Jon Sinton, chief executive of AnShell Media, speaks with Terence Smith about his vision for a new liberal radio network to compete against the conservative radio commentators.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
TERENCE SMITH: Let me begin with this first question: Why are the most successful and the largest number of talk show hosts on the conservative side of the spectrum?
JON SINTON: Interestingly, it's pure happenstance and
it is all due, and all credit due to Rush Limbaugh. Fifteen years ago
last week, "Rusty" Limbaugh, who was a top forty disc jockey
in Sacramento for some number of years, started a talk show. And a guy
named Ed McLaughlin, who ran the ABC Radio Networks for a long time,
heard it and thought to himself, this is gold.
And it was an interesting confluence of events. Ed meeting Rush and the times in which this was happening were terrible times for radio -- AM radio was just essentially dead. Music had migrated to FM, where it sounds so much better. And AM didn't know what to do with itself; AM operators were really struggling and these guys came along with a very compelling answer which was: we don't play records. So it doesn't matter that it lacks that fidelity and it's a terrific alternative to playing music.
|The growth of radio's conservative format|
JON SINTON: And modern talk radio was born in that instant
and it just -- I guess, Rush could just as easily have been a flaming
liberal and the other side would be complaining that this is, you know,
well, how come all these liberals are on the radio.
TERENCE SMITH: That explains Rush. But does it explain
the whole phenomenon?
JON SINTON: Oh, I think it does. I think that radio programmers
in the modern age are different than they were years ago. Years ago,
they were very innovative and it was easy to take a risk. And you'd
play a record that nobody else would play and if it broke, you were
the guy who broke Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley or the Beatles or,
you know. You didn't want to be the guy at Decca Records that turned
the Beatles down and sent them over to Capitol (Records). So you took
But as the industry has consolidated and as we have shed more and more jobs, fewer and fewer programmers have been willing to take those risks.
And it became very easy to replicate the success of a
Rush Limbaugh and come up with a G. Gordon Liddy and come up with a
Sean Hannity and come up with a Michael Savage and Laura Ingram. And
sort of the whole litany of these people all seemed to appear on the
scene at the same time. And I think that it was because of that risk-aversion
that just said, well, get me somebody like that.
TERENCE SMITH: So it's not a vast right-wing conspiracy?
JON SINTON: I wish it were because it'd make better copy,
but I really don't think it is.
TERENCE SMITH: And it's bottom line motivated?
JON SINTON: Absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah.
JON SINTON: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: So you are part of a new effort to try
to balance the scales?
JON SINTON: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: A little bit?
JON SINTON: Right.
|A different format for liberal talk radio programs|
| TERENCE SMITH: Tell
me what you're going to do.
JON SINTON: Well, let me set the stage for you a little
bit: Every day in America on the 45 top-rated talk radio stations, there
are 310 hours of conservative talk. There is a total of five hours of
talk that comes from the other side of the aisle.
Just from a pure business perspective, it appeared to
us that you could drive a truck through this hole in the market.
TERENCE SMITH: So what I'm asking, is your plan, basically,
for a new network?
JON SINTON: Right. First, let me say that the reason that we see the opportunity is that on the top 45 rated radio stations in America -- talk radio stations in America -- there exists 310 hours a day of programming that comes from the conservative right versus five hours a day that comes from the left.
So it became very clear to us that from a business perspective,
the opportunity was huge.
But it's also clear to us -- civically, I think we feel
that balancing the discussion would be good for the democracy. And that
a balance and open discourse, as opposed to a one-sided ones where the
conservatives pound the table, intimidate, and yell at us and tell us
what our opinion is is probably not the healthiest situation that we
Therefore, our plans are to create a network that relies
more on entertainment and fun. And I guess I should interject -- I get
such a kick out of -- I can't remember if it was Hannity or O'Reilly,
I was on one of their shows and someone said, but liberals are so boring.
And I said, oh, yeah, you know, that Whoopi Goldberg; oh, that Steven
Spielberg, oh, my God; oh, and Billy Crystal, those guys, they are so
boring. Well, it's patently offensive and absurd to say that that's
The fact of the matter is we make great movies; we write
great books; we make great music; we do great television; it only makes
sense that as so many of us are entertainers that we would use entertainment
as part of the outlet.
And so, our plans are to have a very entertaining discourse.
TERENCE SMITH: And what do you intend to put on the air?
How much of it? When and where?
JON SINTON: Well, our intention is to start at 6:00 in
the morning and stop at 5:59 the next morning and start up again at
6:00 in the morning. It other words, it's a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week network.
We were laughing the other day -- Mario Cuomo, who I think is such a wonderful public speaker and a master of public policy, did not do well on the radio. And I think the reason that he didn't do well on the radio was that it was equivocating and occasionally, not terribly interesting. And I always had a picture of him sort of, you know, on the telephone and on the radio and saying, well, Mr. Manson, I see your point, you know. But I don't think that we can do that; I don't think that we can equivocate.
I think that we have to be very pointed in what we say
and do. But at the same time, we're not good at pounding the desk. We're
not good at screaming down the other side and telling them why they're
-- or intimidating them into believing why they're wrong.
I think what we do well is we make arguments using political
satire. I think we're particularly good at that. I think you'll hear
a lot of that on the network.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you got a name for this network?
JON SINTON: We do and I'm not quite ready to reveal it.
TERENCE SMITH: And when and where will this be on the
JON SINTON: You know, we're talking January 5. And at
this moment, and the date --
TERENCE SMITH: As a start date?
JON SINTON: Yes, as a start date. And the date and the markets are not necessarily hard. They're as hard as we can make them at this moment. We're in negotiation with a number of radio stations and radio operators, but our druthers are January 5, which is a Monday and debuting in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
|Using strong talent to attract the major distributors|
| TERENCE SMITH: And
do you go and acquire stations to do this or do you just work out an arrangement
with stations to carry the programming?
JON SINTON: Well, I guess, it's a combination of the two.
I think if you're well enough funded and if that's a goal of yours,
then you could certainly acquire stations. It's difficult because the
best stations are not for sale. The best stations are owned by the very
large media conglomerates and, therefore, that becomes a negotiation
with those guys.
There are some small suburban stations that are may be
not for sale, but maybe you can lease most of the time on them or something
like that. So it's sort of a cobbled together distribution network.
TERENCE SMITH: Any idea how many stations and how many
listeners you might hope to attract in the early going?
JON SINTON: Well, in the early going, it's difficult to say. In the early going, I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of four to six major market radio stations, which is to say, top ten markets. In middle term, by 18 months we would certainly hope to be at 30 radio stations.
And I think that we will see audience levels that go from,
you know, that's a difficult one. You would think you'd probably go
from 400,000 or 500,000 listeners, initially to a million and a half.
And then it ramps up pretty quickly.
In the long run, ask me in three years and I'll be disappointed
if we don't have 15- to 20-million listeners a week.
TERENCE SMITH: And you are certain this will go ahead?
JON SINTON: Yeah...
TERENCE SMITH: This whole project?
JON SINTON: I'm as certain as I can be..but, yes, we've worked hard on this for the last year and I certainly believe that we have raised the money.
Certainly, the biggest key to us at this moment is distribution
and we are kind of at the mercy of the operators. And that's the focus
of our activity today is working on those kinds of deals. But assuming
that everyone continues to operate in good faith, we will be on the
air January 5.
TERENCE SMITH: And who will be the talent on this network?
JON SINTON: The talent includes Al Franken; Janeane Garofalo, actress and activist; Joe Lockhart, who is a former White House press secretary for Clinton and has an interesting take on the day's news and he'll be on toward the latter part of the day.
There's a woman named Liz Winstead, who is one of the
creators of The Daily Show, who has joined us and I think we'll talk
her into being on the air, in addition to doing some writing for us.
And a number of other people that we're close enough to, that I don't
want to jinx by mentioning names.
TERENCE SMITH: The people who admire Rush Limbaugh and
his success argue that he was a radio person first.
JON SINTON: Mm-hmm.
TERENCE SMITH: And a talented one and a conservative commentator
second. In other words, the most important ingredient was that he's
very good at radio.
JON SINTON: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Is a Joe Lockhart, for example, he's not
a tried-and-true property on radio?
JON SINTON: No, not a radio guy. I think the thing with
Joe to make him feel natural and at home is we'll just put a podium
in front of him, and he'll be, you know, he'll be very natural.
You know, I've heard that argument since day one -- oh,
they're not radio people, they could never do that. And my suspicion
is that somebody said of Bob Hope, well -- he's a movie star, he's not
a radio guy. Or maybe the other way around--oh, he's from vaudeville,
he'll never work on the radio. You know, what, entertainers are entertainers.
The gift-of-gab is what these people require. The ability
to sit for hours on end and speak extemporaneously is not reserved just
for people who are in radio. Radio happens to attract those people who
have that gift. But I can think of any number of people who would be
very good at it with just a little work.
TERENCE SMITH: What -- in ballpark figures -- what's the
investment in such a new effort? How much has been invested? How much
will it take?
JON SINTON: Ten million dollars invested, thus far. It'll
take about $25 [million] to get it off the ground. It will probably
spend twice that before it's profitable.
TERENCE SMITH: And it would be how many years would you
project before profitability?
JON SINTON: Twenty-four to 36 months, traditional business
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. What's the aim? What's the goal,
simply put, what's the goal of this new effort?
JON SINTON: Well, there are multiple goals. One goal is, certainly, to make it a profitable venture. There is a great and compelling business reason to do this.
Another goal is to balance the discourse in the United States today; to have the other side represented fairly, not demagogically and not having one side put words in the mouth of the other side. We think that's terribly important. And, finally, I think that our country has a great tradition of political satire and political humor and I think there are terrific examples of it on the air today, in Saturday Night Live and in The Daily Show. And we think that's a great place to be.
TERENCE SMITH: Would you go further? Would you seek, or
would the backers seek, to influence the selection of the Democratic
candidate in 2004?
JON SINTON: Well, if nominated, I will not run. Frankly,
I think that if you're in the middle of the discourse, you are simply
going to react to the events of the day and you're going to shine your
own particular light on things. And, you know, if that changes the current
of the river, so be it, but that is not -- and I underline that emphatically
-- that is not anywhere in the top ten reasons that we're doing this.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the January start up date meant to be
timed for the busy period of the Democratic nomination race?
JON SINTON: Oh, positively, I mean, it just makes great
sense to us to launch this thing in the heat of battle.
TERENCE SMITH: Which is to say, really, a couple of weeks
JON SINTON: Yeah, right before the Iowa caucuses--
TERENCE SMITH: -- the Iowa caucuses?
JON SINTON: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: What kind of resistance are you encountering
from operators and stations when, if they're not keen on the idea, is
it because they don't think it will make money or because they object
to the politics of it? Or what?
JON SINTON: Oh, I think, probably both of those things.
I don't know, I haven't had anybody say to me, just blatantly and straight
out, you know, I've always voted Republican and I'll be damned if this
is going to be on the air of the radio station that my father created,
kind of thing.
Although I'm surprised, frankly, that a couple of the people that I've talked to, haven't said that because, clearly, that is the subtext.
But, no, I think for the most part, these radio stations
are valuable assets and these people want to make sure that what they
get is a successful business. And the resistance has been a resistance
to innovation and a resistance to doing something that isn't already
successful out there. And, you know, it's easy to hire Chris Rock and
have a successful movie. And it's a lot harder to take somebody you've
never heard of and give them the same script --
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
JON SINTON: -- it's harder to raise the money and they
get just as good a movie.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a liberal Limbaugh out there?
JON SINTON: Oh, gosh, I don't know. I think that we're awfully careful not to try to out-Rush Rush. We're not going to try to out-Ann Colter Ann Colter. If there is, he probably or she, won't look or sound like Rush.
And, certainly, that is not one of our goals.
|Assessing the mistakes of past liberal talk shows|
TERENCE SMITH: What's been the problem, in your view,
with some of the liberal talk show hosts who have tried and not succeeded?
Mario Cuomo, for example?
JON SINTON: Again, I think Governor Cuomo was what was probably miscast a little bit. Not a terribly compelling figure on the radio; wasn't a particularly interesting -- I mean, it was very erudite and very sort of policy wonkish and not terribly entertaining and I think that that's a problem. The other ones have probably been responsible for their failures as anybody.
Jim Hightower -- and I'm not saying that Hightower's a failure -- but I will tell you this, Hightower has a short-form radio program, that we put on the air in 1995 and is on to this day on many radio stations.
Our problem with the long-form of Hightower was that while
he was quite compelling and really very good, he just couldn't keep
his mouth shut when Disney bought ABC. He had a lot to say about that
and they asked him not to and he continued to and the next thing he
knew, he was looking for work. So those are specific instances.
But I would give you a larger answer. And the larger answer
would be, radio is a mood service medium, which is to say: when you
get in your car and you want to hear country music, you know which radio
station to put on and they don't disappoint you, they play country music.
And when you get in your car and you want to hear classic rock, you
know which radio station to put on.
Now, if your classic rock radio station began to play
country records in-between the classic rock records, you would stare
at the radio and you would be angry. And the advertisers would feel
your wrath and the station would feel your wrath because ratings would
go down and the rates would go down and all kinds of bad things, in
a business, sense, would happen.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
JON SINTON: I think that the mistake that we have made
in the past has been that we haven't observed the same rules of formatic
purity that we observe with music radio with talk radio. It's the same
mood service. People tune in to hear Rush or Sean and they want to hear
them rant and rave about Bill Clinton, even though it's many years later,
they still, apparently, want to hear that.
And I think that when you plop a progressive or liberal
host down in this very hostile landscape and, you know, if you put a
guy like Mike Malloy, who's a terrific liberal radio host -- if you
put him on in between Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on a radio station
and he is going to be like playing Led Zeppelin records on a country
station -- it just doesn't make sense.
TERENCE SMITH: So it's crucial, then, in terms of formatic
purity, to have it all of the liberal tone?
JON SINTON: I believe so, yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: If it's such a good idea to do this and
the business opportunity is so inviting, why hasn't someone done it?
JON SINTON: Well, because there's a lot of capital risk associated with it. This is difficult economic time.
Distribution is a key and the people who have distribution now, which is to say the larger radio companies that own so many radio stations, are pretty well set with what they have. They all make a tremendous amount of money.
It's not to say that they all wouldn't like to make more
money, but this represents a fairly significant amount of risk capital.
And I think that when they do their risk-reward scenario, it probably
looks easier to leave those Celine Dion records on that particular station
than, you know, make what little money they may make with their fifth
or sixth acquisition in a market. Because this is really is, you know,
it's pretty risky.
TERENCE SMITH: The couple that have put up most of the
money for this project so far, anyway. Tell me about them.
JON SINTON: Anita and Shelly Drobny. Both CPAs; Anita, a concert pianist in her youth and venture capitalist in Chicago -- big donors, I think they've funded a chair for Jewish studies at the University of Illinois. And they've always been good social activists and have been fortunate enough in the last decade or so, to contribute money to other causes.
And I think it's as simple as the two of them driving
home from work in Chicago a couple of years ago and hearing this fellow,
Mike Malloy, on WLS in Chicago, the ABC radio station and thinking to
themselves, this guy should be on everywhere, he's really good.
And that, I believe was the genesis. They called me sometime
afterwards, having gotten my name from some other radio people as sort
of the patron saint of lost causes. And said, you know, are you willing
to take this on? And I said, please leave me alone. My name is not Don
Quixote, I don't want to go up against these guys. I don't want to start
But, you know what? They're very persuasive. They're a
charming, lovely couple. And they're very endearing and over the course
for a couple of months, I finally said, uncle, and said, you know, let's
rally the troops.
But I did say the only way that I would do this -- and
I think that the only way that it'll work is to not do it as a syndicated
effort with one talk host that you hope to put on a bunch of radio stations
where he or she will inevitably be miscast and put on between the wrong
people and so forth.
And I said we have to control our environment. If we can
create an environment that is one in which we can take root and grow,
then I'm all in.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, there used to be something quaint called the "Fairness Doctrine" in radio, in which, if you presented one side of an issue, you were duty-bound to present the other.
What's your view of that? I mean, it was abolished and
in fact may well have led or encouraged the rise of right wing radio?
JON SINTON: Yeah, I don't know that it necessarily led
or encouraged, but it certainly made it possible --
JON SINTON: Well, I don't think it should have been abolished. I think that it was a good rule. I think that the public owns the airwaves.
This is a collective asset, this electromagnetic spectrum
that we have. And it would seem to me, prima facie, that it's a good
thing to have open and equal discussion.
Now, I guess I part company with so many radio people when I say that because I think that many people in the radio industry felt that this yoke had been lifted from their shoulders. And that they could now behave very differently in the marketplace than they had behaved in the past. And they will tell you that it was a terrible thing and that every time somebody said something that was the least bit provocative, they had to rush out and find somebody who would provide a stabilizing or equalizing vote for the discussion.
And that that really hamstrung them and that they were
unable to provide the sort of great talent that a Rush Limbaugh brings
for something like that.
And, you know, I still disagree with that. And it still seemed to me that if you were going to have anybody on who was going to present such a slanted discourse that it would only be in everybody's best interests to present the other side. And I think the Fairness Doctrine was a good thing.
But, you know what? That's spilled milk. And here we are
in 2003 and we gotta get over it.
JON SINTON: Honestly, they're really isn't. I mean, I guess that's a happy outcome for many people on our side. If that happened that would be a good thing.
But I think that goal would be at odds with our being able to present a satirical look at the American political spectrum. I think that we need the ability to poke fun at both sides in order to let the truth shine.
And, you know, if we got some better elected and if they were Democrats, I guess that would be a terrific thing.
But it, really, honestly is not on the top of our list.
TERENCE SMITH: And I gather -- I hear you saying that
a central component and characteristic here is that it should be fun?
JON SINTON: Absolutely, it has to be fun. You know what? If it's not fun, nobody will listen. If it's fun, everybody will listen. And if it's fun and has a great message, well, then a secondary result of this might be that some Democrats get elected where they might not have gotten elected before and that's okay, too.
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