Can Liberal Talk Radio Succeed?
A new Milwaukee radio station with a unique approach is about to find out.
Crute, the successful businessman and co-host of the “Devil’s Advocate” talk radio show in Madison, has just purchased 1510 AM, the longtime Milwaukee radio outlet, most recently a Spanish language station. Crute aims to make it the city’s first liberal talk radio station, with the new programming starting tomorrow.
“We often pulled an average 7 share (seven percent of the metro radio audience) in Madison,” Crute notes. “If we pulled that in Milwaukee, I’ll be a rich man.”
But there are reasons to doubt he’ll do that well.
For starters, attempts to succeed with liberal talk radio have repeatedly failed in America. Even in the nation’s biggest markets, liberal colossuses like New York City and Los Angeles, the format failed. Not to mention in uber-liberal San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, Miami and other cities. For that matter liberal talk radio failed in ultra-lefty Madison, where 92.1 FM dropped the format, which meant the end of the Devil’s Advocate show.
The four-county metro area of Milwaukee, as Crute points out, is three times as big a market as metro Madison, with a total audience of 1.5 million. But three of the four counties are very red, which significantly cuts back the potential listenership, though it’s still much larger than in Madison.
Then there’s the National Public Radio factor. While studies have shown its coverage is even-handed (with an equal to greater number of Republican politicians interviewed), its listenership skews very liberal with 67 percent having left-of-center views, according to the Pew Research Center. In metro Milwaukee, as Green Bay conservative radio blogger Jerry Bader has blogged, “two stations airing NPR programming can be heard and garner some 170,000 listeners, according to the most recent Nielsen data.”
Meanwhile the success of Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes has meant higher numbers for talk radio. Crute cites numbers that 91 percent of all Americans listen to radio at least once a week and 10 percent listen to talk radio. But that number is 12 percent in metro Milwaukee.
Crute and Salvia were college roommates at UW-La Crosse and in later years developed a bantering style of debating the issues that seemed to go over well at bars where they hung out. “We thought it might work on radio,” Crute notes.
Crute, 46, is a Madison native while Salvia, 45, grew up in Wisconsin farm country and attended high school in Appleton. Crute got a degree in mass communications, Salvia in marketing, followed by a Masters in Business Administration from Oakland University.
Both went on to become successful entrepreneurs. After getting a job in journalism (production and photography) at the local ABC affiliate in La Crosse, Crute decided he couldn’t live on that lousy salary. He eventually got involved in real estate and over time created CCL Management in Madison, which he has built into a $1 million business, “with no debt.” He continues as sole owner, but says “I turned the business over to my employees.”
Salvia helped grow a staffing company called Cadre, located in Appleton, and later sold out his interest to two siblings. He now lives in Milwaukee (“I met girl at Summerfest” and they married, he notes, adding “I love this town.”) Both Salvia and Crute did so well that they no longer have to work, which gave them plenty of time to try a new career in talk radio.
Crute made a deal in 2012 with 92.1 FM to do a one-hour Saturday talk show with Salvia as co-host, and Crute’s CCL Management as the advertiser and supporter. But the Devil’s Advocate show soon became a hit, drawing more advertisers and growing over time to a two-hour show, then to a daily one-hour show, Monday through Friday, which by 2014 had become a three-hour daily show.
One incident drew attention to the show. Salvia was taking photographs of the Solidarity Singers, the daily protestors at the state Capitol and he was arrested by the police. “They falsely accused me of participating in the protests,” Salvia recalls. “I told them I was with the press.” Salvia later sued the state and won a $75,000 out-of-court settlement.
“That was a real motivator for me, to be arrested for no reason by the administration of a guy I voted for,” Salvia says.
Crute and Salvia worked hard to get Republicans on their show, to get contrasting points of view, and soon developed a rapport with Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who began appearing monthly on the show.
“I enjoy going on Devil’s Advocates to talk about the issues of the day,” Johnson tells Urban Milwaukee. “The dialogue is always thoughtful and often sprinkled with good natured humor. I look forward to continuing our discussions on their new station.”
Crute and Salvia attended Trump’s presidential inauguration with tickets supplied by Johnson.
Johnson also helped the duo connect to other Republicans. And Crute and Salvia would broadcast live from some of the presidential debates, as a way to get politicians to come on their show. Among their guests have been Republicans like Ted Cruz, Trump and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Wesley Clarke, Jesse Jackson and Cory Booker.
The two also had their competitor, conservative radio talker Vicki McKenna, on their show. I like Mike and Dom personally,” she says, “and I had a blast on the radio with them! “
McKenna is among many conservatives who argue that liberal talk radio has failed because it is cause-oriented first and entertainment second, which is boring. The problem, you see, is those do-gooder liberal hosts are “lecturing” us to be compassionate towards the needy while Rush Limbaugh or Belling make fun of such compassion. Ha, now that’s entertainment!
The fact that Crute is a successful businessman may also help the station. One radio insider tells me Crute has paid less than $1 million for a station that had previously sold for $2 million. Crute believes the station only needs to average a two- percent share of the radio audience, (compared to six percent for WTMJ and 5.5 for WISN, the city’s talk radio leaders). “We don’t have to beat them to make money,” he says.
Besides the Devil’s Advocate, the station will run veteran black talk radio host Earl Ingram (who had a show on 1290 AM for years) in morning drive time, 6-8 a.m., followed by syndicated host Stephanie Miller (known for her Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour) from 8-11 a.m. and the syndicated show of Thom Hartmann from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Crute believes liberal talk radio always failed because it never had a strong afternoon drive time show, which he hopes Devil’s Advocate can be. (They two have begun attempts to syndicate the show.) But Bader has already predicted the new station will fail.
Business-wise, Crute probably can’t lose. “The upside if we succeed is tremendous.” he says. “The risk is it doesn’t work, and I have to sell the asset,” a station that will always have value.
As for the cause of liberal talk radio, Crute says, “it’s not me. It’s we. For the station to succeed,” he notes, “liberals will have to embrace it.”
And If they don’t? “Then I guess we are a red state.”
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Read more about News/Talk Radio 1510-AM here