At the far end of Division Street sits a small building with a banana on the side. Once home to an overstock liquidator, it now houses a massage therapist, two vegan restaurants, and a homemade beer shop, but there’s more happening inside than meets the eye. It’s the epicenter of one of the biggest things happening in Portland in a long time; an effort to fight back against a media business model that wounded Portland and is killing our country; an effort led by one-time KPOJ morning host Carl Wolfson…
KPOJ’s November collapse left Portland’s liberal political junkies wandering a media desert in a search for real information. Petitions hadn’t changed ClearChannel’s mind about the new format and efforts to start a new Progressive radio station have gone nowhere (as yet). We met with Carl as he was finishing his first week on the air since the crash. “I think the loss of KPOJ was a real wakeup call to Portland’s Progressives”, he said. “It sharpened their awareness of the need for a media alternative, and their awareness of their own values. They see it as a missed opportunity; one they won’t miss again.”
Carl, who anchored KPOJ’s Morning Show, used the KPOJ debacle as a chance to take stock of his career. “Several people encouraged me to soak up unemployment to hurt ClearChannel” he laughed. “I thought about it, but it just wasn’t me”. Besides, he had other leads. “I was offered a spot at a Chicago station, and Thom and Louise (Hartmann, formerly of KPOJ) said I should move to DC and start something there. But I talked with Gary (Thill, Carl’s partner) and we decided to stay. Opportunities in other places are great, but Portland is our home, it’s where we want to be”.
A new show was the obvious next step, but money was a problem. Like any good liberal open to new ideas, Carl looked to KickStarter to fund the show. “We were amazed and grateful for the response. We had four people who pledged $1000 each and two who pledged $2500, but we really appreciated the smaller pledges as well. Not everyone has even $20 to send to a new venture”. The goal for the project was $40,000, but in just 6 days, 681 people donated a total of $40,538 to the cause. “Carl In The Morning” was on the air.
“We’re trying to rebuild what worked so well at KPOJ, but add more fun elements” Carl said. “We’re really happy with the first week. There were some start-up problems, but we handled those quickly. The call-in response has been wonderful. Over 7000 people were listening live, and we had over 13,000 unique visits to the website. Many more are listening on the podcast, and that will only increase as people adjust to the new format”. He thinks the Net version will quickly lead back to terrestrial radio. “An FM station in Florence asked about carrying the podcast, and we’ve had other inquiries as well. Nothing firm yet, but we’ll keep you posted. Our focus is building the value of the show, because people will eventually follow the content no matter what format it’s in.”
Carl emphasized the value of the Progressive community that formed around KPOJ. “Re-creating that community will be one of the strengths of our show, as it is to any successful business today”. He pointed to Harvey’s Comedy Club as an example, whose tight-knit community allowed them to prosper as other clubs came and went. He also mentioned our own Tom Dwyer as a rallying point for Portland’s Progressives. “People want more from the companies they deal with than just a product or service. They’re looking for a place where they’re accepted and appreciated, and that shares their values.”
Content was also strong in the first week. “We’ve covered issues that matter locally and nationally. We talked about the City’s proposed sick leave policy and the loss of local jobs at the Sealy factory. Brad Avakian shared some of the innovations in technical schools, and Senator Jeff Merkley will be on next week.” Carl intends to keep a strong local focus, but “a lot of the issues in Washington State affect Portland as well. We expect to be talking more about those regional topics as the show develops.”
The audience and content have been strong, but advertisers seem eager to back the show too. “Almost all of the companies from KPOJ came with us to the new show.” Carl plans to focus on these local businesses rather than national accounts. For example, along with strong on-air support, “Carl in the Morning” has a webpage listing his sponsors. “That’s something we couldn’t do at KPOJ. At first, when Air America was an unknown quantity, they worried righties would use a sponsor list as a boycott list. Later, they worried other stations would use it to steal the advertisers. The idea that a competitor might listen to the station and write down the advertisers apparently didn’t occur to them.”
Of course, we also discussed wider political issues. “I’m hopeful Obama’s second term will address important, basic things that have been long overlooked like basic civil liberties or climate change”. He sees other priorities as well. “Stacks of judicial nominations are just gathering dust, and those live long after the president is gone”. He agrees with Obama that economies grow from the middle out. “Mitch McConnell’s wrong; spending isn’t the transcendent issue of our time. The survival of the middle class is, and there are things we can do to encourage growth like reforming trade policy or strengthening Social Security and Medicare. Capitalism is great, but without rules it runs over the middle class”. He also pointed to the power of local action in building economies. “Dollars spent locally recycle through the economy, building economic strength from the ground up. Black businesses in the Jim Crow era understood this and built vibrant local economies trading with other black-owned businesses”.
Carl bemoans the problem of media consolidation, but sees little hope of direct intervention. “There were 15 owners of radio stations in Portland in the 1980’s. An entity could own just one AM and one FM station in any market, but the Telecom Act of 1996 opened the door to cross-ownership”. Carl cited the loss of Progressive radio across the country and the loss of Progressive outlets like Al Gore’s Current TV as effects of media monopoly. “The Fairness Doctrine was intended to prevent this. It was held constitutional in Red Lion vs. FCC, but it was effectively killed during the Reagan administration. I don’t see it coming back, and the Telecom Act is not going to be repealed”, Carl said. “I think the most effective tool to achieve balance is to challenge stations when their license comes up for renewal. Stations are still chartered to act in the public interest, which they are manifestly not doing”.
Carl says the problem with our country now is “the whack jobs are in power”. He thinks “FOX News is a farm league for GOP candidates” but Progressive media can fight this by offering content missing from the mainstream. He sees power in liberal radio, especially in tight political races like the Dudley/Kitzhaber race. “It’s kind of our Normandy, our foothold on the continent for full invasion”. And that invasion is not one of force or propaganda, but ideas. “In a marketplace of ideas, people need to see Progressive alternatives to the Right Wing”. As states increasingly become red or blue, Carl sees this in some ways as the way things are supposed to work. “The Founders thought states were laboratories for new ideas, and Oregon is a showcase of local, Progressive values. People from other states want our representatives. They see our strong unions, public beaches, vote by mail, and death with dignity laws, and they like them. This is how big change happens; it’s the way Canadian Health Care started in Saskatchewan and Alberta, proved successful there, and then spread to the rest of the country”.
Whatever comes next, Carl insists you’ll keep hearing the “real Carl” on the air. “Today’s talk radio is just professional wrestling”, he said. “Hosts adopt on-air personas and then play that role to the exclusion of rational thought. I don’t think that’s good for radio, and I definitely don’t think it’s good for our country. Love me or hate me, the person on my show is the person I am off-air. It’s not an act. It’s honesty, and I think honesty is what people want in any of their media.” That honest, incisive, entertaining personality is exactly what we’re looking for, and what we’ll be tuning in to hear as “Carl In The Morning” continues to carry the Progressive flag.