Earlier this month a radio station that made history became history.
Seattle’s 570 KVI announced that it was flipping its format from conservative talk to “Classic Hits” of the 60s and 70s. As Talkers magazine reported last year, it was KVI that pioneered the all-conservative talk format now used by hundreds of other radio stations and one fabulously successful TV cable network. It was done without any polls, consultants, or focus groups.
In 1992, KVI was playing 50s music when station manager Shannon Sweatte noticed that America’s most popular program, the Rush Limbaugh Show, was languishing on a Tacoma signal after being shunned by every other station in Seattle. He decided to switch KVI to a talk format and offer Seattle “balanced talk,” featuring Limbaugh and the usual eclectic mix then common at news-talk stations.
Within months, Limbaugh’s show was number one in the Seattle market. But when Limbaugh signed off for the day, so did most of the listeners. So Sweatte, along with colleagues Brian Jennings and Casey Keating, decided to surround Limbaugh with other conservative talk show hosts. No other stations at this time were doing this.
Sweatte began with veteran broadcaster Mike Siegel, a populist with libertarian leanings. Several months later, he called me. Though I had little radio experience – I was running Seattle’s Washington Policy Center and doing television commentary on the CBS affiliate – I was the closest thing Seattle had to a conservative media figure. He gave me the afternoon drive slot. A friend of mine, conservative activist Kirby Wilbur, impressed Sweatte and Jennings with his frequent calls into KVI shows. He was soon recruited for evenings, and eventually moved to morning drive.
The ratings soared. Within a year and a half, KVI was the number one station in the Seattle market and the KVI model was quickly emulated throughout America.
While racking up ratings and profits, the station was also changing state politics.
I used the airwaves to advocate for America’s first Three Strikes, You’re Out law, which passed in 1993, before migrating to California and many other states. Siegel helped qualify a ballot measure to limit state spending, which passed that same year
In July 1994, Hillary Clinton came to Seattle to rally for health care reform at Westlake Park. It was a disaster. She arrived to a crowd of about 700 supporters – and nearly a thousand boisterous counterdemonstrators, courtesy of KVI and its evening host, Kirby Wilbur. The first lady comically distorted the event in her memoirs, saying her safety was in danger, but the only thing imperiled at that now famous rally was the “Health Care Express.”
A state version of Obamacare passed in 1993 but with encouragement from KVI hosts, it was largely dismantled over several years (a lesson for the new Congress). Dozens of candidates over the years were helped or hobbled because of how they came across on the station’s airwaves. And many worthy charities, including Make-A-Wish, Toys 4 Tots, the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, homeless shelters and especially causes to support the troops were lavished with air time and fundraising support.
Some of our opponents, growing weary of the station’s influence, tried to silence us.
In the summer of 2005, following a nine-cent increase in the gas tax, Kirby and I encouraged people to support an initiative aimed at repealing it. 250,000 signatures were required in 33 days; more than 420,000 people signed it.
Even though we weren’t part of the campaign, gas tax supporters convinced a local judge that our advocacy was essentially in-kind advertising, and was subject to disclosure requirements. In the state of Washington, disclosure law limits donations in the last 20 days, which conceivably could have gagged us from talking about it. George Will cited it as another example of the left trying to regulate away inconvenient free speech. The case went up to the State Supreme Court, where KVI and free speech prevailed, 9-0.
But even while shaking things up, decline had set in.
The format’s popularity and a surplus of good talent brought competition, namely 770 KTTH. Popular host Michael Medved, who had replaced Siegel in the mid-90s, became the competitor’s centerpiece attraction. Then in 2003 they snared Limbaugh from KVI and began airing Glenn Beck in morning drive. The line-up of Beck-Limbaugh-Medved and David Boze, another former KVI talent, was formidable, and KVI’s numbers started sliding.
The first rule of talk radio is simple: The station with Rush is the leading conservative voice in that market. Period. KVI’s remaining local talent faded away. The station’s parent company, Fisher Broadcasting, moved me to our flagship station, ABC affiliate KOMO Newsradio. Kirby’s contract ran its course in 2009. Rumors of a format flip or station sale were rampant. To their credit, Fisher management tried one last time to make it fly, luring popular ironist Bryan Suits back from Los Angeles, and bringing me back in afternoons to augment my show on KOMO.
It was the radio equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, and it fell short. Management finally pulled the plug the Friday after the election.
KVI now heads in a different, and probably a far more profitable direction. But its impact reverberates everywhere people listen to conservative talk radio. Call it Seattle’s contribution to American conservatism.
John Carlson was a radio host at KVI from 1993-2010, and currently hosts a morning show on KOMO Newsradio 1000 am/97.7 fm. He can be reached at email@example.com.