Los Angeles, Liberal Talk Radio, KTLK-AM
Schultz, AAR Spar Over Programming, Fees
Is this what it has finally come to?
In the sad world of liberal talk radio, where years of underperforming shows have led some to write off the format, long- simmering tensions between rivals have finally boiled over.
And leading the way is non- Air America talker Ed Schultz, who has taken his beef with Clear Channel / Los Angeles affiliate public. After losing his prime daytime slot on KTLK-AM to AAR talker Thom Hartmann, Schultz turned to the Los Angeles Times, alleging a "pay- to- play" deal bumped his show.
While this form of quasi- payola has become commonplace throughout the talk radio industry, Schultz brought forward no smoking gun evidence to prove his case. While the station denies taking payments to add Hartmann's show, Radio Equalizer readers know that before its recent bankruptcy, Air America had always paid large sums for KTLK airtime.
Meanwhile, KTLK's ratings continue to sag, turning in terrible numbers this month: a 0.6 overall audience share in Los Angeles, compared to a 1.0 a year ago.
From today's Los Angeles Times:
Fans of liberal talk radio were no doubt baffled in recent weeks by the decision by KTLK-AM (1150) to relegate its popular midday personality Ed Schultz to the lesser time slot of weekday evenings and replacing him with a host with a lower national profile.
But while listeners may be puzzled, Schultz himself thinks there's a conspiracy at work, one involving "progressive talk" station KTLK and struggling liberal radio network Air America.
"It's not a radio decision," Schultz said by phone. "It has nothing to do with ratings or sales. To say I'm upset about it is an understatement. Air America is screwing things up."
Executives at L.A.- based KTLK, which is owned by Clear Channel, deny that the decision to bump Schultz to the lesser time slot had anything to do with Air America, which provides programming for KTLK and other liberal talk stations.
Station General Manager John Quinlan said no special financial arrangements have been made between KTLK and Air America as was alleged by Schultz. He said that the station, in fact, is striving to break free of the identity of "being the Air America station" in Los Angeles. He noted that the programming decisions for KTLK were made by the station and not Clear Channel.
Schultz, who does his daily three-hour show from Fargo, N.D., had recently been ranked by the trade publication Talkers Magazine as the top "progressive talk" host in the nation. Nationally, his audience had grown to an estimated 3 million, based on the most recent Arbitron ratings, more than double the numbers calculated for Randi Rhodes, the New York-based Air America host whom KTLK inserted in Schultz's old noon-to-3 p.m. slot, and far more than Air America's professorial Thom Hartmann, who has replaced the departed Al Franken, 9 a.m.-to-noon.
It seemed improbable that KTLK, a laggard in the ratings since adopting the progressive talk format in 2005, would jettison from radio prime time the host many regard as the left's strongest mainstream challenge to the long dominance of conservative broadcasters Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. (Schultz has beaten Hannity head to head during past ratings periods in San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Denver and Miami.)
A rivalry intensifies
The realignment has aggravated Schultz's not-so-friendly rivalry with Air America, the liberal network recently rescued from bankruptcy by New York real estate magnate Stephen L. Green. Schultz, along with KTLK-based early morning talker Stephanie Miller, is distributed by Jones Radio Networks, which has no connection to Air America. Schultz claims Air America has offered KTLK a cash premium to reserve the 9 a.m.-to-3 p.m. period for its own talent, in effect shutting him out.
Quinlan said the decision to move "The Ed Schultz Show" in early March was precipitated by Schultz's decision in January to change the start of his live broadcast from 3 p.m. Eastern time to noon. To continue carrying Schultz live, KTLK could have moved his show to the morning slot formerly occupied by Air America headliner Franken but instead chose to begin carrying Hartmann in the time period because of listener preference, Quinlan said.
Schultz, crying foul, said Quinlan, in fact, initially applauded his time change and indicated to him before Christmas that he planned to move Schultz's show into Franken's spot. "Then Air America wrote them a check," Schultz said.
Quinlan denied any payments were made. Instead he said, "Our listeners preferred Hartmann to Ed," though Hartmann was not being carried regularly on KTLK except as an occasional sub for Franken. "The response we got was convincing," Quinlan said.
At the end of the day, it boils down to this: love him or hate him, Schultz is one of the only libtalk hosts who has come even close to succeeding in this still- struggling format. By contrast, Hartmann is a snoozer with little upside potential.
As a result, if Schultz wasn't performing for KTLK, Hartmann isn't likely to do much better.
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