For the past six years, Wolfson, a former standup comedian, hosted a three-hour morning drive-time show that had turned into a radio clubhouse for Portland liberals.
Wolfson—laser-fast with a quip and constantly in defense of Democrats—spent the weeks before the Nov. 6 election boosting liberal candidates and puncturing Mitt Romney.
“Romney has zero foreign-policy experience,” Wolfson liked to say during the campaign. “He was asked about the Middle East, and his only response was that Donald Trump’s hair should return to its pre-1967 borders.”
The days following the election were celebratory, with President Barack Obama’s re-election, and with Democrats triumphant in all Oregon statewide races and in control of the Oregon House.
When he signed off the air Nov. 9, Wolfson was giddy with momentum. Then his Clear Channel boss walked into the KPOJ studio.
“‘Man, what great shows this week,” Wolfson recalls telling Chris Sargent, operations manager for the station’s owner, Clear Channel.
But Sargent had an executioner’s grimace. “I looked at his face,” Wolfson says, “and I knew.”
Sargent then dropped the ax—not just on Wolfson, but on the only commercial left-wing political talk station in this overwhelmingly blue city. By 5:30 that evening, KPOJ—what many Portland liberals believed was their own megaphone—had become Fox Sports Radio 620, the city’s third all-sports radio station.
For the past two weeks, a wave of protest against the change has collected more than 15,000 signatures and grown to include the state’s entire Democratic delegation to the U.S. Congress.
“An important voice,” intoned Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), “has been silenced.”
More than a few of the outraged listeners suspect a dark hand at work. Clear Channel Communications, which owns seven Portland stations, is the nation’s largest radio company. And it’s owned in part by Bain Capital—the very Romney-founded private-equity firm that Wolfson had often skewered on the air.
Why else would blue Portland—where voters went for Obama over Romney better than 3-to-1—be denied a progressive talk station?
But the real cause of KPOJ’s death was more complex: The changing face of Portland radio, a communications company at the mercy of casino capitalists, and a sympathetic audience that—despite progressive talk’s potential appeal—simply tuned in elsewhere.
After six years on the radio—4,086 hours on the air—Wolfson is receiving the outpouring of appreciation most people only get once they’re dead.
He coats his distress over getting ousted at KPOJ with the standup humor he made a career doing before his radio gig.
“It’s tough being fired if you’re a Portland liberal,” he says. “I drove home and shut the garage door trying to kill myself. After 20 minutes, I realized I have an electric car.”
Wolfson, 59, Portland’s first openly gay talk-show host, has the blocky build and buzzcut of a 1950s football linebacker. He’s collected more than 15,000 political campaign buttons and talks of opening a museum to showcase them.
He grew up outside Washington, D.C.—his father worked at the Pentagon as a Department of Defense information officer—where he watched the first televised presidential debate in 1960. “I remember Kennedy had a big head,” he says, “and Nixon looked like a bank robber.”
Wolfson found he was a terrible athlete and had no musical skills but could crack up the family by doing impressions, from President Lyndon Johnson to his own irascible Aunt Nelle.
His first paid gig was in 1980 at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, on the same bill with Steve Martin. Wolfson found steady work through the 1980s and ’90s, making as much as $5,000 a week sharing bills with Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, making regular appearances on The Joan Rivers Show and writing for impersonator Rich Little’s Las Vegas act.
His specialty (performed regularly on Alan Thicke’s short-lived talk show Thicke of the Night) was faux news broadcasts with cut-and-paste pictures—a kind of proto-Daily Show.
Touring the national standup circuit required Wolfson to put in appearances on the local talk-radio morning zoos. When he moved to Portland in 2001 because he was sick of living in Los Angeles, he wanted to make those segments his full-time work.
In 2005, he discussed a job with KPOJ (formerly 62 KGW) when it became part of Air America, a nationwide liberal radio network featuring Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken. He lost out to Thom Hartmann, but inherited the morning desk two years later when Hartmann went on to a national show.
Air America went bankrupt in 2010 and Wolfson kept the progressive talk going at KPOJ, hosting three hours amid mostly syndicated programming. He treated his morning show as a mix of a standup routine, civics lesson and union-hall stem-winders. Democratic politicos made regular appearances (as did WW staff in a weekly spot). Wolfson did his homework when devoting entire segments to policy discussions on everything from the mortgage crisis to fluoridation.
Unlike many right-wing radio hosts, Wolfson kept his show a no-name-calling zone, preferring to make conservatives and Republicans look silly rather than attacking them outright.
Wolfson knew—and told his listeners—that Bain Capital signed his paychecks, more or less. KPOJ’s owner, San Antonio-based Clear Channel, had been purchased in 2006 by two private investment firms, Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners.
When the station’s managers shut down progressive talk at KPOJ, Wolfson’s fans responded as if a Wall Street banker had stubbed out a cigar on a baby. They took to Facebook and other social media to voice their conviction that the station’s death was a Bain-ordered assassination. The response has neared hysteria.
“It is the same as what happened in Rwanda,” wrote one commenter. “Except the killing hasn’t started yet.”
Wolfson isn’t harboring any hope the “Save KPOJ” petition will bring back his station. “I think the chances of that are slim,” he says. “But it’s extremely important that Clear Channel hear that there is a community that’s grief-stricken and adrift.”
But even Wolfson doesn’t believe the death of KPOJ’s progressive-talk format and his show was a Republican hit job.
“They made a business decision,” he says. “I understand why they did what they did. I have a big problem with the result.”
Robert Dove is a rare animal in Portland media: a local who’s a high-ranking executive in the broadcast-media business. He grew up listening to Top-40 62 KGW and in 1986 went to work selling ads for Z100-FM 100.3.
He’s been market manager at Clear Channel’s Portland office for six years, and firing Wolfson has brought him more heat than any move he’s made in his career. “I even had to deal with my mom and dad,” Dove says. “My parents are big KPOJ fans.”
Dove, 51, is the one who sent Sargent to give Wolfson the bad news. He says he would have kept the progressive-talk format—except that not enough people, even in liberal Portland, were listening.
“At the end of the day, the station just wasn’t performing,” Dove says. “It had a loyal, small-core following that just wasn’t enough.”
Ratings produced by Arbitron show that in October, KPOJ was the 22nd-ranked radio station in the 48-station Portland market. Over the past 14 months, the station averaged a 0.8 share of the Portland radio market.
That means of every 100 people over 6 years old listening to the radio, fewer than one was tuned to KPOJ.
Wolfson’s show performed slightly better than KPOJ’s syndicated programs: His show averaged a 1.1 share over the past 14 months and had done better recently, perhaps because of the interest in the 2012 elections.
Wolfson says his show turned a profit for Clear Channel. But Dove says the station as a whole was losing money.
Radio revenue reports tracked by Miller Kaplan Arase show KPOJ’s 2012 local advertising revenue through October was $467,000—while the No. 1 station in the market, the soft-rock station KKCW-FM 103.3, raked in more than $5 million.
Local radio advertising representatives say KPOJ’s 60-second spots were selling at bargain-basement prices: less than $50 apiece—about a quarter of the cost for ads bought on competitor KXL-FM 101.1.
And the audience was like Dove’s parents: too old for the target demographics advertisers often seek.
Arbitron ratings show 76 percent of the station’s audience in the past 14 months was age 45 and older—and more than half were outside the 25-to-54 age range that advertisers covet.
Linda Graham, an ad buyer for ZenithOptimedia, says she rarely bought time on KPOJ, and when she did, it was more out of a gesture to Clear Channel than a belief ads on KPOJ would help her clients.
“It was more a courtesy than a necessity,” Graham says. “I would help Clear Channel out by buying them.”
But one big Wolfson advertiser, Bill Dickey, owner of Portland printing company Morel Ink, says he received terrific response to Wolfson’s on-air endorsements: Customers would call and thank him. “It was almost as if we were supporting public broadcasting,” he says. Dickey’s support for Wolfson is so strong that he’s already pledged to spend his advertising dollars wherever Wolfson’s next show lands.
Still, Wolfson could
have seen it all coming: When Clear Channel moved its local studios to
the top two floors of Tigard’s Triangle Pointe office building in
September, visitors noticed that each of the seven stations received a
new sign for the entryway—except KPOJ.
Roughly 50 progressive talk-radio stations are currently broadcasting nationwide, dwarfed by more than 900 conservative-talk stations, according to industry reports.
San Francisco’s Green 960, owned by Clear Channel, switched to Glenn Beck’s show last January. Seattle-area newspapers have reported widespread speculation that CBS Radio will change the format of KPTK-AM 1090 from progressive talk to all-sports after January.
Radio industry experts say corporate owners are making these choices because of money, not politics. “Those guys aren’t red state or blue state,” says Larry Rosin, president of radio industry analysis company Edison Research in Somerville, N.J. “Those guys are green state.”
But if it’s not political, Clear Channel is feeling an impact from its relationship to Bain Capital: lots of debt.
Clear Channel owns about 850 radio stations, 840,000 outdoor advertising sites and six radio networks that produce syndicated content for local stations. But the company was struggling when Bain and Thomas H. Lee Partners bought it in 2006 for $26 billion. Media reports say Clear Channel—also the home of Rush Limbaugh—is $16.4 billion in debt.
Forbes contributor Peter Cohan wrote in May that Clear Channel—burdened by debt payments and dividend fees to its owners—has become “a company that formerly earned net income of nearly $1 billion into a money-loser (almost $4.7 billion in cumulative losses).”
Wolfson says this pressure from above is a big reason KPOJ switched formats. “Clear Channel, like most corporations, is squeezing more out of fewer employees,” he says. “The reason they’re in debt is Bain Capital. That’s the model: They saddle them with debt. So what do they do? They squeeze more productivity out of the people they have. We talked about this on the air!”
In November 2011, The New York Times reported the radio company had been laying off hundreds of employees at stations ranging from Waco, Texas, to Spokane, Wash. And the cancellations have not been ideological: Three days after KPOJ’s format went to all-sports, Clear Channel’s station in Toledo, Ohio, WSPD, fired its Libertarian morning host, Brian Wilson.
Jerry Del Colliano, who runs the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based radio industry analysis website Inside Music Media, says Clear Channel is firing its morning-show hosts—a station’s most expensive on-air talent—and replacing them with a single show that can be broadcast in many cities. And, he says, Clear Channel already owns Fox Sports Radio.
Del Colliano—who was sued for millions by Clear Channel for his reporting in 2002, countersued for millions more and settled out of court—says Bain Capital is cutting costs to build a smaller company it can sell.
“Or, to quote Mitt Romney, ‘We wreck ’em and rebuild ’em,’” Del Colliano says. “And when they wreck ’em, they get fees. When they rebuild ’em, they get fees. If it succeeds, they sell it and make a profit. If it fails, they sell the pieces off and make a profit while they’re getting fees.”
One locally owned radio company is doing gangbusters in Portland.
Unfortunately for liberals, it stars Lars Larson.
The conservative talk-show host occupies a corner sixth-story studio in the PacWest Center, where Alpha Broadcasting owner Larry Wilson—a Phoenix radio mogul, now of Portland—moved the company’s six stations when he bought them in 2009.
Larson enjoys a panoramic view of Portland City Hall—a favorite target—and has taped a picture to his door that shows Mitt and Ann Romney photoshopped into Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving scene: They’re serving up Big Bird on a silver turkey platter.
The clock winds toward noon as Larson—who packs a lunch of apple slices after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year—pulls on his cuffs, bounces from foot to foot, and rests his knuckles on his desk as he leans into the microphone. He opens with a shot at the ongoing labor dispute on Portland’s waterfront.
“We’ve got to talk about the longshoremen,” he declares. “Because it’s the day before the holiday, I would love to see a blood-alcohol test on a few of them working down at the Port of Portland.”
The anti-union jab is typical of Larson. He’s on for three hours weekdays from noon to 3 pm at KXL-FM 101.1 and 18 other Northwest stations, and then another three hours for a show aired on 170 stations nationwide.
“The ultimate dis from other people, and they don’t understand it doesn’t offend us, is, ‘You’re an entertainer,’” Larson says. “If by having a full-contact show like that—honestly provocative talk radio—if that provokes you to think, that’s a good thing.”
Larson grew up in Tillamook, where he got his start at the local station. He’s an award-winning former TV journalist who was apolitical but whose reporting always had a bit of an anti-government bite.
In the late 1990s, his station, KPTV, dumped his investigative show, Northwest Reports. Larson surfaced as a contrarian, name-calling talk-show host on KXL who was cozy with conservatives and vicious toward liberals.
This got him controversy-—and better ratings. He was still working as an anchor at KPTV, reporting straight-faced about government officials who earlier that day he had labeled stupid.
He’s since played up his role as a conservative voice in “Havana on the Willamette”—one reason he’s been successful.
“The liberal person in America doesn’t need to go to a liberal-talk station to reinforce what he already knows,” Larson says. “Whereas the conservative in this town feels embattled. If you have this liberal sea, and you pop up an island that’s conservative, I’m going to swim to that island.”
Wolfson’s show was often like a big bear hug for like-minded listeners; he rarely had conservatives calling in to argue with him. Wolfson disagrees.
“I debated [Texas talk-radio host] Michael Berry every week for more than a year,” he says. “When I say ‘debate,’ I don’t mean ‘shout.’ Lars wants to produce fire and sparks. I want to produce good conversation.”
Larson’s associates at Alpha Broadcasting say the drama of the host picking fights with a deep-blue city makes many liberals secret listeners.
“Lars has two constituencies,” says Scott Mahalick, Alpha’s program director. “One is the people that agree with Lars. The other is the people that love to hate Lars. They might say in the coffee shop, ‘I love KPOJ,’ and then they get in the car and they turn on KXL.”
It’s not that liberal and progressive listeners don’t have a place to turn. The most recent Arbitron ratings show in the last week of October—right before the election—KXL was in a dead heat to be No. 1 with the highly sought 25-to-54 age group with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s KOPB.
“OPB gets much more listeners than KPOJ,” says Amy Leimbach, Alpha’s director of sales. “In my opinion, they took a big chunk of that audience.”
And the movement to “Save KPOJ” has begun to annoy staffers at KBOO Community Radio.
“If as much effort that’s going into trying to resurrect a Clear Channel station went into supporting community radio, Portland would be better off,” says Lynn Fitch, KBOO’s station manager. “When people talk about, ‘Oh my gosh, progressive radio is gone,’ it’s not.”
Fitch says KBOO volunteers contacted KPOJ talent, including Wolfson, about taking their programs to the independent station—where they wouldn’t be paid, but would have an outlet. (Wolfson says he received no such message.) She’s making the same offer to KPOJ listeners.
“I would say, come on down, take the radio classes, and you’ll learn how to produce the radio you want to hear,” Fitch says. “You won’t need commercials. We can’t pay you, but you’ll have a lot of fun.”
Wolfson is plotting his own return to the airwaves, meeting with other local stations and possible investors for Internet or satellite programs. “Plans are afoot,” he says.
Meanwhile, he says his partner, Gary Thill, has become an audience of one for Wolfson’s morning diatribes about the latest malarkey from Newt Gingrich.
“Poor Gary,” Wolfson says.
Instead of his show, Wolfson can now be found hosting meetings with backers at coffee shops like Peet’s Coffee & Tea on Northeast Broadway—where his conversations are constantly interrupted by fans.
“The other day,” he says, “somebody asked me, ‘Aren’t you Carl Wolfson?’ I said, ‘I used to be.’”