Radical Radio

Is Hightower's Show Too Liberal for Austin?

The writing is on the (Ruta Maya bathroom) wall: Austin radio listeners deserve Jim Hightower.

Can someone please explain to me why we can hear
G. Gordon Liddy on Austin radio, but not Jim Hightower?

Since Labor Day of last year, former Texas agriculture commissioner Hightower has been broadcasting one of the few voices for progressive politics to be heard on commercial airwaves, from smack-dab in the heart of Austin. Every lunch hour, his Chat and Chew Cafe beams out of a studio set up in a corner of the new Threadgill's World Headquarters on Riverside Drive, just south of Town Lake. The call-in program is now heard across the nation on over 100 stations scattered from Portland, Oregon to Sarasota, Florida. They can hear him Guam. Hell, they even can listen to Hightower in Abilene.

But you can't listen to him here, unless you go down to Threadgill's for lunch (admittedly, not such a bad deal) and don a pair of headphones his staff gives you while you eat. Why can't Hightower get a fair shake in his own hometown? Well, let's hear it from the stations themselves:

"At this time, we don't have a place for it," says KVET-AM programming director Dustin Drew. "We have news at noon and Joyce Isaacs [a somewhat liberal host] on during that time slot, and that's doing pretty well for us."

KLBJ programming director Mark Caesar listed similar timing conflicts, saying, "We're just not looking for new programming right now; we're happy with what we have in that time slot," a lineup that inlcudes the nation's leading big fat idiot, Rush Limbaugh.

KJFK's Mark Kiester, general manager of the station that bills itself as "The First Amendment at Its Best," says, "Originally, when we made the decision to be all talk, Jim was on the list of shows we were considering. But we found his audience demographic wasn't what we were after. We're generally looking for males from age 25-49, and we found he picks up an older and more female audience. Our research on G. Gordon Liddy showed him to be more towards who we were trying to reach."

This is the same Liddy of Watergate fame who advised his listeners that, if faced with arrest by federal agents, they should "Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests." KJFK also carries Howard Stern, a fairly useless excuse for a human being whose racist/sexist bathroom humor has thoroughly failed to justify his use of our public airwaves.

Kiester and Drew are quick to deny that Hightower's strongly anti-corporate political bent has anything to do with his inability to be heard on their stations. "In a show host, you want an entertainer," Drew says. "The politics don't really matter, as long as they're entertaining."

"It's not a political thing at all," Keister concurs. "We as a station don't have a political position. Our position is entertainment. We took a good hard look at [the show], and it just didn't add up. We also looked at how he did on KVET [where Hightower previously produced a show for ABC Radio] and he didn't really do that well." (Keister maintains that Hightower's ABC show was dropped because he wasn't attracting enough interest, but it's also worth noting that Hightower's firing came right after he made critical comments about the Disney corporation, ABC's new owners.)

After my years of dealing with radio as a music journalist, the word "demographic" just makes me want to scream. The marketing studies that define these demographic groups are responsible for the mediocre-to-just-plain-crap you hear from the music industry, and their effect on talk radio is surely as pernicious. Let's ignore the conventional wisdom for a moment and take on some simple logic:

Regardless of what other radio markets may be like, Austin is a fairly progressive town. At the very least, it has been a pretty consistent Democratic stronghold, with accidents like our Republican former sheriff Terry Keel happening only occasionally. And Austin loves its own -- just look at how this town swoons over entertainment figures like Rick Linklater, or the music scene as a whole. Is there any city in the nation that's more into itself?

And let's look at the appeal of Hightower himself: He is one of the nation's more prominent commentators on progressive, populist politics. A former editor of The Texas Observer, he has recently become a major marketing tool in the Observer's recent attempts to revive itself, with ads proclaiming that it's the only magazine in the nation to carry him and Molly Ivins on facing pages. He is also carried in several other national publications, including the website for Working Assets (http://www.wald.com), the very successful, activist credit card/long distance company, where he is featured alongside the likes of Ivins and Alexander Cockburn.

But instead of getting a nationally respected, homegrown talent that reflects the character of our city, we get Stern, Liddy, and Limbaugh. Jeez. The public may own the airwaves, but it's pretty hard to tell that in Austin.

On the Air Ball

It's hard to tell that the public has much of a stake in Taylor, either. Take the case of KTAE (1260 AM), which has served the small town of 10,000 pretty well over the last 48 years, playing a mix of country and Spanish-language music, local news, farm reports, and (my favorite) polkas for the many Germans and Czechs in the area. The station was used as a recording studio by many of the area's finest musicians, including Jimmy Heap & the Melody Masters. In fact, when I was growing up in nearby Rockdale, KTAE was one of the few stations in Central Texas where one could hear popular African-American music -- try finding diversity like that elsewhere on commercial airwaves.

But sadly, now you can't even hear it in Taylor. The station was recently bought out by McAllen businessman Zee Zepeda, who converted it to an affiliate of the Prime Sports satellite network, an all-sports talk station. Many people in Taylor are less than happy; in fact, a petition has been going around the city to protest the change. "It's been quite surprising," says Zepeda, "I didn't expect such a hostile reaction."

Alvin Machu, head of the Taylor chamber of commerce, says, "I think the majority of people in Taylor woke up with their clock radios set to KTAE. I think most people have switched to the Cameron station (KMIL, 1330AM) for local news." He added, "People have been listening to that polka show for an ungodly number of years."

Zepeda, wisely not wanting to completely alienate his audience, has made some concessions, saying that he will air some of the agricultural news, religious programming, and public service announcements previously heard on the station; but otherwise, he has no intention to change from the all-sports format. Zepeda begged not to be portrayed as some big-business monster ("I'm a small businessman, and it's always been my dream to own a radio station") but says that, "The days of the little small-town radio station are over," and that the modern radio market necessitates this change.

Sorry, Mr. Zepeda, but I have to differ -- radio doesn't need another dose of bland, syndicated programming that has little or nothing to do with the community it supposedly serves.

Pirate Radio

Radio may serve the city of San Marcos a little better, if a band of pirate radio activists have their way. By now, you've probably heard of the radio rebels who have occupied the unused 105.9 frequency and set up KIND, a 30-watt station that features a broad range of talk shows and music programming. They are rather fearless pirates, as well -- at the risk of a $10,000 fine, they have been completely upfront about their operations, even sending the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a letter informing it of their intentions. The FCC recently paid KIND a visit, and informed the station that it appeared to be operating illegally without a permit, but took no immediate action to remove them from the air.

I suppose I should deliver a lecture about how KIND should play by the rules and follow the regulations of the FCC, a governmental body set up to protect the public interest. However, seeing as how the FCC seems determined to sell off our broadcasting spectrum to the highest bidder, KIND may be a better arbiter of what San Marcos needs.

A Rich Omission

I want to give kudos to Rich Oppel for his intelligent April 6 editorial attacking publicly financed pro sports team subsidies -- but I have a question, as well. In a commentary worthy of the pages of In These Times or The Nation, Oppel was everything a newspaper editor should be, advocating for the public good, rather than promoting the agenda of the wealthy and disguising it as a community benefit. It was also refreshing to see this stance coming from the Statesman, which in its pre-Oppel days shamelessly promoted the proposed $10 million financing of a baseball stadium here, a stadium in which it had a monetary stake.

However, it is curious that Oppel failed to point out that our state's chief executive, George W. Bush, is one of the most prominent of what Oppel calls "card-carrying members of the New American Welfare State." Bush co-owns the Texas Rangers baseball team, which received approximately $134 million from the city of Arlington for a new stadium. This comes just a week after Oppel wrote a fawning editorial proclaiming Bush as possible presidential material. Given the nature of this story, which firmly binds politics and sports together, it is a rather glaring omission.

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