Local talk radio listeners and advertisers eager to demonstrate broad community opposition to the format change at WXXM made a show of force on Tuesday evening at a rally that filled the High Noon Saloon to capacity. With dozens of more people spilling on the patio outside the near east side music venue, a succession of advertisers, activists, a financier and one former mayor took the stage to voice their support for the Air America format and associated local progressive programming at the station known as "The Mic."
Before the rally
The station is one of six in the Madison market owned by the massive national chain Clear Channel, which announced its decision in early November to change formats at WXXM from progressive talk to sports on Jan. 1, 2007, switching affiliations from Air America to Fox Sports. Many listeners and advertisers were displeased with this change, voicing protests to Clear Channel and pointing to the station's relatively healthy ratings in the market, particularly when compared to progressive-format broadcasters elsewhere in the nation.
As it became apparent that Clear Channel was going through with the format change, one frustrated listener set in motion a campaign that has snowballed in the last four weeks to become one of the more significant and unique community-based uprisings to a media decision made by a national conglomerate owner. Valerie Walasek, a disabled veteran and fan of The Mic, launched an online petition on Nov. 10 with the intention of presenting the assembled signatures to Clear Channel Madison market manager Jeff Tyler. While it has picked up more than 5,000 signatures in just over four weeks, this media protest movement has since grown more active than the click of a mouse.
Meeting with an ad hoc committee over the last two weeks, Walasek and a group advertisers and listeners have organized a campaign that harnesses not only the energy of radio consumers, but also that of local businesses who bankroll the broadcasts. Assisted by Dardanelles restaurant owner Barbara Wright and historic preservationist Gary Tipler, Walasek is leading a campaign to convince potential advertisers to gather together to convince a local broadcaster to pick up the progressive talk format. They are also considering filing complaints with the FCC about Clear Channel, and there is even talk starting of pooling money to purchase a station.
The big night
The potential of these ideas, though, hinged in large part on the outcome of the rally held at the High Noon on Tuesday night. If the turnout and enthusiasm there were any indication, there might be something behind all of these big ideas. "I was thrilled to hear and to see how many people came out tonight," says Tipler. "We had a capacity crowd almost all evening, plus more than 40 people standing outside. That's almost 500 people."
High Noon Saloon owner Cathy Dethmers says she wasn't surprised by the size of the crowd. "People that I know that live in other states are telling me they've heard about this rally at the High Noon," she notes. "I've been getting calls for two weeks."
Walasek kicked things off with a personal story. She said:
I am a disabled veteran, and I was injured, and basically I have a sort of nerve damage and doctors didn't know what was wrong with me. I went to doctor after doctor, and they told me, "You're fine." Well, I learned something really important in the military, and that is persistence.
Every day I went back to the medical clinic and I talked to the same doctor. Every day, he would say, "Sorry Private, we don't know what's wrong with you, you have to go home now." Every day, I would say, "Thank you, Sir." He would say, "Are you going to come back tomorrow," and I would say, "Only if I have pain tomorrow." And then I would get up on my crutches, and crutch out the door and call back over my shoulder, "See you tomorrow sir." Pretty soon, he got tired of seeing my face, and so he discharged me.
That taught me a really important lesson. As long as you're honest and respectful, as long as you're persistent, you will get what you want. It's a really important lesson for us. So I want to tell you guys; don't give up, don't get discouraged. This can happen. The airwaves belong to us.
Led by Walasek and running for about an hour-and-a-half, the rally continued with well over a dozen speakers. The voiced support for the progressive talk format and criticized Clear Channel for its business practices and sales acumen. The position of the microphone at the front of the stage became something of a running joke through the rally, with speakers encouraged to "stand up with the mic" to the cheers of the crowd packing the club's floor and balcony.
These speakers were led by WXXM advertisers, including Wright, Hawk Schenkel of Hawk's Bar & Grill, Blooms flower shop owner Brandi Edwards, Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett of the TAPIT/New Works theatrical company, MadCat pet supplies owner Ted O'Donnell, Barrymore Theatre manager Steve Sperling and others.
There were also activists and political advertisers on the station who took the stage, including Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and representatives of Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood Wisconsin, among others. Statements offered by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Rep. Tammy Baldwin were also read to the packed house. Many noted that this confrontation over the future of WXXM could influence the future of the entire progressive talk format across the country, given Madison's political reputation and the changing tides of political power and media ownership.
Iconic Madison mayor Paul Soglin also stepped up to the mic and encouraged the crowd to challenge Clear Channel, saying that the company could simply address the issue by tearing up its contract with Fox Sports. "But we'll probably have to take a little more difficult and lengthier route to get where we're going," he continued. Soglin went on to emphasize the importance of local programming.
Behind The Mic
Receiving some of the biggest cheers of the rally was Madisonian Terry Kelly, a one-time T.V. weatherman and subsequent computerized forecasting entrepreneur who was a major initial investor in the Air America network back in the autumn of 2003. After the wild cheers from the crowd diminished, Kelly discussed the genesis and ups and downs of the network over the ensuing three years.
Like other speakers, he particularly focused upon Clear Channel's relationship with the progressive format, noting that the company dropped Air America affiliated stations in Cincinnati and Boston only days after the fall elections in which the Democratic Party won control of Congress. To the shock of some in the crowd, Kelly also mentioned the Air America advertisers blacklist, which includes nearly 100 large companies that refuse to have their ads broadcast on the radio network's affiliates. Finally, Kelly discussed Air America's ongoing issues with bankruptcy, suggesting that efforts to acquire new investments are in the works and that an announcement about the network's future can be expected as early as January.
None of the speakers held the stage for that long of a time, their brevity permitting the rally organizers to present nearly two dozen voices to the crowd.
There was one speaker, though, that many in the crowd clamored repeatedly for before he ascended the stage at the end of the rally. This was Lee Rayburn, the one-time co-host of The Pro Show, a morning drive time local news broadcast that had built a dedicated following during its run on the air. He was let go by Clear Channel when the format change was announced last month, and has since put together a three-episode podcast with his broadcasting partner Jodie Shawback, and will be a guest host on a nationally syndicated Air America program over the final week of the year. Emphasizing the sentiments of many previous speakers, Rayburn thanked the crowd and his other listeners, encouraging them to continue to organize for the progressive commercial talk format in Madison.
The rally ended on that note, with Walasek getting mobbed by the media while the crowds filtered out of the club. Many stopped near the main entrance to sign up for email lists and offer time and/or money to the group hoping to build upon the obvious energy of the rally. Tipler was busy there by the doors, trying to catch people as they walked outside. He says one of the group's next steps will be to build upon its basic website. "We got so much enthusiasm beyond our expectations," he says "and there are people willing to do work."
Walasek, meanwhile, says she will be going onto full-time disability soon, and vows to devote her full energies to keeping progressive talk on the air in Madison.