Stephanie Miller is often the first voice heard by Bay Area progressives on weekday mornings. As the morning host since 2006 at talk radio station KKGN — dubbed Green 960 for its eco-friendly themes and position on the AM dial — Miller brews up a caffeinated mixture of parody, political commentary, and potty humor. So when the station cut her syndicated show from three hours to one in January, many listeners felt as if they were being forced to go cold turkey.
Audience data had suggested that Miller's show was "underperforming" compared to the rest of the day's programming, although it had bettered the performance of its local predecessors in that time slot, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and comedian Will Durst. So KKGN program director John Scott had installed himself from 7 to 9 a.m. in the hope of giving the station a more local and personal approach. But audience members reacted just as one might expect progressive talk radio fans to react. Within a few days of the cutback, Scott had an inbox stuffed full of angry e-mails.
He realized that neither he nor the Arbitron rating service had accounted for what he called a "silent majority" of Miller fans. So he proceeded to print out the foot-high stack of e-mails and carry them to the office of his superior, Michael Erickson, the local vice president of programming for Clear Channel Commuications, KKGN's owner. After Erickson joked, "You're gonna recycle those, aren't you?" the two men quickly decided to reverse their decision, restoring Miller to her full 6 to 9 a.m. time slot.
The station promoted its turnabout by letting the LA-based Miller meet her public in an evening reception at the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City on February 1. The svelte radio personality was squired to a stage by Scott and both were greeted with cheers and smiling faces. Behind all the good vibes lies a lesson on the struggles for viability of commercial progressive talk radio in a market still dominated by conservatives.
Miller rewarded her fans with some of the spunk that had kept them listening since she debuted locally on the Quake, KKGN's pre-Green 960 incarnation, in September 2006. Betraying her background in stand-up comedy, Miller reiterated the tongue-in-cheek reward she'd offered listeners when Scott announced her return. "I know I promised to have sex with everyone in San Francisco," she joked. Members of the audience mixed nervous giggles with applause.
During a lively and literate question-and-answer session, Miller was asked by one fan how liberal talk radio might be made "as successful as the creepy right-wing conservatives." Her response was candid. "This is not a political movement, this is a business," she said. "We have to get ratings, and we have to sell shit. And you have to buy shit! But remember that right-wing radio has had an infrastructure in place for twenty years, while progressive radio is only two or three years old." Miller then alluded to Green 960's relatively low power — 5,000 watts — and its consequently weak reception in some parts of the Bay Area.
Many in the crowd could no doubt claim lifelong liberal credentials, but both Miller and Scott came to their social consciousness later in life. "I'm a Reformed Republican," Scott admitted. He said that helping Green 960 has helped him find a voice, literally and figuratively, for priorities closer to Democratic platforms. "The progressive community is so much more vibrant. It's a coalition of real fringey groups and mainstream party-line folks, decline-to-state folks, and fiercely independent folks."
Throughout the broadcast day and week, Green 960 manages to appeal to that diversity. The madcap Miller is followed, at 9 a.m., by the sober and erudite Thom Hartmann, who positions himself in "The Radical Middle." Hosts later in the day and throughout the night are discernibly to the left or right of that middle, and diverse in personality and approach, each with their own battery of regular callers eager to comment on current events.
"I think my politics have developed, as a lot of people's have, in reaction to this Republican Party," Miller said in an interview prior to the Redwood City reception. She noted the hotel's proximity to the Cow Palace, where her father, William E. Miller, was nominated as the running mate to Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater in 1964. Stephanie was three then, and was being raised true to her parents' persuasion.
Now, though, Miller leads off her morning show with a parodic poke at the right-wing world. "When did my Dad's party get so mean-spirited and exclusive and all about gay-bashing and dividing and fear-mongering?" she asks rhetorically. "I think it's turned a lot of people off, and that's a part of why Obama has become so much of a movement."
Unlike others in the Green 960 lineup, Miller promotes her program as "more of a comedy show that happens to be hosted by a progressive, rather than a progressive talk show." Her humorous takes on daily news stories and satirical send-ups of celebrity gossip are aided and abetted by producer Chris Lavoie, who helps interpolate prerecorded sound effects, and by Jim Ward, a virtuoso of regional, international, and celebrity accents and impersonations, from George Bush to John McCain to Korean despot Kim Jong-il.
Despite Miller and Lavoie's many hours of watching TV news and the web in preparation for each show, and Ward's hysterical and sometimes hastily prepared mini-scripts, the on-air interplay among the three, and the chat with whatever listeners and celebrities phone in, are largely spontaneous. Taken together with a daily volley of scatology and sexual allusions, the spontaneity appeals both to a younger demographic (including, with parental indiscretion, a few kids) and to older generations with a nostalgic regard for college humor, updated with topical references and astute observation.
Will all those loyal listeners be able to keep Green 960 in the black? "It's a real challenge trying to get progressives to step up to the plate," admits Sam Giarmo, one of the station's account executives. "But there are some real passionate progressives out there, and even though we're a small station, they're very concerned about making sure the merchants support the exclusive progressive talk radio station in the Bay Area."
Scott said the station tells its advertisers that their audience is a little different. Green 960 listeners "will be very passionate about their product, and if you're doing right by them, they're happy to say, 'I bought this because you advertise on my favorite station.' Businesses love that. It validates what we feel was their wise decision to underwrite our programs."
Likewise, Scott has no problem reassuring Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest station-owner, about the viability of its Green offspring. "Everybody thinks Clear Channel is all big and evil, but they have much bigger fish to fry," he said. "They want you to meet budgets. However you meet them is up to the local managers. ... It's instructive to note that, if monkeys banging on pots and pans get ratings, there'd be a Monkey Show on the radio."
He's hoping progressive monkeyshines will do even better.
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