By Alan Prendergast
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Schultz insists that Daschle, who was Senate Minority Leader prior to losing in last year's election, isn't a blabby pest with too much time on his hands. According to him, the South Dakota Democrat remains a power player and is helping to conceive a strategy to blunts attacks by those rapscallion Republicans. "You wouldn't believe what they're doing," Schultz says.
Highly partisan descriptions of those schemes dominate The Ed Schultz Show, a nationally syndicated offering heard weekdays from 1 to 4 p.m. on AM 760, the Denver-Boulder area's newly minted progressive signal. To promote these efforts, Schultz is scheduled to beam his Monday, February 21, program from Boulder's Flatiron Theater, and he won't be lonely. Ticket requests were bumping against the venue's 1,000-seat capacity ten days prior to the appearance.
This response speaks to the unexpected success AM 760 has achieved to date. The station is still in the lower third of the fall Arbitron ratings survey, but it nearly tripled the number of listeners ages twelve and older who tuned to its old sports-business format during the same period last year. Schultz's platform is performing solidly, as is fare from Air America, a left-leaning network that bowed last year. The latter's midday production co-stars Al Franken, who announced on February 10 that he won't run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, but left open the prospect of doing so in 2008 -- a dream that might seem totally delusional if the state being targeted wasn't Minnesota. On a recent episode of The O'Reilly Factor, professional provocateur Bill O'Reilly screened a clip from a Canadian documentary in which Franken, his favorite whipping boy, was shown crying. Afterward, O'Reilly joked that Franken must have seen his ratings -- but Franken has no reason for tears in these parts. The latest Arbitrons found his twelve-plus audience to be virtually the same size as O'Reilly's, even though Big Bill is on KHOW, historically a much brawnier station than AM 760.
To Kris Olinger, head of AM programming for Clear Channel-Denver, the dead heat between Franken and O'Reilly demonstrates that 760 is no longer the embarrassment it was when she assumed her current post last year. To build on this momentum, she confirms that she's hired Jay Marvin, who worked at KHOW in the late '90s, to be the station's first locally based host; he'll be heard weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m. beginning February 28. Marvin auditioned for the slot on February 4, providing the outlet, nicknamed "Boulder's Progressive Talk," with the first chance to weigh in on the biggest recent controversy in its figurative home town: the Ward Churchill flap. He talked up the experience on his personal blog, http://blogs.salon.com/0002606/, where he identifies himself as "America's favorite lefty and outsider-art troublemaker," writing that "It was nice to be able to get my point across and not get my head bitten off."
Remaking AM 760 in a liberal image -- a move exemplified by a running clock on the www.am760.net website that ticks down the seconds until George W. Bush is out of office -- may seem cynical in light of Clear Channel chairman Lowry Mays's friendship with Bush's father and his generous donations to the Republican Party. Yet Olinger maintains that Mays's ideology never colored Clear Channel's broadcasts or led to the sort of pro-military rallies that outlets such as The Fox staged around the time the Iraq war began. "That's a misconception," she says. "We're in the business of providing a radio product and getting listeners, so we're going to program our radio stations in a way that accomplishes that."
Echoing this sentiment is Schultz, who's on numerous Clear Channel stations around the country; earlier this month, he traveled to Los Angeles to help launch a new one. "Clear Channel is a publicly held company, and they're about making money," he says. "That's why they're committed to this format -- because they know it's a viable category. Just like there's hard rock and soft rock and classic rock, there's conservative talk and sports talk and progressive talk. I give them credit for stepping up to the plate and realizing there's a future here."
For Schultz, the outlook has improved immeasurably of late. A former sportscaster who made the philosophical shift from right to left after meeting his wife/producer, Wendy, Schultz built enough of a following in the region surrounding his home base of Fargo, North Dakota, to capture the attention of Jones Radio Networks. After inking a syndication deal, he debuted in January 2004 on thirty stations. Today this total has risen to eighty, including eight of the nation's top ten markets. He's also published Straight Talk From the Heartland: Tough Talk, Common Sense, and Hope From a Former Conservative, a book that positions him as a left-wing alternative to Rush Limbaugh.
Although Schultz would love to best Rush, he's shooting lower. "My goal is to defeat Sean Hannity," he says -- and if hitting the highway to inspire the Boulder faithful will help, hand him the keys. "I'm overwhelmed by the number of people who are coming to see us in Colorado," he allows. "But the real story is how we've changed the corporate mindset and shown that progressive shows can work. People in the industry have gone from 'This won't work' to 'When can we get it on the air?'"