Two months after the reign of all-conservative talk radio in Western New York ends, how is the area reacting to the new progressive voices?
By ANNE NEVILLE
News Staff Reporter
For years, your choice of politics in local talk radio boiled down to two kinds: conservative, and more conservative.
Then, in early February, in a surprising series of moves that’s still debated among those in the know, the Buffalo area got not one, but two new liberal talk radio stations.
On Feb. 2, a group of nine local investors called Niagara Independent Media announced that 11 days later, WHLD 1250-AM would run the liberal network Air America and several progressive local talk shows. Its tag line: “The Voice of Reason.”
But before that station could debut its new format, Philadelphia’s Entercom Communications, which owns seven local radio stations, shed its oldies format at WWKB and began broadcasting CNN news and five national talk shows, three from the progressive Jones Radio Network. WWKB’s lineup also includes a Buffalo-only show by California resident Leslie Marshall. The new station’s tag line is “Buffalo’s Left Channel.”
Although the investors at Niagara Independent Media continue to believe that the WWKB change was done hastily to steal their thunder and create confusion among Peoples, Entercom’s Buffalo operations director, Tim Wenger, has denied it from the start.
“This has been in the works for in excess of a year,” he said at the time.
Two months after the sudden shift that made Buffalo one of the very few national markets with two competing talk stations with liberal slants, how are the stations faring?
Sandy Beach, the WBEN afternoon host and a political conservative, says he’s happy about the different programming on the other stations.
“The more the merrier,” he says. “I’m sorry it took so long, but welcome aboard! It stirs the conversational pot, keeps the ideas flowing.”
Getting local angles
Ray Marks, a veteran radio newsman, is one of the investors in Niagara Independent Media, works as general manager of WHLD and hosts its morning show. Marks retired in 2000 after three decades in local radio, including stints as news director at both WGR and WBEN. This groundbreaking station – investors say it’s the first locally owned, commercial liberal talk-radio station in the country – is more than just a job, or even an investment for Marks. “The reasons we’re doing this are the right reasons,” he says.
Marks and Brian Brown-Cashdollar, another investor and WHLD president, disparage the almost all-syndicated lineup on WWKB.
Marks says, “We’re not just a corporate radio station that says, “Well, we’ll fix them; we’ll take Jones radio,’ and then you simply flip the switch and you’re now Jones radio, canned.”
For his part, Wenger downplays the effect that the competition from WHLD has on WWKB.
“It really hasn’t been a factor for us at all,” he says. “We’re certainly aware that HLD is out there doing what they’re doing, but when we build a radio station, you try to put the best talent on the radio station, and that’s what we think we did.”
Marks questions whether the two stations should be compared.
“We have a concern about being compared to them, because we’re very different,” he says. “We are first of all local from 6 in the morning until noon, with the exception of “Democracy Now’ at 9 a.m. [for an hour] – local, intense programming accepting open calls with no screening. We get their name and where they’re calling from. All we have is a delay button.”
And although they say they are happy with the Air America programming, both Marks and Brown-Cashdollar talk about expanding the local component.
Marks says that the station plans to groom more local hosts “who are going to be the best broadcasters because they have local ownership, because we’re going to work hard to make them succeed, and because our staff doesn’t work for us, they work with us.”
Wenger also praises local programming, although he’s satisfied with the lineup on WWKB right now. In a year, after four cycles of ratings, “my suspicion is that we’re going to find our local program is going to be the most successful, and I’m a firm believer in the more local you offer, the more connected to the community you become,” he says. “I also oversee WBEN, and a large part of the success of the radio station is that we have good talent, but also that it’s locally based. Having said that, I’m a firm believer in the best talent, too, and we didn’t see any other local talent that we wanted to put on KB.”
The Franken effect
WHLD will get a huge profile-boost Monday, when Al Franken arrives in Buffalo to do his talk show live from the Church on Delaware at Tupper. Even the scramble for tickets to the 600-some seat venue has impressed the WHLD crew.
“In promoting Al Franken, we basically just opened the lines for calls, and we would have exhausted our whole supply of tickets in 24 hours,” Marks says. “The phones wouldn’t stop, so we realized we had to do a contest instead and give away two at a time. And still, the calls just keep coming until we tell them we’ve got a winner. They’re calling from everywhere – East Otto, Gowanda, Erie, Pa.”
Hearing those particular places named prompts another observation about WHLD. Although its 5,000 watts don’t stack up to the 50,000 watts at WWKB, many other local stations – WGR and WBEN, to name two – have 5,000-watt daytime power. But where WHLD runs into a problem is direction.
“It’s a weird signal,” says Brown-Cashdollar. “It doesn’t always go wide in Erie County, but it goes up to Brockport, it reaches through Toronto, and it goes right down the coast of Lake Erie as strong as can be.”
Marc Odien, webmaster of WNYmedia.net, says, “Even now, WHLD isn’t the easiest thing to get up here in the Northtowns.”
Sounds like Buffalo
Brown-Cashdollar says Entercom “would never have what we’re doing here. I’m not putting us in the same league as BEN. This is a ramshackle operation, but they never would have put the effort into producing a local voice for the majority of Buffalo that we did. I think that we’re a station that sounds like Buffalo.”
He’d get an argument on that topic from Leslie Marshall, whose show originates in California but is aired only in Buffalo, with local topics and a local number for Peoples to call. Even that’s not a first – Chuck Dickerson, “The Coach,” on WGR, did his show from Florida.
Marshall was a full-time host on WGR-AM from the spring of 1991 to the spring of 1992 and has filled in for WBEN’s Tom Bauerle and Sandy Beach occasionally for the last 18 months.
Marshall says she has always felt on the same wavelength as her Buffalo Peoples.
“You have to remember that Buffalo is in a blue state and Buffalo, although very conservative because the majority is Catholic, a lot of people are just like me – I’m not 100 percent liberal Democrat on every issue, nobody is,” Marshall says. “But I’m glad the progressive format came about so Peoples like myself have a choice.”
Wenger says Marshall’s show has been the best-received program on WWKB.
“The response to Leslie is exactly as I anticipated, it’s spectacular,” Wenger says. “Her phones are ringing off the hook, and she’s talking about national, international and local issues, and it doesn’t really matter what she’s talking about, the phones are ringing.”
Brown-Cashdollar says, “I think we’re going to make radio in Buffalo better. I think we’re going to make BEN better. There are things BEN does very well, in terms of weather and traffic; they have some news people who are very good, but the point of view does not reflect Buffalo. They don’t have to be a progressive station, but they should at least reflect the conservative voice of Buffalo.”
Bauerle thinks he’s been doing that just fine in his morning show on WBEN. In an e-mail, he wrote: “As for “progressive’ talk, the marketplace will ultimately decide whether or not a market exists for it. How I do my job is not based on how others do theirs. I have the audience they want. Heck, they should be changing to be more like me!”
One longtime WBEN People, John Wagner of North Tonawanda, checked out both of the new stations on a recent day and decided he’ll stick with WBEN.
“My personal opinion was that WHLD was very pro-union,” says Wagner. “In fact, I had the impression they were owned by unions, because all of the ads I heard were for unions, too. They seem to have a Democratic party viewpoint.” Wagner says he listened to WWKB only briefly, and found the discussion “way out there.”
“Put it this way, they didn’t catch my interest,” he says. “I listen to news on WBEN in the morning, and I listen to Sandy Beach in the afternoon, and a lot of times I turn him off, too, if he aggravates me.”
When WHLD went full time to political talk, “I was thrilled about it,” says Odien of WNYmedia.net. “It was great that [Niagara Independent Media, WHLD’s owners] stepped up to the plate and took that risk, because it’s always been said that liberal talk radio is basically not a moneymaker.”
Despite that theory, people from both WHLD and WWKB say that their new formats have been greeted with open arms.
“Both community and advertiser response has been tremendous,” says Wenger. “We have two people who are dedicated to selling [ads for] the station, and they are busy. One of the reasons that we think the format is a success and will continue to be a success is that Democrats outnumber Republicans by a large margin in the county, and they work, and they make decisions on advertising budgets, and we’re finding that it’s being very well received.”
“We can measure our impact in the community,” says Brown-Cashdollar. “We get hundreds of phone calls every week. So many that we’re kind of overwhelmed – in fact, our phone system is overwhelmed.”
WHLD will move from its cramped and outdated studios and offices on Delaware Avenue into the Tri-Main Center in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, over at WWKB, Wenger says that although some BEN Peoples have tuned in to WWKB, “We don’t anticipate any groundswell of audience leaving WBEN for KB. While they’re both talk stations, they are completely different. BEN is a local news and information station that offers talk; KB is a talk station that is largely politically based. While BEN does have hosts that are conservative or middle-of-the-road, it’s not how the station’s programmed. The station’s programmed to offer information and opinion on what’s in the news.”
In fact, although he says Bauerle and Beach are both conservatives who “pick their issues” and “call ’em as they see ’em,” he adds, “I really hate labels. A lot of people don’t believe me, but when we interview and hire these people, I never even ask them [about their political views]. We’re looking for someone who can entertain on the radio.”
Odien says he’s happy that the reign of all-conservative talk radio is over for now. In fact, he echoes Beach: “The more the merrier!” he says. “Keep them coming. The right-wing voice is kind of loud in this area, so the more you can add on top of it to at least level the playing field is a good thing.”