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Thom Hartmann Still Enjoys Engaging In The Scrum

“Progressive radio has deep roots. It has been around a long time, but nobody had really done it nationally like [Rush] Limbaugh had.”

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Thom Hartmann is one of the most recognized voices of progressive talk in the country and probably one of the most intelligent. His weekly show is syndicated by Pacifica and is heard on SiriusXM and terrestrial radio, including KPFK in Los Angeles, the largest FM in the U.S.

His noon-3 p.m. eastern eponymous program features Hartmann’s look at the news of the day from a progressive perspective.

The show was quick to adapt to the pandemic in 2020, having a live set-up for remotes, but Hartmann brought it into his home and upgraded to commercial-grade Internet.

Hartmann returned to the studio after a year, but adds “we’re being very careful.”

Even though his talk show started in 2003, it’s safe to say Hartmann is a radio lifer. He’s been on the air dating back to the late 1960s.

The seed was planted as a child.

“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got really into electronics,” Hartmann told BNM.

It quickly became more than a hobby for the budding broadcaster, who got a 100-milliwatt transmitter kit. He hooked it up to a turntable in his parent’s living room.

“[I] created a radio station for the five houses nearby where three of my friends lived,” Hartmann said.

By the time he was 13, Hartmann had his ham radio license. Still a teenager, Hartmann’s first radio gig was as a weekend country music disc jockey at WITL in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan. He was just 16 years old, the same age he started college.

Hartmann also took to radio at Michigan State University.

There were a handful of stations in Lansing for Hartmann to “spin the hits.” Eventually, he returned to WITL, evolving to newscasting for the next seven years.

However, in 1978, he left the state and radio to concentrate on a co-owned small business.

“I’ve been a serial entrepreneur,” he said.

 Other fields would follow, including founding an advertising firm and launching a travel agency.

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Progressive Talk

Hartmann would find his legendary voice with an op-ed piece in 2003 indicating progressive talk radio was a viable business mode.

“That became the first business plan for Air America radio,” he said. “There were still a lot of skeptics out there and I wanted a proof of concept.”

Living in Vermont at the time, Hartmann got a radio station in Burlington to let him do a couple of hours on Saturdays to test his theory. 

“America is 50-50, Democratic, Republican, and talk radio is not an intrinsically or inherently political medium,” he said. “It’s just a tool. It’s neutral.”

Within six months his show was picked up by a national network—now defunct I.E. America Radio—owned by the United Auto Workers in Detroit. More than two dozen stations formed the initial group of affiliates for Hartmann’s broadcast, and Sirius, where he remains to this day.

During his time away from radio, Hartmann started a community for abused children in New Hampshire. His wife Louise spearheaded the project that was “designed to blow up the big institutional model of how children were too badly damaged to foster care,” whose only options were “children’s jails or state mental hospitals,” he said.

That led to a 1978 school for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Hartmann wrote books about psychology, including best sellers on ADHD.

He got himself officially on the roster of psychotherapists in the state of Vermont.

“It was more like a professional credential than a way of making a living,” Hartmann recalled.

Although he supervised the clinical staff, Hartmann said he never practiced as a therapist.

The program lasted into the 21st century.   

That love of electronics helped cut corners for Hartmann, who could assemble a studio in his living room for his show in Vermont.

When Air America began, the largest affiliate (KPOJ), located in Portland, Oregon, asked if he’d do the national show there and a local morning show specifically for them.

His youngest daughter had already moved to Oregon, so, Thom and Louise moved and were joined by all of their children. Hartmann still broadcasts from Portland.

While liberal radio is not the prevailing popular choice among the masses, some on the left side have broken through. Alan Berg was one Denver host, heard on KOA and across 29 stations. He was murdered in 1984 by a neo-Nazi, the basis for the film Talk Radio.

Michael Jackson, who died earlier this month, also found success with his liberal views.

“Progressive radio has deep roots,” Hartmann said. “It has been around a long time, but nobody had really done it nationally like [Rush] Limbaugh had.”

Time for TV

Although Hartmann would be part of the Air America lineup, “I never chose to be an employee. I always owned my own show.”

Hartmann hosted a daily, one-hour program, The Big Picture. He took it to Washington for the RT news network when Barack Obama went to the White House. The international broadcaster also hired Larry King and Ed Schultz to build a quality television network.

But when Donald Trump got elected, RT, formerly known as Russia Today, took an active role in supporting the new president.

“The summer of 2017 I exercised a 90-day early termination clause in my contract and went back home to Portland,” Hartmann said.  “It was a great experience and I learned a lot about doing TV from it.”

His radio show does continue to simulcast on TV through Free Speech TV on Dish Network, DirectTV and numerous cable systems.

“Probably between one third and one half of my calls are coming from Free Speech TV and YouTube,” Hartmann said.

His show is not currently heard in New York City, although he was on WBAI in the past.

But with internal strife at WBAI, Hartmann said the station has “devolved into a disaster scenario.”

Book Review: Not-so-hidden racism and profit define the sickness of  "American Healthcare" :: NPI's Cascadia Advocate
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Conservative Nation

Despite being a leading progressive talker, the country’s airwaves are predominantly filled with right-wing narratives.

Hartmann pointed to President Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act in 1996, lifting the cap of stations by an owner.

Clear Channel and Cumulus grew exponentially following the government’s ruling.

“Ownership of these stations was pretty overtly conservative,” Hartmann said.

Beyond that, the longtime progressive host has seen it firsthand: “Radio, as a whole, is a very conservative industry.”

He said that does not refer to politics, but the cautious nature within the business.

“No program director ever got fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air,” Hartmann said. “When something’s a winner, everybody wants to jump on it. But nobody wants to take chances, and nobody wants to be the outlier.”

Radio faces a challenge from online platforms and podcasting becomes a more accessible option for listeners to find their content.

But Hartmann isn’t worried about the future of his beloved business.

“Most radio is consumed in people’s cars,” he said. “Radio is still alive, well and strong in rural parts of America, and in cities where you have long commutes.”

However, in the smaller towns where people aren’t staying in vehicles for long stretches, “radio’s dying,” he said.

Not only does Hartmann welcome listeners and guests from the other side of the aisle, he

encourages it, but admitted it is getting harder to find conservatives to engage in debate.

“It’s damn near impossible,” he said.

As for right-wing-slanted callers, Hartmann doesn’t shy away from them either.

“If a conservative caller calls into the show, someone wants to disagree with me about something, they go to the front of the line,” he said.

As a ratings ploy, Hartmann said those interactions are the drama listeners enjoy.

“But people aren’t really fully informed about an issue until they’ve heard a couple of different sides of it,” Hartmann said.

Prior to the pandemic, Hartmann would make it a point to listen to his conservative brethren.

“I loved to listen to Michael Savage and Mark Levin. I listened to Limbaugh for years,” he said. “I’m a big fan of talk radio. I also learn from it. Not just politics; a lot of my radio technique I learned from listening to Limbaugh and Michael Savage, in particular, who, in terms of politics, he’s nuts, but in terms of radio he’s a genius.”

The Thom Hartmann Program - Apps on Google Play

Thom Hartmann Program

Hartmann has used their template for creating his host-driven show, building a relationship with the listeners by sharing his opinions each day.

He typically highlights the top handful of topics and a 10–15-minute rant with as much information and his views will follow. Hartmann will then take as many calls as necessary on the given topic, usually resetting at the top or bottom of the hour.

“We keep the whole thing fairly tightly focused,” Hartmann said. “My show’s only as good as the host.”

Hartmann said liberal hosts need to move away from just doing interview radio, because host-driven is “the most popular medium,” and doing it effectively means “willing to be absolutely honest with your audience and yourself.”

It was Hartmann’s first mentor, Chuck Mefford, former owner at WITL, who told his protégé, “In radio, when you open that microphone there’s only one person on the other side.”

But on the same side, listeners will find Randy Rhodes and Stephanie Miller are among the other progressive stars.  Still, Hartmann knows his competition comes from conservative talkers.

“Frankly, I think most people, if they listen to good talk radio, can really get into it,” Hartmann said. “It’s just there’s not that much good talk radio out there anymore. Now a lot of it is just screaming and yelling.”

Hartmann’s midday slot is also home to Buck Sexton and Clay Travis for Premiere Networks, and Dan Bongino on Westwood One.

“I used to debate [Bongino] almost every week when I was in D.C. But not anymore,” Hartmann laughed. “He’s a big deal now.”

He doesn’t think the loss of Limbaugh will make a difference in his audience. Instead, he’s certain the Trump presidency had a better impact. Show hosts historically perform better when an opposing party is in office, acting as the de facto foe.

Hartmann, though, has no problem criticizing a Democrat, including the 46th president.

“I will criticize Joe Biden when I think he’s doing something wrong or stupid,” he said.

Like Biden, Hartmann is a septuagenarian, but has no plans of retiring.

“I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m not that old yet. My brain still works really well,” he said. “I think engaging in the scrum on a daily basis is one of the things that keeps it working.”

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BNM Writers

Market Still Finding 2023 Footing

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

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While it’s hard to imagine 2023 being as painful for investors as 2022, experts still cannot say for certain we are destined for blue skies ahead. Many in the media are starting the year by sifting through the stock market tea leaves; trying to figure out what historical data can tell us about probabilities and expectations for the next twelve months.

Some think the United States is poised for a market rebound, while others remain quite bearish, feeling that negative policy implications have yet to be fully realized.

Peter Tuchman of Trademas Inc. joined Neil Cavuto on his Fox News program Friday, to offer his thoughts about where the American stock market might be headed in light of the newly-divided United States Congress.

“Markets have a sort of a gut of their own,” Cavuto opened. “Today’s a good example. We’re up 300 points, ended up down 112 points. What’s going on?”

“Markets don’t like unknowns, and markets need confidence. The investing community needs confidence,” Tuchman said. “And I think it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild that. And as we saw the other night with what went on in the House, it feels like people should get busy governing as opposed to all this posturing.”

Six months ago, Tuchman didn’t have a solid feel for the direction of the market. And just two trading weeks into the year, he still doesn’t believe any real trend has been established.

“The market has yet to find its ground. It’s yet to find its footing,” Tuchman told Cavuto. “And still, even coming into 2023, the first week of trading we have not found our footing. We have come in on a couple of economic notes that were a little bit positive. We opened up with a little bit of irrational enthusiasm. By the end of the days we were trading down.”

Meanwhile, some financial outlets, such as CNBC, have dug into the data showing what a market rise during the year’s first week – such as what we experienced this year – potentially means for the rest of 2023. They published a story last week with the headline, Simple ‘first five days’ stock market indicator is poised to send a good omen for 2023“.

On an episode of his popular YouTube program late last week, James from Invest Answers dug into 73 years of stock market data, to test that theory and see if the first five days of yearly stock market performance are an indicator of what the market might do over the full year.

“Some analysts pay attention to this, the first five trading day performance, can it be an indicator of a good year or a bad year,” James began last week, “I wanted to dig into all of that and get the answer for myself. Because some people think yes. Some people swear blind by it. Some people think it’s a myth or an old wive’s tale. Some people think it’s a great omen.”

After some rigorous data analysis, the thoughtful, numbers-based host was able to formulate some potential conclusions.

Based on James’ analysis…

If the gains from the first five market days of the year are negative, the market rises 86 percent of the time over the full year, with an average gain of 6%.

If the first five days are positive, the market increases 92% of the time, with an average yearly gain of 16%.

Most importantly, in this year’s scenario, where the first five days saw a jump of more than 1%, the market traditionally ends positive for the year 95 percent of the time. Those years see an average yearly gain of 18%.

“Is it a good omen, does it look bullish?” James asked. “Well, yes, based on history. But remember, there are factors like inflation, interest rates, geopolitical turmoil, supply chains, slowing economy. All that stuff is in play. But history also says that the market bounces bounces back before the market even realizes it’s in a recession. That’s an important thing to know.”

On his Your World program, Cavuto wondered if the recent House speaker voting drama has added to the uncertainty facing markets.

“Historically, Wall Street definitely is a bit more friendly to a Republican administration,” Tuchman said. “We’re in new ground, there’s no playbook, Neil. And I went over it with you the last time. There’s no playbook for coming out of a pandemic. No playbook for what’s gone on over the last two and a half years. Let’s think about it. March 2020, the market sold off so radically. We had a rally of 20 percent in 2020. 28 percent in 2021, in the eyes of a global economic shutdown due to the Federal Reserve’s posturing and whatnot.

“And now we’re trying to unwind that position. In tech, and in possible recession, and inflation and supply chain issues. So, there’s no way historically to make a judgment on what the future looks like in that realm, let alone what’s going on in the dis-functionality of what’s happening in Washington. I would like to disengage what’s going on in Washington and try and rebuild the confidence in the market coming into 2023.” 

So while the data might indicate a strong year ahead, the fact is that many analysts still won’t make that definitive call amidst such economic turmoil gripping the country. 

Along with U.S. markets, they remain steadfast in their search for solid footing.

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BNM Writers

Does Radio Need A Video Star?

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

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Last week numerous stories about using video with broadcasting or audio podcasting became a hot topic of discussion.

A Morning Consult poll found that 32% of Americans prefer podcasts with video, compared with 26% who like just audio better. Among podcast listeners, 46% said they favor them with video, compared with 42% who said they would rather listen without video. It’s worth noting that these are podcast listeners, not radio listeners.

Video has become the latest trend in audio. Almost everybody is trying to do some form of video. Many shows already stream online. A few others simulcast on a television or cable channel. It seems nobody believes in pure audio anymore. It’s a wonder everybody didn’t go into television instead of radio.

Before everybody else starts adding webcams in the studio, it’s worth weighing the reasons to move ahead versus slowing down.

The first person to realize they could use video of their show may have been Howard Stern. In June 1994, Stern started a daily half-hour show on E! network, featuring video highlights from his radio show. Stern added slick production values and faster pacing on the E! show.

Don Imus started simulcasting on cable during the same month. It’s possible others that I’m not aware of started earlier.

Stern’s E! show made sense. It answered the most common questions people asked about the show, in addition to what’s he really like; the first questions people usually asked were: 1) Are the women really as good-looking as he says? 2) Do they really take their clothes off? The E! show answered those questions. In addition, it gave a backstage glimpse of the show.

The same month Stern’s E! Show began, Imus began simulcasting his show on cable networks. I would have feared losing ratings. In fact, Imus’ program director did!

I spoke to my long-time friend and colleague Mark Chernoff (Current Managing Director of Mark Chernoff Talent and on-air talent 107.1 The Boss on the NJ Shore, Former Senior VP WFAN and CBS Sports Radio, VP Sports Programming CBS Radio) about the impact simulcasting Imus’ show had on WFAN. Chernoff may have the broadest range of experiences with simulcasting radio programs with video. 

Imus began on CSPAN but shortly afterward moved to MSNBC. Chernoff told me: “When we started simulcasting Imus, I suggested we’d lose about 15% of our radio audience to TV, which we did.” Chernoff added that there was a significant revenue contribution and that the company was content with the trade-off.

WFAN had a different experience simulcasting Mike and the Mad Dog on YES in 2002. “In this case, TV was helpful, and we increased listenership,” said Chernoff. WFAN also benefited financially from this simulcast.

Imus was on in morning drive while Mike & the Mad Dog were on in the afternoon. Keep the era in mind, too. Before smartphones and high-speed streaming, it was not uncommon for people to have televisions in the bed or bathrooms and have the tv on instead of the radio as they got ready for their day. In the afternoon, fewer people would have had video access in that era.

Ratings measurement moved to Portable People Meter (PPM) by the time WFAN started streaming middays on its website. Chernoff reported streaming had no ratings or revenue impact – positive or negative – on middays. However, the company did provide an additional dedicated person to produce the video stream.

The early forays into video by pioneers such as Stern, Imus, and Mike & the Mad Dog are instructive.

There are good reasons to video stream shows. Revenue is a good reason.

If there’s revenue attached, the debate is over. If there isn’t a deal on the table, and there aren’t already orders to monetize a video stream, it’s likely coming soon.

Another good reason is if the video can answer questions about the show, as the E! show did for Howard Stern.

On the other hand, audio companies are going to throw a lot of money at video, based on the notion that it’s what they “should” do because:

  • It’s the latest trend. Being late on this trend is different from missing the Internet or Podcasting. Industries already revolve around video; television and film come to mind.
  • Podcast listeners like it (by a slight plurality).

Before turning on webcams, see what viewers will see. The studios at many stations I’ve worked at were better not seen. Considerations include; the set, lighting, wardrobe, visuals, and a plan.

Too many video streams of studios feature the fire extinguisher prominently in the shot or the air personalities milling about during terminally long breaks.

Before going live, watch the video with no audio. Is it interesting? Compelling? Does the video draw you in, or is it dull?

With program directors now spread so thin handling multiple stations, a dedicated person to oversee streaming should be a requirement for stations streaming shows.

Other considerations:

  • How could this help us, and how could it hurt us?
  • How does the video enhance the show?
  • Will personalities do their radio show or perform for the cameras?
  • What production values are you able to add to the video?
  • What happens during those seven- eight-minute breaks if it’s a live radio show (vs. a podcast)? What will people streaming video see and hear? Does everybody on the show get along?

Do you have revenue attached? What do you expect will happen to the ratings?

WFAN earned significant revenue for two. Therefore, the company wasn’t concerned when the ratings took a hit for the first one and were surprised when they helped the second one. They didn’t see any impact on ratings or revenue the third time.

After all the budget cuts and workforce reductions over the past decade-plus, before audio companies invest in video, shouldn’t we get: people, marketing, promotion, or research monies back first?

Most of us decided to get into radio (or podcasting) instead of television or film. There’s a reason they said, “video killed the radio star.”

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BNM Writers

Streaming Platforms Cannot Be Forgotten By News/Talk Program Directors

BNM’s Pete Mundo writes that if you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations and what comes through the streaming platforms.

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If you’re a News/Talk program director, you run two radio stations. Didn’t you know that? Oh. Well, you do. 

I’m not just referring to our over-the-air broadcast but also what comes through our streaming platforms. Alexa, Google Home, apps, computers, etc., are all streaming platforms of our radio stations, which for most of us, are airing different commercial inventory than what is coming through the radio.

I understand none of us are unnecessarily looking to add to our plate, but our streaming platforms are the way we are getting more people to use our product. So neglecting, or forgetting about it, is a bad business decision, especially in the talk space. 

Across all clusters, talk radio is far more likely to have high streaming use when it comes to total listening hours. Listeners are more loyal to our personalities and often can’t get the AM dial in their office buildings during the day, or even if they can, they don’t want to hear our voices through static, so they pull up the stream. 

It’s never been easier to listen to talk radio stations, thanks to our station apps and websites (although welcoming some sites to the 21st century would be a good idea). So, given the challenges many of us face on the AM band, why not push our audience to the stream and make sure the stream sounds just as good as the over-the-air product?

The tricky part in putting together a quality stream sound is trying to balance what ads are programmatic, which ones are sold locally, where is the unfilled inventory and what is filling that gap?

And unlike your over-the-air product, where you can go into a studio, see what’s coming up, and move inventory around, that technology is not available in most cases. So yes, it’s a guessing game.

But as the talk climate continues to change, the best thing we can do to build our brand and trust with the next generation of talk radio listeners is to find them and engage them where they are, which may not always be next to a physical radio. That will be on a stream. How do I know that? Because if they have a smartphone, they have (access to) the stream.

Of course, the over-the-air product remains the massive revenue generator for our stations, as in most cases, the streaming revenue is not close to comparable. But then, if we look years down the road, that will likely start to change. 

To what degree? That’s unknown. But double-digit growth on an annual basis should not be out of the question when it comes to stream listening. It should be a very achievable goal, especially in our format. So our listeners who are P1’s, love the station and want to consume as much of the content as they can, can be on the AirPods in the gym, desk at work, or in their home office and listen to our radio stations. 

Heck, with Alexa and Google Home, they don’t even have to turn a dial! They just speak. So if they’re there, let’s keep them there.

There are simply too many media options today to lose our listeners due to sloppy streaming quality that makes us sound like a college radio station. Instead, listeners, who find us there should be rewarded with a listening experience that is just as high-quality as what they would get on the AM or FM band.

And if we play our cards right, it will be better, serving the industry incredibly well through a new generation of listeners.

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