Wednesday, November 21, 2012

WTDY Thanksgiving Massacre shows how radio has fallen

The news that dropped this afternoon was another damaging blow for diversity of voices in Wisconsin media. That was the the firing of WTDY talk show how John "Sly" Sylvester and the station's entire news staff. The reason is apparently a format change, possibly to an all-sports format (because apparently 2 all-sports stations in Madtown isn't enough), but it certainly brings back to the forefront the issue of a lack of diversity in Wisconsin talk radio.

This news hit me a bit hard, because I worked as a part-timer for Sly and WTDY as I was going through grad school in the mid-2000s (mostly as a weekend board operator and as a HS sports color guy- though I did host a handful of hours). Despite the image you may have of him on the radio, he treated me well and always gave latitude to me and most of the other staff at the station. And TDY always kept a strong amount of its news and on-air programming local, which now apparently will be lost with the format change.

This is my biggest concern. It's bad enough that most of Wisconsin talk radio is a cesspool of right-wing lies and race-baiting, and that Sly was one of the very few counterweights to that onslaught of propaganda. Now all I can come up with on the left for Wisconsin is low-power 1290AM in Milwaukee, and the 1 hour Doug Cunningham gets on 92.1 FM - neither have the credibility and years of perspective Sly would bring to an issue. And the lack of local news reporters in the Capital City means less reporters who challenge politicians to the point that campaign hacks ask them to leave events out of fear of what they might expose. Instead we get more inexperienced reporters doing watered-down "he said, she said" journalism that allows the Scott Walkers of the world to throw out their junk without having people be able to call them out on it.

It's part of a larger, damaging trend in the radio industry, where local voices are deemed too costly by corporate owners. As a result, these local voices are dropped in favor of national programs that don't give the local flavor and insight someone like Sly could give to an issue such as same-day voter registration. The only voices that are allowed to be localized are the established stations who have long-running relationships with the local oligarchy, which causes them to go with right-wing hate that caters to the rich and the lowest common denominator (I'm looking at you, 620, 1130 and 1310).

And this is a trend that's affecting numerous radio stations in the country. Progressive stations in Portland and Seattle announced format changes to all-sports soon after President Obama's re-election- suspicious moves given the blue tenor of both cities. On the right, Clear Channel is apparently dumping huge amounts of local staff from its right-wing talk and music stations in several cities, including Madison.
On-air talent and behind-the-scenes employees have been shown the door or programming has been eliminated in markets that include Los Angeles, Boston, Tampa, San Diego, Madison, Wis., Springfield, Mo., Oklahoma City, Nashville, and, most recently, Toledo.

“Obviously they are trying to pay down their monster debt with Bain Capital,” said Tommy Butter, who was laid off from top-40 station WRVW-FM in Nashville in March. “Obviously, they are trying to fire their way to pay that debt down.”

Mr. Butter declined to give his legal last name to The Blade, and uses “Butter” as his radio name.

Since last year, Clear Channel hasn’t announced widespread layoffs or cuts, despite the steady stream of departures.

Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners, two private-equity firms, finalized their $26.7 billion purchase of Clear Channel in July, 2008, loading the company with debt. According to Clear Channel’s Nov. 2 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company had $16.4 billion in debt.
Yep, the same station that paid Mitch Henck's and Icki McKenna's salaries to kiss Mitt Romney's ass also are having huge layoffs ordered by Mitt Romney's company. Sickly hilarious, isn't it?

But this wrecking and one-sidedness of news-talk radio is no laughing matter. As now-former WTDY reporter Dylan Brogan put it in the Isthmus article
"I think it's sadly something that is not unique. Local radio is all but dead, and in Madison, we just moved one step closer to that," [Brogan] says. "I also think this is not indicative of one company. Clear Channel has all but ruined broadcasting, and it's forcing other companies to make decisions they wouldn't normally make."
The steady drumbeat of right-wing talk drowning out others is also a problem. If we don't get a diversity of voices that come from the communities we live in, it leads to a debasing of debate, we have a lower level of broadcasting on our airwaves. The slanted nature of certain stations also leads to a greater possibility that people will be deceived and vote on wrong information, as uncaring and/or biased media refuses to hold politicians accountable, and talk show hosts lie to their listeners in order to continue in their role as propagandists.

It also inevitably leads to blowbacks and stronger measures that have to be taken in return to answer the one-sided propaganda. This is where righties in the state better tread carefully if they try to dance on Sly's WTDY grave. I have a feeling Sly will be heard from sooner than later, after all there are blogs and podcasts that can be created, and if he has less to lose, he might be even more dangerous to Scott Walker and the WisGOPs.

No righties, your megaphones will not be spared. The Media Action Center already has challenged the FCC broadcast licenses of WTMJ and WISN because of the $1 million in free air time it gave to Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP during the recall elections this Summer. I have a feeling these stations don't want to have people protesting outside of their building demanding balance in media, nor do they want to see billboards exposing their stations as race-baiting propaganda controlled by the Bradley Foundation and other right-wing Wisconsin oligarchs.

We will have our voices heard, no matter how much corporate media may want us silenced and to go away. If we don't have the outlet for us to come together as a community on the airwaves, we'll create one in a much more rambunctious fashion in the streets. If it means pulling stunts, so be it. It also might involve amassing people in such numbers that the media can't help but take notice, as what had to be done in Winter 2011 on the Capitol Square.

Once a majority of people wake up and realize that much of Wisconsin talk radio is selling them destructive lies, their game and their profits are over. And we have to start the movement NOW.


  1. Jake, thanks for posting this - it's spot-on.

  2. Very good. Only quibble: no mention of WORT FM. I think their back porch radio Mon-Thurs has been very valuable to Dane County and the area and the Public Affair hosts have also interviewed local pols and activists.

    1. I think WORT and related public-access stations might not be a bad place to get our voice out there. Unlike broadcast media, they don't have to worry as much about intimidation by advertisers and the business community.

      Commercial and public-access radio should both be part of the strategy of getting the progressive outlets and balance we deserve.