response to the format change. They've discussed a range of potential responses, from entering comments on the WXXM public file, to lobbying the Clear Channel regional manager in Cincinnati, to filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, to seeking public support from politicians like Sen. Russ Feingold. In the end, most of the discussion revolved around advertising.
Numerous WXXM advertisers -- everything from the Dardanelles to a floral shop to a pet store -- attended the discussions. They criticized both Clear Channel's advertising reps and WXXM's approach to the progressive format.
David Crowell, Clear Channel regional manager in Cincinnati, says that the decision to change formats was made in early to mid October after lengthy deliberations. "We were tracking the business progress of the station, and over time came to conclusions that we needed to go into a different direction."
While praising the audience response in the Madison market, Crowell points to advertising as the culprit for the change. "The main issue is that it has become difficult to attract advertisers to that format in the last five to six months," he says. "Some of our advertisers have been struggling to get results from their investment."
Crowell declines to go into specifics, but says that results did not meet Clear Channel's expectations. "In a market like Madison, we thought it would be well listened to," he concludes, "and it seems to be, but from a business perspective there has been trouble with selling the content of that format."
Crowell did apologize to the advertisers upset about the format change: "We're trying to maybe down the road look at some alternative that might be able to solve some of their issues, but at the moment I can't talk about that."
Ultimately, the local businesses opposed to the change decided to flex their muscles through their dollars. Their plan? To organize themselves and other like-minded local businesses to support any station in the Madison market that broadcasts the progressive radio format.
"We decided to go forward with trying to find another radio home for progressive radio," Wright says.
There has been some talk of trying to woo WTDY (or "The Pulse"). Owned by Midwest Family Communications and led by John "Sly" Sylvester, the station previously broadcast progressive talk standouts Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller, as well as The Mic's local personalities such as John Quinlan and Lee Rayburn. Some supporters, though, remain skeptical of the station given the reputation of Sylvester as a rancorous on-air host and the station's broadcasting of conservative icon Bill O'Reilly.
As for Clear Channel, Wright doubts that the nation's largest broadcasting chain will bring progressive radio back to Madison. "It's never going to happen," she says, "so why waste our time doing it."
In the end, the group (roughly organized as Long Live Progressive Radio) is looking to assemble a potential base of interested advertisers that any station would be happy to have. "We are going to sign up advertisers at the event tonight," Wright continues, "so that if another progressive radio station begins, they will have a base to start with. We're hoping that someone will step forward and offer."
Meanwhile, Valerie Walasek is looking to build and demonstrate listener support. She is responsible for kicking off the most popular manifestation of the reaction to the change, namely an online petition looking to build support for the progressive radio format in Madison. Launched on Nov. 10, it has attracted more than 5,000 signatures as of today.
She is also the primary organizer of tonight's meeting, which is shaping up to be quite an event. Kicking off with music by El Clandestino, the rally will feature Wright along with representatives from the High Noon Saloon, Tap It/New Works Theater, Community Action Coalition, the Alliance for Animals, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and Amnesty International, many of whom have advertised on WXXM. Various officials and political candidates are scheduled to attend, including Madison City Council president Austin King, outgoing state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, Green gubernatorial candidate Nelson Eisman and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
"We're hoping tonight is a demonstration to people of how much interest there is in progressive radio," Wright says, "both for listeners and advertisers."