The KPOJ Debacle- Death comes to Progressive Talk in Portland

Well!  The Friday after the election turned out to be quite a day for us at the shop.  Obama had been in office two whole days when we got the news that KPOJ was dead.  The following week was total chaos as we fielded calls from furious and betrayed KPOJ’ers sharing their concern and asking for the real story.  We weren’t sure what to tell them at the time, but we are now.  Here’s the story from our point of view, what’s happened since the crash, and what we’re thinking for the future…

DenyKPOJUpdate 11/21/13- All Oregon radio stations, including KPOJ, are up for license renewal this year.  We created a petition to deny KPOJ’s renewal, and will send the signatures to the FCC to go into the station’s renewal file.  Read all about it here, or just go here to sign the petition.  Thanks!

(update 3/18/13- This post is our original newsletter article on the KPOJ crash.  We alsohave another page, the KPOJ Debacle Page, with ongoing updates on the loss of our only Progressive station, links to stay in touch with the old KPOJ personalities, and more.  If you like this post, you may want to check out the Debacle Page too.)

What happened at the shop

For us, the story of KPOJ goes back to 2004 when the station started as an Air America affiliate.  Tom Dwyer Automotive Services was an advertiser from early on, and the distinctly political content of our ads was an early feature.  It’s been a great relationship… our company has been introduced to a wonderful array of new people, and we got the pleasure of supporting the only rational alternative to the Right Wing sludge pump.

Eight years later there was a “disturbance in the Force” when Beavers Baseball hit the air in February.   Everyone was shocked… college baseball on a political radio station?  We were immediately on the phone.  The station said they had been losing listeners for a while, and baseball was an attempt to expand listenership.  So we rode it out and hoped that the experiment would either be successful or that they would learn the lesson quickly.  The agony ended in May when we all got our station back, but the cost was high… Adam Klugman, who had been gaining traction as a Progressive host, had to close his show because of the interruptions on the weekend schedule.

A couple months ago we felt another tremor.  A one-hour Oregon Beavers Sports show started airing each night at 6pm, but the station assured us again that this was an attempt to increase listenership.  They said they were committed to the format and that we shouldn’t worry.  We were convinced, though, that the thunderous clicking sound we heard each day at 6pm was the sound of liberal’s radios tuning out all over Portland.  It couldn’t mean anything good.

The big quake hit Friday morning, November 9th, when our KPOJ account representative came by the shop.  KPOJ was changing formats, he said, and he thought we deserved to be told in person.  Carl Wolfson had been told after his show that morning with no advance warning, and the switch would be made that afternoon.  We immediately pulled our ads before the conversation got any farther, and when he painfully told us that the new format would be an all-sports feed from FOX it did little to make us second-guess ourselves.  It was a ClearChannel corporate decision, we were told, and KPOJ had been losing money and listeners for over two years.  They’d tried to increase ratings without success, and this was a more profitable way to go.  We thanked our rep for his hard work and he thanked us for our support, we shook hands, and that was it… our friend, KPOJ 620AM, Portland’s Progressive Talk, was dead.

Of course, the corpse continued to twitch for a while as the usual programs were on throughout Friday morning and afternoon.  The final program switch wouldn’t happen until Friday afternoon at about 530pm.  In fact, many people didn’t even notice the change when it happened because they had gotten used to the Beavers sports show starting at 6pm.  The first word on Friday came out on Carl Wolfson’s Facebook, where he posted

To my friends — Clear Channel informed me this morning that they are moving in a new direction with KPOJ, beginning on Monday. I appreciate the opportunity they gave me for six years to be a voice for progressive causes in our state and nation. I will miss all of my fun friends at work (my excellent producer Paul, remains employed!). I love all of you, my loyal listeners. It has been my honor to give a platform to all of the outstanding groups, volunteers, elected officials and good people who make Oregon so special.”

Since ClearChannel had no interest in fielding calls on the change, frustrated KPOJers looked elsewhere to share their feelings.  They found us.  Although we have no involvement with the station of any kind, we are pleased and proud to be so closely associated with it that people called us for the straight story.  The response was jaw-dropping… we fielded almost 150 phone calls on the issue, and people are continuing to call.  Virtually every client who came in that week asked about it, and many people came by in-person to express their condolences.  Our website, which typically gets about 100-150 hits on a regular day and about 650 at its busiest, jumped to over 1100 hits on the Monday after the closure.  179 new people signed up to receive our newsletter.  The conversation exploded on our Facebook page as our number of “Likes”, which had been hovering around 300, more than doubled to 641.   For a station that wasn’t in the top 10 in Portland, people obviously cared about its loss!  We told them what we could, but the most important thing we could really do was sympathize.

It didn’t take long for the death of KPOJ to hit the liberal blogosphere.  From Carl’s initial posting, an article popped up in the online version of Willamette Week, people started Facebooking and emailing, and the word was out.  (There’s links to some of the major platforms that addressed the issue at the end of this article).

What we think happened at KPOJ

One of the main questions we got that week was “What do you guys think happened?”  First of all, we have no definitive inside knowledge of why the station changed formats.  We’ve been told the station’s lost money for a couple years, and to paraphrase Senator Mitch McConnell we “take them at their word” that they’re telling the truth.  But the people who asked us “what happened?” aren’t wondering about the profitability of the station.  They’re asking about a fairly sensible-sounding hypothesis that Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, owner of ClearChannel communications, owner of KPOJ, shut down the station in a fit of post-election revenge and/or a blatant effort to strangle a Progressive alternative to the message.   It’s even more sensible when you consider the Progressive station shutdowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Spokane, and the rumored shutdown of the one in Seattle.  While we wouldn’t put it past Romney or the famously conservative ClearChannel to do a little post-election payback, there’s no proof they did.  While the conspiracy theory isn’t too outlandish, the decision actually does seem to be motivated by money.

ClearChannel’s a corporation, and their only directive is to make money.  If KPOJ had been a cash cow for them they’d probably keep milking it as long as they could.  We’ve heard from several sources that KPOJ was always in the black (although we obviously have no way to confirm that). However, there’s a difference between “not making money” and “not making enough money”.  If it’s right that KPOJ’s money troubles started a couple years ago, that would coincide with the purchase of ClearChannel by Bain Capital.  With the Bain business model, a station that’s been breaking even or running a small profit would suddenly have to generate higher profits to meet a new set of expenses… higher salaries, bonuses, dividends, and more.  The personnel purges at KPOJ at the time of the Bain purchase testify to the efforts to cut expenses.

KPOJ tried to raise listenership to meet these higher expectations but the things they tried were, in our opinion, clumsy and thoughtless.  When Beavers Baseball came on we were concerned that they were intentionally diluting the format, and we loudly told them so.  Sports were not a “feature” to their loyal listeners.  KPOJ was conspicuously absent at Occupy, and we thought they should have had a presence.  We tried to get them to post the names of the advertisers on the website so listeners could support them.   None of these things happened, but the sports continued.

Look, we obviously don’t know how to program a radio station, but as listeners we know what we want.  Right or left, political talk radio is a niche market- the people who listen want content that applies to their subject.  That builds the value of the station as an educational and informational medium.   As advertisers, we know what we want as well.  We want a station that is involved in the local community, raising the flag of our company, and introducing us to new local people who would need our product or service.  We want the station to build value to us as an advertising medium.   Theoretically, when both the listeners and the advertisers are happy a radio station prospers.

But KPOJ couldn’t really engage in any of the fixes we proposed for a very good reason.  They require care, attention, knowledge of the audience, respect for the community, and a mission to provide excellence.  All that’s very expensive, requires individual conscious effort, and can’t be done by a feed from New York.  The Bain/ClearChannel plan is reportedly to do the minimum possible to keep the station active and rely on big national advertising buys to pay the bills.  Companies like Sprint and Geico don’t care what the content of the station is, they spend just about anywhere that delivers ears and their checks always cash.  Not a bad client for a radio station to have, but these companies don’t care about local content because they aren’t speaking to a local audience.  A show like Carl Wolfson’s was high-quality and content-oriented, but locally focused and expensive to produce.  Why spend the money?  Sending out a “KPOJ Zany Fun Van” to every Progressive event would have required money for the van and crew, as well as a plugged-in knowledge of where to be.   Why pay to do that, when the client doesn’t care about local coverage?  It’s just not as profitable to deliver a radio product expressly tailored to a local market.

And this whole situation points out a problem with the way our media and telecommunications systems work.  If KPOJ isn’t making enough to make ClearChannel happy then ClearChannel is well within their rights to change the format, sell it completely, or make any other change they want.  We support their right to do so; we know we wouldn’t continue our own business without suitable profit.   But what about the very legitimate need of an informed citizenry for real information?  Not a steady stream of bile from any one perspective, but a spectrum of thoughts from every possible point of view?

All but the most vitriolic Right-Wingers would agree that a democracy can’t function without an informed electorate, but here we see the failure of the free market to provide it.  The free market has shaped talk radio into its present polarized format, but no one is responsible to see that it doesn’t become a propaganda tool.  Sophisticated listeners are supposed to be able to weigh what they’re hearing and discern what is bull and what is puckey, but with no alternative streams they have no basis for comparison.  In a free market they can have as little as one stream of information, but there is no obligation on the part of anyone to step in to provide an alternative.  For those who do choose to “go out and buy your own damn station and program it like you want” the obstacles to entry are high.  It’s a big undertaking of money and knowledge to start a station, and as media companies consolidate the number of available slots on the dial gets smaller.  Is the price we pay for a free market the loss of the informed public necessary for democracy?

If this happened in some ex-Soviet republic we’d laugh at the rubes who swallowed the company line that “it was just business”.  While we think the KPOJ closure actually is a business decision, it looks very suspicious and it only makes sense to question it.  And even the possibility that any corporation or individual, regardless of political stripe, could be in the position to silence the political voice of so many people with the stroke of a pen is offensive.  It’s a critical problem, but the problem isn’t “Romney did it” but “Romney could do it if he wanted to”.  Legally.

What happens going forward

So, what’s next?  We’re still only a matter of weeks from the closing so it’s probably a little unrealistic to expect anything definitive yet.  Still, things are happening.  One of the most positive things is a Facebook page called the Portland Coalition of Progressive Community Advertisers and Audiences.  This group is trying to put together a workable business model of a Progressive Talk radio station, and to implement it as soon as possible.  Kari Chisolm of Blue Oregon has started a petition at SaveKPOJ.com asking ClearChannel to bring back KPOJ, and it’s already garnered over 13,000 signatures.  Carl Wolfson has plans to start a podcast version of his show in January.  Oregon’s Congressional delegation has expressed their outrage, as have other local and national figures. Mike Papantonio of “Ring of Fire” fame has discussed the possibility of lawsuits testing the Telecommunications Act, but nothing’s in court yet.  All these things are happening now, and there’s probably much more going on behind-the-scenes, but we’re pretty cynical.  We don’t think ClearChannel will change their mind, and we think our beloved KPOJ is gone.

But that doesn’t mean Progressive Radio is dead in one of the most Progressive cities in America.  We believe that KPOJ, and the rise of other outlets like MSNBC and Huffington Post, prove that there is a market for Progressive media of all types.  One of the most frequent suggestions we dealt with in the deluge of KPOJ calls was that we start our own radio station.  (Not the snarky “go out and buy your own damn station and program it like you want” mentioned above, but a genuine suggestion that we start a station).  We had calls from people offering to pool money, offering experience in radio management, offering technical expertise, and more.   We take all suggestions seriously, so we even looked into it enough that now we know how many radio stations are for sale in Portland.  We were very, very tempted to accept the challenge.

But when it comes down to it, we’re an automotive services company.  We’ve stayed in business over thirty years by providing top-of-the-line technical expertise with unmatched client service, built on a foundation of absolute integrity.  We are both proud and humbled to be able to say we are “trusted to keep your vehicles safe, breakdown-free, and operating at their best”.   That’s what we do, and it’s all we ever wanted to do.  And, as tempted as we are, radio would be a distraction from that one overriding goal.  We feel like we have to choose one or the other, so we’ll leave radio to the care of the people who have been doing it for years.  We’re sure that someone out there will pick up the torch and Progressive radio will return to Portland one day.  We don’t think that can be us, but we can’t wait until we have the privilege to support Progressive Radio in Portland again.

Postscript

We won’t be updating this individual article but we’ll probably be writing about this issue again, so please keep an eye out for our monthly newsletter.  In the meantime, we’ve established a page for the KPOJ Debacle on our website.  If there are any developments in the story, we’ll post the freshest information there.   And thank you all again for the years of support you’ve shown our company!

Here’s those links we promised to some of the major platforms that addressed the KPOJ closure…

Willamette Week-

Nov 9th- KPOJ Cancelling Political Talk Radio
Nov 13th- Former KPOJ Host Carl Wolfson Hunting for a New Station
Nov 14th- Murmurs: KPOJ Format Shift Sparks Outrage
Nov 28th- Who Killed KPOJ? Many see a right-wing conspiracy in the death of Portland’s commercial progressive talk-radio station. But Bain didn’t act alone.

Blue Oregon

Nov 13th- Save KPOJ: Over 5000 petition signers, and counting.
Nov 14th- (by Adam Klugman) The real reason that Clear Channel dumped KPOJ
Nov 15th- Save KPOJ: Bonamici and Blumenauer weigh in
Nov 19th- Wyden, Merkley, and Schrader endorse Save KPOJ campaign; petition hits 13k signatures
Nov 28th (by Carl Wolfson)- Who killed KPOJ? Carl Wolfson shares the rest of the story.

The Oregonian

Nov 9th- KPOJ (620 AM) reportedly dropping political format and Update: Former KPOJ (620 AM) progressive talk is now Fox Sports radio
Nov 16th- Fans mad that KPOJ’s progressive voice is gone

Daily KOS

Nov 12th- Portland’s Progressive Radio KPOJ – Bain Company Goes FOX Sports
Nov 14th- What happened to my KPOJ- a primer
Nov 26th- 4 progressive talk radio stations drop; industry analyst predicts multiple conglomerate bankruptcies

Portland Mercury

Nov 12th- Demise of Political Talk on KPOJ Sparks Outrage, Petitions

Brad Blog

Nov 9th- BREAKING: Portland’s Clear Channel-owned KPOJ Progressive Talk Station Flipped to Fox Sports
Nov 14th- ‘What Public Airwaves?’: Fighting the Death of Portland’s Clear Channel-owned Progressive KPOJ and Seattle’s CBS-Owned Progressive KPTK

Free Republic

Nov 9th- KPOJ Portland to drop liberal talk for sports

Portland Observer

Nov 21st- Voice of Progressives Silenced

Petitions

SaveKPOJ.com and SaveKPOJ on Facebook

Other sources-

Thomas Creek Concepts, Nov 11th- AM 620 KPOJ Format Change
Rev Chuck Currie, Nov 14th- Save KPOJ
Jack Bog’s Blog, Nov 15th- Portland radio and the big bleat

 

 

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