State’s Liberal Talk Radio Chain Growing
Mike Crute’s stations, audience growing, so why the resistance from Democratic leaders?
“I was raised an orphan, I’m a self-made man,” radio owner and talk show host Mike Crute humble brags. Yet after starting in January 2017 with a tiny AM station with limited hours in Milwaukee, he has continued to build, buying other stations at FCC auctions, and now has a second FM station in Milwaukee, an FM station in Madison and an AM station in Columbus, the small town of 4,991 people bordering Columbia and Dodge Counties.
“We cover about 2.4 million Wisconsinites with a clear signal,” Crute notes, and all four stations program liberal talk radio, with a little bit of music on weekends.
His original goal, he says was ideological, “to beat Donald Trump.” With that in mind, “we broadcast the impeachment trial gavel to gavel,” he notes.
But over time, Crute has realized his real passion: “I’m passionate about being a broadcaster.” He once flirted with running for governor, but has come to realize he’s a businessman and broadcaster.
The Milwaukee station was launched with the name “Resistance Radio,” but advertising sponsors, he found, resisted such branding. And so he has changed his approach, labeling the stations as simply talk radio. The flagship station in Milwaukee is Talk 101.7 FM and in Madison is Talk 92.7 FM.
Though there are many conservative talk stations, he notes, “no one has simply branded themselves as talk.” Until now.
For one thing, audiences don’t want that. “The audience wants independence,” he has found. They might lean liberal, but “it’s the independence from both parties that audiences appreciate.”
For another thing, Democratic leaders have not been very cooperative. “I thought Democratic candidates would come on the shows,” but few have, he notes. Repeated invitations to Gov. Tony Evers have been rejected. And Democratic consultants in Milwaukee have actually been hostile: “What has been shocking to me is there are Democratic operatives going out of their way to try and undermine me,” Crute laments.
Why? “We don’t hew to the company line. We will challenge candidates of all stripes.” His afternoon show, The Devil’s Advocate, co-hosted by Dominic Salvia, is clearly liberal but mixes in humor along with Crute’s occasional complaints about Democratic consultants, he confesses.
But perhaps the key thing is that Democratic operatives don’t really see the value of talk radio, which has always been a right-wing thing.
“I think we get more grudging admiration from the right, because they know the power of talk radio. One of the my biggest fans is [WISN conservative talker] Dan O’Donnell. He wants the competition.”
For that matter, one of the regular guests on the show is Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who told Urban Milwaukee he enjoys his appearances. “The dialogue is always thoughtful and often sprinkled with good natured humor,” he noted.
“The guy usually brings us beer,” Crute notes. “He’s a character.”
The Milwaukee FM station runs liberal talk shows from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every week day with some reruns on weekends along with some music. The line up includes syndicated talker Santita Jackson (daughter of Jesse Jackson) from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., followed for three hours by veteran Milwaukee talker Earl Ingram, then by three hours of syndicated talker Thom Hartmann, then one hour by longtime Milwaukee attorney and Democrat Matt Flynn, then three hours of the Devil’s Advocate and an hour hosted by the liberal activist group Wisconsin Citizen Action.
The Madison FM station runs a pretty similar lineup, with the notable substitution of popular syndicated talker Stephanie Miller instead of Ingram, who has a stronger following in Milwaukee. (The two AM stations have similar lineups but more limited hours under FCC regulations.)
“The audience for Devil’s Advocate is over 100,000 and the Facebook engagement by audience is 250,000.”
The audience, as it has for news publications, has grown during the pandemic. “Our conservative competitors on talk radio have been telling people that coronavirus is a hoax and they should be out protesting.”
But the lessons learned by Crute have come at a high cost. He has spent $2 million to date on purchase of the stations and to cover operating losses for the Milwaukee station.
How could he afford that? “I sold my property management firm, CCL Management, to my employees for just under $1 million,” he says. And he got a federal small business loan for $760,000.
He bought the Milwaukee FM station with the idea that the Democratic National Convention would ramp up listeners and ads, but the pandemic made that a bad bet. And he’s finding it a continuing challenge to sell Milwaukee advertisers and sponsors.
Meanwhile the Madison station is already turning a profit. Partly that was because the station already had a history as a talk radio station and the Devil’s Advocates show had run for many years in Madison.
But advertising and sponsors there were also more receptive. “In Madison small sponsors took a chance on adverting with us and it worker for them,” Crute says.
The Devil’s Advocate show has also been a success: it is also broadcast on radio stations run by other owners, in Minneapolis and Janesville.
So at some point Crute may be forced to sell or change the format for the Milwaukee stations and stick to the Madison base while syndicating Devil’s Advocate.
“It’s gotta make sense in Milwaukee,” Crute warns, or he’ll have to give up on the city’s only liberal talk radio station.
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