I spoke to John Ziegler recently about an article that the L.A. Times ran about local conservative talk radio. You probably know Ziegler as the man behind howobamagotelected.com and the related film “Media Malpractice.” Ziegler is a former talk radio host here in L.A. and had some interesting insights into talk radio, conservatism, and the relationship between the two. I think you’ll be interested in his thoughts.
The article said:
[C]onservative talk radio in California is on the wane. The economy’s downturn has depressed ad revenue at stations across the state, thinning the ranks of conservative broadcasters.
For that and other reasons, stations have dropped the shows of at least half a dozen radio personalities and scaled back others, in some cases replacing them with cheaper nationally syndicated programs.
Casualties include Mark Larson in San Diego, Larry Elder and John Ziegler in Los Angeles, Melanie Morgan in San Francisco, and Phil Cowen and Mark Williams in Sacramento.
Ziegler emphasized that the issues involved are much more complicated than they are portrayed in the Times article. He said that the L.A. Times‘s approach to the whole issue was “farcical at best” — as revealed by the fact that the paper apparently didn’t bother to contact the radio hosts discussed (Ziegler included) to find why they had been replaced. In Ziegler’s view, the paper simply picked a narrative it found convenient and went with it. (Regular readers of this blog will be shocked to hear this.)
There are many reasons that the hosts named in the article were replaced, Ziegler told me, and many of them are individual to the specific situation.
For example, Ziegler said, it was ridiculous for him to be mentioned in the article as an example of a talk show host being asked to leave because he was conservative. His departure had to do with an internal situation at KFI, stemming from his criticism of John & Ken (about whom more below) rather than anything to do with his political leanings or with a lack of ad revenue.
Ziegler explained that talk radio is a business. Yes, some conservatives might be coming off the air — but that in itself is not an indictment of conservatism.
Larry Elder: An Economic Decision
For example, he said, while he likes and respects former KABC talk show host Larry Elder, Ziegler said that Elder was simply making too much money for what the company wanted to pay. The decision to get rid of Elder was “economic,” as Elder “was getting killed in the ratings.”
Ziegler explained that the ratings system recently changed from a “diary system” to the “People Meter.” Under the diary system, the company would send a diary to people, and people would write down what they thought they listened to. Then they got paid a dollar to send it back. The diary system was run by Arbitron and was known by people in the business as the “Arbitraries.”
Late last summer, radio ratings began to be measured by the “People Meter.” Companies use a device like an iPod, which records the station you’re actually listening to at any particular time. This provides more solid data, and Larry Elder, for reasons that are not readily apparent, was a big loser in that transition.
Moderation and Softness on Obama
In addition, Ziegler said, Elder was “considered the most anti-Obama host on the station,” and many local radio personalities have seemingly concluded that it will be beneficial to their careers to go softer on Obama. Ziegler said that he couldn’t think of a local talk radio host who is clearly anti-Obama.
Ziegler said that softness on Obama has become a distressing trend in L.A. talk radio. Ziegler said that it appears clear that local radio hosts have caught on to Obama’s popularity, and see a ratings benefit in being sweet to Obama.
Ziegler said that some conservatives have not done as well in the ratings as some moderate hosts. This has caused companies to seek to pressure their hosts to be more moderate, a view that Ziegler criticizes as short-sighted. After all, Rush Limbaugh is doing well in the ratings, Ziegler noted. In addition, Fox has done quite well in cable news, while MSNBC and CNN are down.
Why have some of the more conservative hosts not done as well as the moderates? Fox may have taken some of the talk radio audience, Ziegler said — but ultimately, it all comes down to the host. A good moderate host is better then a lousy conservative host, and a good conservative host is better than a lousy moderate host.
But there is also something more insidious at work: the business end of talk radio is not always conducive to those who take the politics seriously.
Business trumps principles
I asked Ziegler whether Elder’s poor ratings weren’t evidence of the L.A. Times thesis: that conservatives are failing in the ratings. Ziegler said:
You seem to have the same block that a lot of conservatives have when it comes to talk radio. Talk radio is a business. Most listeners think it is about a cause. It is not. And hosts that treat it like a cause (like me and Elder) are much more vulnerable, not because we are conservatives . . . but because we don’t go with the wind in order to pander to the audience to get ratings on that particular day. Hosts like John and Ken are masters at not letting their beliefs (they have none) get in the way of running a successful business.
Conservative radio hosts are not failing as “businesses” because of conservatism, but because of their principles which do not enable them to pander for ratings.
This is the biggest lesson I learned from Ziegler . . . and the most depressing.
John and Ken
As you can see, Ziegler cited local talk radio hosts John and Ken as examples of talk radio hosts who, he claims, treat radio as a business rather than a cause . . . even as they pretend to treat it as a cause.
Ziegler said that KFI was conservative three years ago. Then Bill Handel and John and Ken saw that George W. Bush was becoming unpopular, and decided to turn on Bush for ratings.
Handel, Ziegler said, “is a buffoon and acknowledges he is a buffoon.” But John and Ken purport to be serious. They are not, Ziegler said; instead they are “complete and total frauds.”
Ziegler has had an acrimonious relationship with John and Ken, whom he described as “apolitical” and out to “manipulate the audience for ratings.” He said: “They make up whatever they want to believe at that particular moment in time. Whichever way the wind’s blowing, that’s the way they go.” He said: “Hopefully they’ll end up in hell,” and added that John Kobylt “had better hope there is not a hell, because if there is, he’ll end up there.” Kobylt can be mean and tough when interviewing some little guy, Ziegler said, but “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s DNA is still in the KFI studio from the servicing Kobylt gave him the day before the 2006 election. Now, of course, he is all over the Governor because it is safe and good for ratings.”
As a perceptive interviewer, I detected a touch of bitterness there. But just a touch.
Ziegler almost hired at KABC
Ziegler said that much of the decisionmaking on programming (including the drive to go softer on Obama) appears to be made at a corporate level. To illustrate his point, Ziegler told me a rather startling story that is being broken here: he was almost hired by KABC in October.
Ziegler was to fill the single hour between O’Reilly and Hannity, with the understanding that the time slot would be expanded in the new year. He was all ready to sign on the dotted line, and was literally faxing employment information, when he received a phone call and was told he needed to put a hold on the paperwork. Upper management had stopped all transactions. Ziegler said that was likely the day that the general manager and program director realized that they were going to get fired; it was then clear that they did not control the programming decisions.
Ziegler said that he believes the political right as a cause is completely lost. We are demoralized.
As an example, Ziegler cited his film Media Malpractice, which he was kind enough to send me a copy of. It is a broadside against media manipulation of the election, with a bonus exclusive interview with Sarah Palin. Ziegler feels that it should be a cause that many conservatives rally around. But, while many have, many others who should have done so, have not.
I am looking forward to seeing it and reviewing it here.
I thank Ziegler for taking the time to talk to me. I came away from the conversation with a greater respect for him — but a greater disdain for talk radio in general. Since we talked, I find it harder to motivate myself to turn the radio on in the car, knowing that the voices I hear are mostly coming from people who treat it like a business and not a crusade. This is terrible, because with what Obama is doing to this country, we need crusaders now more than ever.