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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Jerry Barmash has been a fixture in New York radio for decades with anchor stints on WABC Radio and Bloomberg News. Jerry was also heard on WINS, WCBS and Wall Street Journal Radio. As a media writer, Jerry’s pieces were featured in Broadcasting & Cable, NY Daily News and Watercooler HQ. Jerry also hosts the interview podcast Here Now the News. He’s on Twitter @JerryBarmash and can be reached at email@example.com.
The Only Path Forward For News Radio is Strong Personalities
Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than News/Talk
If radio wants to keep up, personality has to be the way. The format of choice is irrelevant, but personality has to be the biggest asset for the format and station.
It’s something I’ve written about before in this column, but when it gets reinforced by iHeart CEO Bob Pittman, it’s worth mentioning again.
In a great conversation with Talkers’ Michael Harrison, Pittman pointed out that “25% of iHeart’s stations do not play music”, and that more and more shows on the company’s music stations are “actually talk shows that play little or no music at all.”
Then came the best line of the conversation, when Pittman said, “Even on our music stations, you find us moving much more towards heavier personalities, because as we begin to say, If somebody just wanted music, they’ve got a lot of places to go. We’re probably not their best option, if they just want to dig through music. If they want somebody to keep them company, and hang out with them, and be their friend, and be an informed friend, and connect with them, there’s no better place. So we’re very committed to it.”
That’s it right there.
Radio’s competitive advantage is being a friend (ideally local), while using personality-driven content to develop that relationship with the listener to then drive listening occasions.
As has been discussed and addressed for years, music radio simply can’t compete with Spotify, Amazon Music, etc. if your goal is to listen to your music at the exact time that you want it.
Radio’s competitive advantage remains its people. And when it comes to personality, no format owns that right now more so than news/talk, where the strongest opinions and deepest connections often exist. That’s backed up by the Time Spent Listening for the format, which leads the way in many markets.
In many ways, news/talk is the best — and most exciting — place to be right now in the business, and none of that has to do with what is shaping up to be a fascinating 2024 election cycle. But rather because the industry’s biggest advantage to maintaining and growing its audience is its personalities, so if you’re already in the talk format, you’re ahead of the game. And then if you’re good, you’re a highly valuable asset.
As Pittman also noted in his conversation with Harrison, “For the first time ever, the radio business is bigger than the TV business, in terms of audience from 18 to 49 [year olds].”
National coastal media won’t write about that, because too many of them aren’t everyday American consumers. However, the data doesn’t lie. Radio is beating TV in a key demo and the leaders in the industry know that personality-driven content is their key to future success. That’s a great combination for those of us working in the business.
Granted, as we all know, it’s not all roses and sunshine. These are still tough times with continuing competition in the ad space and a soft 2023 shaping up.
However, the show must go on.
And as radio strategically prepares itself for not just the rest of this year, but the next five to ten years, there are plenty of goals that need to be achieved, but if growing and developing personalities is at the top of the list, that’s a win for the industry and an even bigger win for the news/talk format.
Pete Mundo is the morning show host and program director for KCMO in Kansas City. Previously, he was a fill-in host nationally on FOX News Radio and CBS Sports Radio, while anchoring for WFAN, WCBS News Radio 880, and Bloomberg Radio. Pete was also the sports and news director for Omni Media Group at K-1O1/Z-92 in Woodward, Oklahoma. He’s also the owner of the Big 12-focused digital media outlet Heartland College Sports. To interact, find him on Twitter @PeteMundo.
If CNN is For Sale, Here Are 5 Potential Buyers
CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.
It’s hard to run a cable news network like CNN these days. Just look at NewsNation. It was founded on the principle of being the first centrist cable news network to come into existence in years. But over the past couple of months, the network has peddled by coming from a slightly right-of-center angle with headlines. They’ve tried to steal left-of-center viewers from CNN with the hiring of Chris Cuomo. And now they’re literally going wall-to-wall with coverage of UFOs. I’m not even making that up.
In a world where a big chunk of its denizens believes the truth is a maybe while the other half doesn’t pay attention to the news unless it is bite-sized, does it still make sense to own a cable news network? Given the turmoil Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zazlav has faced lately with CNN it may not be for him.
The company was forced to let go of CNN CEO Chris Licht this week after a scathing profile from The Atlantic that went behind the scenes into how Licht operated the network post-Jeff Zucker. It was a circus, to say the least. After reading the profile though, you still come away feeling bad for Licht while considering the fact that there is a hand that might have been puppeteering him along the way that was used to having control over everyone.
Zazlav comes from a part of cable where it is necessary to operate like a dictatorship because the formula has proven to work with Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, etc…and because the shows that air on these networks create their own warped reality to spit out for thirsty reality consumers who want it the way it is served.
It’s impossible to have this kind of culture in cable news where the personalities aren’t really the star of the network — the news and facts are and they can’t be warped to fit all interested parties. They just have to be true whether it benefits one side or the other. The truth is the truth.
There are new ways to tell stories and there’s new technology you can use to tell those stories but at the end of the day, telling stories also has the same formula as it always has and can’t be changed.
Remarkably, Don Lemon comes away from Licht’s profile looking the most intelligent when he says that many critics of CNN like Zazlav are committed to Monday morning quarterbacking. CNN went a little too hard on various things happening in the Trump administration too many times, but at the end of the day, it was the job of journalists to hold politicians accountable to the truth just like it has been since the founding of television news.
This lack of realization on Zazlav’s part shows that CNN probably doesn’t belong in the same company as Warner Bros. Discovery. The cultures of Discovery and CNN clearly don’t align. Axios has already reported that because of the low ad market, cord-cutting, slumping ratings, and the run-up to the election having not started yet, WBD doesn’t plan on selling CNN any time soon. It also should be noted that CNN still makes almost $800 million a year for WBD so it is not the big loss of an asset that many in the media would make you think it is.
At the same time, unless Zazlav decides to change his mindset, he needs to sell before this situation becomes unmanageable. CNN can’t survive as a “both sides” network, as a Fox News lite, or as a leftist network. It needs to be the network that upholds democracy and the truth. These companies would align with that method of thinking.
The Mickey Mouse Club owns the news organization that already has the most trust among conservatives on television besides Fox News (ABC News), so they would help legitimize CNN’s mission of garnering more conservatives.
CNN’s library of content would bolster its digital platforms and provide an avenue to create new documentaries and films. ABC News’ own extracurricular projects would be on a platform that has consistent reach with the audience they’re seeking and wouldn’t get lost in the clouds like it currently does on Hulu.
National Geographic could move its content to CNN and HLN and help Disney get rid of one less cable network (NatGeo Channel) that doesn’t generate revenue.
CNN already has the largest news organization in the world. Their addition would bring NBC over the top. NBC’s ability to promote news offerings on Peacock would get some much-needed help as well since CNN has the number one digital news website in the United States.
Peacock would also be able to add CNN’s library to its app giving viewers who crave live news and sports another reason to subscribe to the app.
Regulatory issues may prevail due to past rulings by the federal government but this may have a chance to go through if the government believes the internet and streaming and the fragmentation of television has created enough competition for a CNN/MSNBC combo to not be too powerful.
The Emerson Collective
In a stroke of sheer awkwardness, could the owners of The Atlantic be contenders? Laurene Powell Jobs has constantly spoken about how much she believes journalism affects the balance of our society.
CNN, despite its ratings drag, still plays a vital role in shaping what we talk about as a society. Jobs’ causes like social justice reform, immigration reform, and the environment might get more attention from the general populous on a platform like CNN
The Washington Post or New York Times
Both entities were hand-in-hand with CNN reporting on the latest developments involving the Trump administration and both also faced public backlash about what they deemed as important with a Trump admin vs. a regular administration.
They all share the same mission and journalism ethos and, in the case of WaPo, have a very wealthy backer who could fund a potential deal.
The media mogul has become more deeply involved with the industry than he ever was before. He has a stake in the sports RSNs that are currently failing, he owns The Weather Channel — the most trusted name in news right now which is a remarkable feat to achieve in an era where so many deny climate change and he’s in the market to buy more.
CNN being black-owned could quell the accusations of the network becoming white-washed. A partnership with The Weather Channel bolsters coverage of climate change for the cable network.
And for Byron Allen, CNN gives him a seat on the table when it comes to power and influence in the worlds of Wall Street and Congress.
Jessie Karangu is a weekly columnist for BNM, and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for news and sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He also previously wrote a weekly column for our sports media brand, Barrett Sports Media. Jessie can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
What Chris Licht Got Right, and Wrong, During His CNN Tenure
Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
The departure of Chris Licht from CNN was abrupt but expected after a string of missteps. His criticism of his predecessor Jeff Zucker spilled into criticisms of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump and the Covid pandemic, which undercut his staff. Journalists who stood up to conspiracy theories and election falsehoods from the very top felt betrayed.
I’ve known Chris for 30 years, when he served as an associate producer at a KNBC/CNBC for a daily half-hour program centered on the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, we were colleagues at NBC and kept in touch while he was at CBS and I was at ABC. He is whip-smart, congenial, worked well with big talents like Joe Scarborough, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King, and, until now, had a stellar track record.
And in his latest and biggest post — despite being put in an impossible position — did some things right, which I will highlight in a moment.
But first that impossible position. His new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery wanted a restructuring and high ratings. They insisted on less calling out of misinformation and more “both sidesism”. So Licht had to derail the CNN train and then try to lift it back on the ratings track. No small job. Especially in a news climate that is in decline.
All the cable networks — who depended upon Donald Trump’s unpredictable, often treasonous and dangerous style — have suffered ratings decline. Fox numbers are down and so is MSNBC. The viewing public no longer has to tune in every minute of the day to see what the President is going to do or say. Life has largely returned to normal for most people.
So CNN, which could once depend upon airing and then fact-checking Trump’s latest absurdity, had to find new content.
Licht’s decision to emphasize down-the-middle news gathering seemed like a solid response to life without a bombastic — some say irrational — President.
Just cover the news, at which CNN is great. It’s the first place to turn during a mass shooting, a war, or natural disaster. But those are inconsistent events and cannot be depended upon for steady ratings. That’s the environment Licht stepped into.
He reacted with some good moves. His midday CNN News Central program, 3 hours of straight news, positions itself well to cover breaking news. It’s followed by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, also emphasizing news coverage.
However, unfortunately, the list of mistakes is a lot longer. Starting with Don Lemon. His “whole thing” in primetime was to be provocative and with a strong progressive bent. Licht attempted to turn Lemon into what he is not, an easy-to-watch, not opinionated host in the morning. A broadcast that was supposed to keynote the Licht agenda blew up in months. Lemon had an opinion on everything and could not get along with his co-hosts, which in morning TV is critical. The all-important chemistry was not there.
His meeting with Republican politicians on Capitol Hill to invite them back to CNN sent a message that they would no longer be challenged for disinformation. And Licht balanced the commentary panels on CNN with GOP election deniers who shouted over questions they could not answer, in turn sticking to talking points. A move that did little to attract viewers from Fox, and instead drove away legacy CNN viewers accustomed to progressive analysis and Republicans who respected opposite opinions.
Next, his attempt to normalize Donald Trump with a CNN Town Hall, somehow expecting the old rules of decorum would work became a disaster. Trump has to be covered. 30% of the electorate supports him, as do nearly 50% of Republicans. But a live Trump supporter audience overwhelmed Kaitlan Collins who was drenched by a firehouse of lies and deception.
And finally, there was Licht’s decision to make his criticisms of staff and their former coverage public in The Atlantic. A profile that made his gym trainer appear to be his top adviser.
To sum up: Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.
It was an opportunity wasted and a good man self-defeated.
Jim Avila serves as a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. An Award-winning journalist with four decades of reporting and anchoring experience, Jim has served as Senior National Correspondent, 20/20 Correspondent, and White House Correspondent for ABC News. Prior to his time with ABC, he spent a decade with NBC News, and worked locally in Los Angeles and Chicago for KNBC, and WBBM. He can be found on Twitter @JimAvilaABC.