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"What does it say," asks erstwhile radio talk-show host Heather Larrabee, "when you're locked out of media participation even when you're willing to pay for it?"
Larrabee and her radio partner, Dominick Paolini, don't know the answer to that question, but they've already felt the repercussions that flow from it. The pair, who work together at Investment Protection Service, a Lakewood money-management firm, co-hosted a weekend show called Financial Matters on Clear Channel-owned AM-760. Because the program was "brokered" -- meaning it filled one of those slots that stations sell to folks interested in spreading their messages -- they had to reach into their own pockets to buy the time; Paolini estimates the tab at "about $2,000 a month." In late August, however, Financial Matters was dropped from AM-760's schedule after Larrabee and Paolini refused to promise that they would no longer include political segments -- and a sister show hosted by attorney S. Bryan Moore suffered the same fate.
Larrabee and Paolini found this edict absurd, since the FCC's equal-time rule doesn't apply to interview shows. Besides, the tenor of their material was very much in keeping with the progressive tone of the station, whose prime-time programming is largely drawn from the left-slanting (and fiscally shaky) Air America network. But AM-760 program director Jerry Bell stresses that the specifics of their positions were less important than their insistence upon taking them. "My understanding is that we told them, 'Knock it off. You were contracted to do a financial show, and we love your financial show. So just do your financial show,'" Bell says. "And they didn't want to."
Correct. "I'm not going to whore myself to stay within guidelines that don't fit with my values," Paolini says. While he suspects that his principles have little in common with those espoused by the kingpins of Clear Channel, who have ties to President George W. Bush, he once thought they were similar to the ones promoted by AM-760. Now he's not so sure.
As Larrabee and Paolini tell it, they were approached about helming a brokered show by an AM-760 sales exec in the fall of 2004, around the time they were putting on Vision for America, a public-affairs conference whose keynote speaker, Al Franken, is a station staple. This prospect appealed to Paolini, who'd previously emceed a financial talk show in Florida. He was interested in dishing about dollars and cents again, but he maintains that neither he nor Larrabee hid their wish to tackle politically progressive subjects as well. "We were definitely solicited as espousing the left," Paolini remembers.
Financial Matters debuted at 10 a.m. on a Sunday shortly after the November elections (it shifted to 3 p.m. on Saturdays just before its demise), and from the start, Paolini and Larrabee invited politically oriented guests to jaw with them. Among those who accepted this request were Congressman Mark Udall, Governor Bill Owens, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon and author Chalmers Johnson, who criticized American foreign policy in books such as Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire. Paolini and Larrabee also touched on investment issues, but unlike hosts of many brokered shows, they refused to turn the program into a glorified infomercial. "We never derived business from it," Paolini says. "It wasn't a profit center, trust me."
"We lost big money on it," Larrabee concedes. "But it was important, and we enjoyed it."
Nevertheless, the two were in danger of burning out when they came up with the idea of sharing the slot with another host, the aforementioned Moore, who calls himself "Bulldog" in television commercials touting his legal services. Moore sat behind the microphone on alternate weekends beginning in September 2005, and his theme was politics. But last month, an AM-760 sales guy told him he could no longer invite political guests to appear, or even make partisan arguments, Paolini and Larrabee say (Moore didn't respond to interview requests). Shortly thereafter, they received the same marching orders, and when they refused to fall in line, they were told that their association with AM-760 was over.
The same sort of thing happened to professional troublemaker Mike Zinna several months ago; as noted in this space on June 29, his muckraking extravaganza, Colorado Exposed, was axed by KHOW, another Clear Channel station overseen by program director Bell, even though Zinna was paying to put it on the air. Bell denies any link between Zinna's disappearance and these latest moves, and emphasizes that the no-politics rule isn't new. The only reason Paolini, Larrabee and Moore weren't chastised before, he says, was because personnel didn't know what they were up to.
This statement astonishes Larrabee. "We've been doing this for almost two years," she points out, and nothing was hidden from station employees. Indeed, AM-760 even provided free promos when Financial Matters landed a visit from Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to ex-secretary of state Colin Powell, who appeared to express regret about his advance hyping of the Iraq War, not to offer stock tips. Bell counters that he doesn't have time to listen to every weekend show -- "There are only 24 hours in a day, and I program two stations," he says -- and as a result, relies on "periodic monitoring" by underlings. Guess that means they only get around to listening a few times per decade.