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Why Has Liberal Talk Radio Failed in Miami?

Political liberals are almost everywhere in Miami. They're lining up for pro-Obama rallies. They're filling up our college campuses. And they're sure as hell showing up at the ballot box. (Yes, even the Cuban ones.)

But there's one place you won't find left-leaners in South Florida: on the radio.

Since the downfall of WINZ (940 AM) in 2009, the area has not had a station devoted to progressive programming. Talk leader WIOD (610 AM) currently splits its programming with news in the morning and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck in the afternoons. These conservative pundits pull a huge nationwide rating and seem entrenched on the South Florida airwaves.

But South Florida is different from the rest of the Sunshine State. It's a pocket of liberalism in a state that often leans to the right. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 and basically secured the state's blue status.

So why don't we have more liberals expressing their views over the airwaves?

Ken Charles is a former programming director for WINZ and WIOD. He grew up in Tampa and came to Miami in 2007. Two years later, he was instrumental in the shift of WINZ from a progressive format to an all sports station.

"They are both different, but WIOD's primary purpose was news while WINZ's was talk," said Charles, the national brand manager for news talk for Clear Channel. "They stood for different things."

While WIOD was successful in balancing both news and conservative talk, WINZ was always heavy on talk according to Charles. Hosts like Jim Defede and Nicole Sandler brought a local flavor to the station, but the national shows syndicated on the network brought down overall ratings and revenue. Those national shows came from the now defunct Air America.

"The people who launched Air America forgot that entertainment is important in radio," Charles said by phone from Sacramento. "I learned early on that my politics didn't matter. If I made decisions based on my politics, we would probably be broke and unemployed."

Charles said the station couldn't afford to be all-local all the time, and without strong national liberal talk programs maintaining a solid listenership, WINZ couldn't survive.

"Progressive talk wasn't making the money," Charles said.

2009 turned out to be an important year for the future of liberal talk radio in Miami. Not only did WINZ join the very crowded sports market, but Neil Rogers also agreed to an early retirement.

Rogers was a true path breaker. Openly gay since the 1970s and totally brash, he served as the host of the only non-sports program on WQAM (560 AM). While more of a comedy host and shock jock, the Anita Bryant-fighting Rogers was also an unabashed liberal. He died in 2010.

"Neil Rogers was a unique phenomena," said Norm Kent, Rogers' long time attorney and former talk show host in his own right. "What I should do is sell the rights [of the Neil Rogers show] to WQAM and they would probably get higher ratings then what they've got now."

Kent said that Rogers was so successful locally because of his commitment to entertainment first, something that many progressive hosts have forgotten.

"The overriding consideration is whether people are being entertained," Kent said. "People like listening to people they get angry with, that's why they stay married. It's also why an angry gay host like Neil Rogers could infuriate South Florida for 30 years but everyone listened."

Charles said that Rush Limbaugh is a great example for entertainment driven talk radio. Despite the fact that many people disagree with Limbaugh (how about half the country), he still enjoys the highest ratings.

"The most successful shows we've had were driven by entertainers," Charles said. "If you're a Yankee fan and all you talk about is the Yankees, then you're going to lose out on lots of other people."

Subhash Kateel, a former host on WZAB (880 AM) and anchor of an upcoming web show, was a career community organizer who wanted to reach more people on the air.

"I always found progressive radio to be either boring or trying to match right wing radio in loudness," Kateel said. "The two main reasons why it doesn't work is because progressives sometime tolerate low quality art and radio. And then there's a whole other core of left wing radio, which try to be the Sean Hannity's of the left."

Ken Charles said that he would like to see liberal talk radio on the air in the Miami area again.

"There are probably people who are trying to do something different, and I wouldn't be surprised if somebody is trying to do it again and find the next big thing," Charles said.

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