A few years ago, I was sitting across from liberal talk show host Ed Schultz at a local restaurant. It was part of a station promotion for KJLL AM 1330. During our conversation, Schultz lamented the difficulty of getting liberal talk on good radio signals. The gist of his argument is a familiar liberal-talk spiel. Conservatives run big corporations, and therefore they want conservative talk on the prime talk stations.
Never mind that Schultz was then negotiating with a big corporation to get a primetime TV spot.
Regardless, he visited Tucson on behalf of 1330 AM, which, indeed, does not have a strong signal and got terrible ratings for its liberal-talk format. But it did have a loyal fan base, and it's clear that the fan base feels disenfranchised since the market's only liberal-talk outlet changed formats.
So, can liberal talk similar to what was broadcast on KJLL (which has since flipped its call letters to KWFM) find a profitable niche in this market? It wouldn't be easy, but the prevailing opinion from a couple local radio programmers is yes.
Doug Martin and John C. Scott have been down this road. Martin is the general manager at conservative talker KVOI AM 1030, while Scott has transitioned his long-running radio program to KVOI after he was ousted as the GM at KJLL during last year's behind-the-scenes upheaval.
KVOI is similar in many ways to 1330. While it has a significantly better signal, it's independently operated and doesn't deliver great ratings. It is in direct competition with two more established conservative formats: Clear Channel-owned KNST AM 790/FM 97.1 and Journal Broadcasting-owned KQTH 104.1 FM. Furthermore, KVOI has to deal with being on the AM dial, which is consistently losing favor with younger demographics. But the station turns a profit due to what Martin calls a partnership model, in which hosts purchase air time but then can split sales revenue.
"I believe strongly in people being incentivized to do things," Martin said. "I don't think the old model works quite as well anymore. You have people not involved in the selling of what they're doing, and they're passive and don't really care, but all of a sudden, the money's not there, and they don't have a job. That was the old way. You hire jockeys or air talent and a sales staff and the chips fall where they may. What I think is neat about this is people are directly tied and invested, and they'll want the program to be successful, and that helps. It's working for us, and I think the same could be true for a liberal format."
While Schultz and other liberal talkers would argue that progressive talk radio struggles on an unfair playing field where conservative talk gets more established, and therefore more familiar, signals, Martin suggests NPR has at least as big an impact.
"They may be listening to National Public Radio instead, which gets huge numbers," Martin said. "You'd think in a market like Tucson, you could do pretty well, but (KJLL) was never able to really connect and get the listeners, and they should have been able to get a great deal of the listenership because there's no real competition, aside from National Public Radio."
Scott believes connectivity is the bottom line. While 1330 has been saddled with a string of financial difficulties, the station turned a profit during Scott's tenure as GM, paid off significant debt and made payroll on time, all on a struggling signal that rarely cracked 1.0 in the ratings.
"There would always be a market for it because this is a university town; it's a liberal town; and there's a democratic majority of voters in Pima County," Scott said. "They want a place to come hear what they want to hear that reinforces their liberal thought and belief. The idea you couldn't make any money at it is ludicrous. Of course you could make money at it. If you pay attention to the community, you can program Yaqui Indian chants and still have an audience, and still be able to sell it. If you pay attention to the community, you have an involvement in the community, and that's what the new management at KJLL never understood and has not done, ever."
After abandoning the liberal format in September, 1330 programmed all-Michael Jackson-all-the-time for a few weeks, then jettisoned that for holiday music. Who knows what the plan is for the beginning of the year? In its current format, with an all-but-nonexistent staff (a familiar refrain for much of music radio regardless of ownership status), 1330 is more or less a Pandora station without the ability to skip six songs an hour. And nearly all of its once-loyal listener base has likely skipped the frequency in search of other options, which at the moment don't exist in a market with a voter registration that runs 3-2 Democrat.
"If you pay attention to the community and realize the FCC gave you a license for one reason, to serve the convenience and necessity of the public, we did that, and we were able to make money," Scott said. "Elevator Christmas music doesn't serve the convenience and necessity of the public. It just doesn't. You can get that in an elevator."
During Scott's tenure at 1330, the station cut deals with 22 shows. That brokered approach brought revenue into the equation while giving the hosts an opportunity to use the radio waves for information and advertising purposes in a variety of areas of expertise. It was a hodgepodge in the midst of a liberal foundation, but a functional model that got the bills paid.
"It worked, because we could sell it," Scott said. "Yes, you can make it. Yes, you can build a great audience. If someone put a liberal station on the air, they could make a lot of money at it."