By 7:45 Monday morning, the parking lot in front of the Clear Channel Building in Serra Mesa was chock-full of hundreds of hippies--bearded hippies, floppy-hat hippies, tie-dye hippies, rich hippies, poor hippies, thin hippies, fat hippies, pregnant hippies and, most of all, angry hippies.
Very angry hippies.
Angry because Clear Channel, owner of their beloved KLSD 1360-AM, is threatening to abandon the progressive talk-radio format. Declining ratings and a dearth of advertising dollars have sent top station execs scurrying for strategies to pull the station out of the red, including a change to all sports talk.
To appreciate the scene on Monday, understand that KLSD's audience, though not overly large, spends more time listening to the station than the audience of any other station in San Diego--some five, six hours a day. Altering their radio station is like kidnapping their child. And so they rallied to save their beloved. They organized a shuttle service from nearby parking lots. They came prepared with picket signs, dozens of them, to plead for the station's preservation. They mobilized into a loop of marchers, union-style, marching beneath the windows of Clear Channel executives, pointing their signs up at the executive suites and shaking clinched fists. They had KLSD T-shirts, bumper stickers and banners. They had a chant: 'Save our station, save the nation!'
The slings and arrows of outrageous conspiracy theory flew through the crowd as the morning wore on. Some believed Clear Channel wants to get rid of the station to silence it before the upcoming presidential election. Former news anchor and current Air America host Bree Walker took the microphone to express her concern that the notoriously conservative Carlisle Group would be buying Clear Channel, and the prog-talk format was being killed in preparation.
The station whipped out a tent and set up a remote broadcasting center. By 8 a.m., morning show host Stacy Taylor had moved his base down to the tent so he could speak directly to and with the crowd. Producers walked through the crowd handing out bumper stickers.
'We need an alternate voice in this city,' said Nadin Abbot, a marcher from Mission Valley. 'Clear Channel has a right to make money, but it used to be there was a public duty to inform the public.'
City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who spent a chunk of his morning on the picket line and on the air, agreed.
'It's not a private business; it's the public airwaves,' he said. 'The public has been taken over by private interests. We need an administration that will change communication policy back to the way it was under FDR.'
Some came prepared to argue bottom line with KLSD's parent company. Signs declared loyalty to various KLSD advertisers, including one that read, 'I bought my Prius from a KLSD sponsor' and another that said, 'Libs buy $tuff.' Lillian Ritt, wife of prominent gastroenterologist Donald Ritt, offered to write a check for $10,000 worth of airtime.
'I'll go find the advertisers to pay me back,' she declared to the cheering crowd. The station later turned down her offer, suggesting instead she donate the money to a business and ask its owners to spend it on advertising.
At around 8:45, Clear Channel program director Cliff Albert, hailed by Taylor as the father of progressive radio, came down to answer questions from the audience, live on the air. He praised everyone who came out and told them their voices had been heard. He told them he'd received 847 e-mail messages from KLSD supporters in one week. He asked them to go out and demand that businesses start supporting KLSD.
Later, Albert would explain to CityBeat that he'd been forced to start considering changes in the spring, when KLSD had been put on the annual list of underperforming stations prepared at Clear Channel corporate headquarters. The station had taken an unexpected beating in the winter quarter ratings for morning drive time, down from 2.0 to 0.9, just 28th among radio stations in San Diego. The station had been growing steadily but slowly in listenership every year, but its audience of approximately 100,000 people represented a third of the 300,000 enjoyed by KLSD's conservative and profitable sister station, KOGO. And the lack of strong growth created problems.
'KLSD has an extremely loyal listenership--they hardly listen to anything else,' Albert said. 'But at some point they've bought their mattresses, or their car, and they don't need to go back to that advertiser. You always need to be adding new listeners so that you're always bringing new people into the store.'
But some people blame station management for setting it up for failure.
'I think particularly it's the fault that Clear Channel has not marketed the station effectively,' said Chris Carmichael, who runs Sdradio.net, a blog that focuses on the local radio market. 'There has to be a commitment from Clear Channel to the station.'
Then there's the problem of low signal strength. KLSD listeners have been complaining for years that getting new listeners would be easier if the station upped its signal strength from the 2,500 watts it now emits during the day. Albert said it reaches 80 percent of San Diego residences. But San Diego's dramatic topography and the presence of many tall buildings mean drivers pass through numerous dead zones. But help is on the way. Albert hopes to have completed the years-long FCC application process for a 50,000-watt transmitter by year-end, and he said money has been set aside to purchase the equipment regardless of the station's format.
Randy Dotinga, radio columnist for the North County Times, believes KLSD may always have problems competing with KPBS, the local public-radio affiliate.
'I don't know that many liberals go to the AM dial,' he said, 'because it's full of right-wingers and sports. If you don't like right-wingers and sports, there's no reason to flip to AM.'
Dotinga also points out that liberal talk radio doesn't have the built-in advertiser group--gun shops and ATV shops and the like--that the right-wingers get.
'Who's their natural base, tea shops?' he mused.
Albert concurred. In San Diego, he said, some advertisers don't want to be associated with progressive talk.
If it falls, KLSD will only be the latest Air America affiliate to give up. In the last year, stations in Cincinnati, Fresno, Sacramento, Columbus and Portland (Maine), as well as two in Boston, have abandoned prog-talk. All but the Boston stations went to sports talk (the Boston stations now do Spanish-language music).
One bright spot of hope glows in Madison, Wisc. A public outcry scuttled a deal between 92.1 'The Mic' and Fox Sports Radio. A University of Wisconsin grad student organized an online petition and gathered 5,000 names, and local advertisers rallied to the station to keep progressive talk alive.
At KLSD, everything is still up in the air, so to speak. The station's business side is working on financial projections for keeping the current format, going all sports talk or switching to other format possibilities. Albert said the station could still easily stay with the status quo.
'It's a voice that needs to be heard,' he said. 'If we change, I wouldn't be surprised to hear another company decided to pick it up.'