Why Wisconsin’s Latest Liberal Talk Effort Likely Will Fail

A new Wisconsin liberal talk radio station will sign on next month. If history is any indicator, it is a longshot to succeed. That’s because the deck is stacked against commercial the liberal talk format and it has nothing to do with conservative talk radio. As it always does, optimism is accompanying the Left’s latest foray in talk radio. And on the surface, at least, there is some justification for that optimism.

The Capitol Times reported Friday that liberal radio programming will have a new home in Wisconsin with the purchase of a Milwaukee-area AM station by Michael Crute, co-host of the Devil’s Advocates show, which formerly aired on a Madison radio station. iHeart Media late last year dropped the show on 92.1 FM, along with the rest of the station’s liberal talk format, which was switched to classic hits. iHeart (known then as Clear Channel) first tried to dump the liberal format on the Madison station in 2006. But plans to go to a sports format were dumped after a public push to keep the liberal talk format. Crute’s show has had some success, has become syndicated, and will be part of the new station’s lineup.

The liberal movement has tried for more than a decade, in vain, to match the success of conservative talk radio. Crute told the Capitol Times he believes this effort will be different:

“This is not simply a business deal, my mission is to offer Milwaukee and Wisconsin a new voice and change our political dialogue. Our state and our nation need more fact-based political conversations, more speaking truth to power, more inclusive voices, and less partisan rhetoric,” Crute said in a statement. “Wisconsin needs a dynamic, commercial alternative to the right and far-right voices that peddle propaganda and alternative facts.”

Liberal talk radio as a political movement and not a business model is precisely the strategy, as Crute described, that has failed repeatedly. Let’s examine the most likely reason why iHeart Media chose to end the liberal format in Madison. Capitol Times reporter Jesse Opoien reports that The Mic had a 2.1 share in the summer 2016 Nielsen Audio ratings, the highest of similarly-formatted stations in the U.S. registered by Nielsen, according to the radio industry website Radio Insight. Having the highest national rating for liberal talk stations is a lot like being the fastest turtle in the 40-yard dash. A number more relevant to how liberal talk did in Madison, one of the most liberal cities in America, is a comparison with the rest of the radio stations in the state’s capitol city.

As reported by All Access, The Mic’s ratings generally put it in the bottom three of the 13 stations listed as subscribers to Nielsen’s rating service. The conservative talk station in very liberal Madison, WIBA-AM, was much a stronger ratings performer than The Mic. The Mic’s ratings made it virtually impossible to be a commercial success in the market. Theories abound as to why liberal talk never has been able to match the commercial success of conservative talk.

Many radio programmers are convinced liberal talk is far less compelling than conservative talk. Most successful conservative shows (and many have failed) understand that following the tenets of compelling radio is more important than presenting a political message. That means presenting information the audience won’t get anywhere else and doing so in an entertaining fashion. Most hosts who have attempted liberal talk have created a brand of repetitive preaching and bashing of conservatives.

Liberals often argue that left leaning formats don’t get placed on strong radio signals. It’s likely not much of a factor. Just as out of the way restaurants that serve food will be found, so will radio stations with a salable message. Conservative talk didn’t start on stations with great signals; it earned its way to heritage stations by succeeding on smaller stations. Yet liberals are right when they argue that commercial progressive radio faces an unlevel playing field. But not in a way that they’ll likely ever admit. Any potential audience for liberal talk has already found it on the radio dial and it is publicly subsidized: National Public Radio.

NPR, is in fact, a very successful format that caters to liberals. According to Talkers Magazine data quoted by Wikepedia, NPR’s “All Things Considered, draws more listeners than conservative Talk King Rush Limbaugh and it’s “Morning Edition Program” came in just behind Limbaugh and ahead of conservative talker Sean Hannity. And while progressives may argue that NPR isn’t a liberal format, there is no question it’s audience skews very leftward. A Pew Research Center study shows that 67% of NPR’s audience identify as left of center politically. NPR’s government-subsidized dominance of liberal ears creates a substantial barrier to success for commercial progressive talk ventures. It also is a persuasive argument for NPR to lose its government subsidy and become a completely commercial venture itself.

The station Crute has purchased in Milwaukee has a 25,000-watt signal, which is impressive on the AM band. But it is also in a market where two stations airing NPR programming can be heard and garner some 170,000 listeners, according to the most recent Nielsen data. And with government funding and pledge drives, NPR stations aren’t concerned with turning a profit to survive; a reality Crute and his new station face.

Conservative talk radio has survived and thrived because its best hosts generate a product that produces a viable advertising platforms for businesses. And that creates a profit for owners of conservative talk stations. Until liberal radio operators understand that formula and who the real enemy is, their chances of success will remain long.