Ever wonder why the right wing continues to dominate talk radio, even as it loses elections?
"Your Huffington Post piece showed only the tip of the iceberg," a major talk-show figure e-mailed last month following my blog here on Rush Limbaugh's empire being built initially by giving his show away for free to hundreds of smaller-market talk stations.
My veteran radio source, assured anonymity, added, "The main story here is vertical integration in the radio business" and the way the big urban talk stations get their programs.
Vertical integration: Precisely what the federal government has moved to ban in the television and movie industries with anti-trust actions. But the radio business has gotten a free pass.
Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates righties Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Dr. Laura, among others, is owned by the nation's largest radio-station conglomerate, Clear Channel. Clear Channel, thanks to FCC deregulation, was allowed to gobble up over 1000 radio stations -- including 16 of the most powerful, (lower-case) clear-channel AM stations in major markets.
Today, Clear Channel either owns or programs most of the nation's 58 strongest, 50,000-watt AM radio stations, liberally stocking them with right-wing talk shows. Among them: Los Angeles' KFI, New York's WABC, Detroit's WJR, Denver's KOA, Portland's KEX, and Chicago's WLS.
Yes, Clear Channel does own liberal Air America stations. But none of them is a 50,000-watt "blowtorch." Instead, Clear Channel puts shows like Thom Hartmann's on its smaller, 5,000-and 10,000-watt "sticks" (antennas).
Clear Channel is more than a corporate name. It's also a radio descriptor: A clear-channel radio station is a powerful, 50,000-watt signal with interference-free nightly coverage 750 miles from its city.
Clear Channel owns 17 of those coveted licenses, and its Premiere supplies much of the programming to many of the rest. There are only one or two 50,000-watt stations carrying Air America's -- or any -- liberal shows.
Wherever Clear Channel owns a big AM radio station and other smaller ones, it always puts Premiere's Hannity, Rush, et al on its biggest signal. This puts liberal stations at a big disadvantage in virtually all large markets -- where the real radio money is.
"The prevailing assumption right now in talk radio," one talk programmer told me. "Is that you won't lose money on conservative talk. That could change, but it'll take time."
In the large metropolitan areas where Clear Channel owns station "clusters" -- usually five or more stations -- their sales force concentrates mostly on selling ads for the big, usually right-wing stations.
"If you can sell a 60-second spot for $200 on the big conservative station, or the same spot for $20 on the 5,000-watt liberal station, which one would YOU sell?" a radio sales vet told me during this investigation. Ka ching.
"You need a dedicated sales force for the Air America stations to succeed financially - one that sells ads only for that station."
There's no doubt San Antonio-based Clear Channel prefers pushing Premiere's largely conservative talkers: I once endured right-wing CNN hack Lou "Broken Borders" Dobbs kiss Clear Channel founder Lowry Mays' butt for an hour while "interviewing" glorified billboard salesman-turned-broadcaster Mays during the keynote event at the National Association of Broadcasters' big convention in San Francisco.
FDR's Justice Department took the powerful movie studios to court in the 1930's in a major antitrust case to stop them from both supplying product to -- and owning -- movie theatres.
In the 1970's, the FCC imposed rules to stop vertical integration by the then-Big Three TV networks: It banned them from owning the shows they aired in prime time. (The so-called "fin-syn" rules).
But radio has gotten a free pass from legal action by the government. Which is the big reason why Premiere and its powerful owner Clear Channel have a stranglehold today on talk radio.