Monday, September 17, 2007

Left Behind: The Death of Progressive Radio in Memphis

Posted by on Mon, Sep 17, 2007 at 4:00 AM

What's good news for sports junkies is tough luck for fans of angry leftist radio. WWTQ AM-680, once the home of Air America recently became Fox Sports Radio.

"Nobody is more disappointed than I am," says program director Jerry Dean of Air America's local demise.

So what, exactly, killed Progressive Talk in the Midsouth? There was certainly no shortage of optimism in January 2005, when Entercom, the Pennsylvania-based media conglomerate that also operates Memphis station 104.5 WRVR, launched WWTQ.

"The time is right for liberal radio," Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers Magazine, the leading talk radio trade publication, told the Flyer. Dean described local support for a progressive alternative to Rush Limbaugh and Mike Flemming as a "groundswell."

"It still seems like a good idea," Dean says, unable to explain why Air America attracted consistently low ratings and failed attract advertisers in solid blue Memphis. He suspects some advertisers were afraid to associate their brand with a liberal station.

"But it's not like liberals don’t buy things," Dean says. "Cars, clothes, and everything else."

WWTQ never found an effective way to localize the station. The eponymous show briefly hosted by Memphis media veteran Leon Gray showed early promise, but Gray's conservative views on issues like evolution and gay rights didn't appeal to listeners tuning in to hear Randi Rhodes and Al Franken. In June 2006, Gray and the progressive talk format parted ways.

Dean doesn't agree that WWTQ failed to localize and remains complimentary Gray's performance. "I always thought Leon did a really good job," he says.

In his obit for the Leon Gray Show, Jim Maynard, a liberal blogger and sometimes political candidate wrote, "listening to [Gray] was almost as frustrating as listening to Mike Fleming on the conservative talk 600-AM. In fact, I doubt many people could tell the difference between them if they listened to them side by side on issues like gay rights, abortion, school prayer, creationism v. evolution, etc."

Not all of the blame for WWTQ basement level numbers can be blamed on the station's failure to localize. Air America has experienced numerous setbacks nationally as well. The station lost its flagship host when comedian and author Al Franken left Air America to run for Senate in Minnesota.

--Chris Davis

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