‘Truth Radio’ Network Now Statewide
Civic Media now has 18 stations covering state, to offer factual news and battle talk radio.
“We’ve got the Death Star built.”
So says radio owner Mike Crute, using Star Wars terminology to describe the veritable empire of radio stations he has now built. Except that the Death Star was run by Darth Vader and the bad guys we movie fans loved to hate. Whereas Crute styles himself as the good guy, bringing some liberal talk and mostly a lot of factual news to a state that’s long been dominated by conservative talk radio.
“The network we’ve built far exceeds our initial plans,” Crute says.
Crute’s partner, Sage Weil, is a wealthy tech industry entrepreneur and big time donor to Democratic politicians who has financed the building of Civic Media, as their company is called. Their most recent purchases includes some $3.65 million to buy two stations in Eau Claire, one in LaCrosse, and one in Racine that has two different signals.
All told, Civic Media now owns 12 talk radio stations, three country music stations and three with other music formats, like ‘Oldies” hit songs. Its map of the state shows circles of coverage by its radio stations for every area of the state, save the little-covered northeastern area of the state bordering Michigan’s upper peninsula.
Many of those 12 talk radio stations were previously reliant on nationally syndicated conservative shows, with scanty news coverage and no local news coverage.
Now the stations will run a mix of ABC and CBS news every half hour, with programming that emphasizes local hosts and local programming: “We’re trying to be hometown Wisconsin radio,” Crute notes. “We will broadcast state news in every market we serve and regional stuff, too.”
There will be a state news broadcast at the top of the hour at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. on all stations, including the music stations. “Our country music stations will air three hours of news a day.”
Terry Bell, who has worked for years in radio and as a journalism instructor at Madison Area Technical College, was brought on as news director for Civic Media in October 2022.
His first challenge was overseeing coverage of the November 2022 election. “We had 14 correspondents across the state,” Crute notes.
On his talk stations, “our goal is to have local voices in every market. We continue to add layers of local.”
That includes a morning show featuring Milwaukee’s Earl Ingram, which runs on stations in Milwaukee-Waukesha, Green Bay, Oshkosh and Racine-Kenosha. In western Wisconsin, on stations in LaCrosse and Eau Claire, the local host is Todd Allbaugh, a former Republican legislative aide with roots in the area who was critical of his party’s legislators for passing a photo ID law that was expected to suppress Democratic voters. And Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens has been added as a state-wide voice.
Indeed, sports is a big part of the network Crute is building. His stations have won bids to broadcast the games of the Green Bay Packers (two stations), Milwaukee Brewers (two stations) Wisconsin Badgers (three stations) and Marquette basketball (two stations). In addition three stations are broadcasting Friday night high school football games and Crute eventually hopes to broadcast high school football “in every market we cover.”
“It’s hometown Wisconsin, it’s an easy sell for advertisers,” Crute notes. And it reinforces the station’s local identity.
The Packers, Brewers, UW and MU games are all revenue generators. “You sell it at a premium and you have people waiting in line to buy ads,” Crute notes.
But the biggest boon to revenue is that he can now deliver coverage of the entire state for advertisers. “Buyers want to make one phone call and get 10 markets. We get bigger buyers. We are now competitors with the iHearts [the national radio chain that includes Milwaukee’s WISN, the conservative talk station]. But iHeart gets you only three markets in the state and we can get you ten.”
“The fact that it’s a network will make it profitable more quickly. We’re already profitable at a few stations,” he says. “I’m very encouraged by the trajectory.”
It was Weil’s idea to think much bigger and buy more stations, Crute notes. “This was his vision. He had the courage to put the money in the pot.”
Weil “gave $1.5 million to Democratic candidates last year,” Crute notes, and clearly sees this new network of radio stations as a way to reduce the Republican stranglehold on radio talk/news in Wisconsin. The irony, however, is that it’s being done by de-emphasizing the Democratic Party and selling ‘Civic,” the dullest of words.
“We’re not trying to beat the drum for the blue team,” Crute says. “We’re trying to tell the truth. Just trying to give them facts.”