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Monday, 07 January 2008 06:35

Bill Press Is Bringing the Experts into Progressive Talk Radio

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I think we have proven that, given an opportunity, we can win. We can build an audience. We can hold an audience. We can make money. We can be successful in talk radio. We have disproven the old theory that liberals can't do talk radio. That's why I feel good about talk radio.

-- Bill Press, Emmy winner, Author, Talk-Radio Host, Former Chair, California Democratic Party

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BuzzFlash has been offering up a series of interviews with progressive radio talk show hosts over the last year. That's because we believe that pro-Constitution Americans vitally need to build upon the small beachhead that has been established to reclaim the airwaves for democracy.

We are glad to talk today with Bill Press, who wakes us up very early here in Chicago every morning, with a very informative and affable introduction to the political news on the horizon.

Press is a veteran journalist, political communications operative, and radio host.  He currently lives with his wife in Washington D.C., where he broadcasts from the Center for American Progress.

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BuzzFlash: In our BuzzFlash interviews with progressive talk-show hosts such as yourself, we're asking first of all, where is your show broadcast from, how many markets do you reach, and if people don't have you in their area, where can they stream you from?

Bill Press: God bless you for that question. We are on Sirius satellite radio in all fifty states. We broadcast Monday through Friday from 6 to 9 a.m., morning drive, on the East Coast. In addition to being on Sirius, we're syndicated in about 35 markets nationwide through Jones Radio Network. Those markets include: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Denver, Phoenix, Reno, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Buffalo, Ithaca, Columbus, Daytona Beach, Washington, D.C., and Asheville, among others.

If people they don't have Sirius and we're not syndicated in their local market, they can stream the show live at billpressshow.com. Those who want to hear us also can just call up the local radio station and raise hell, and tell them to put progressive radio on in your community.

BuzzFlash: How do you describe your style?

Bill Press: I like a lively, fast-paced, entertaining and informative morning show, and that's what I try to provide every day. We're on top of the big news of the day, first of all, with what's my take as a liberal on what's happening. We also giving listeners an opportunity to weigh in and be part of the conversation. And every day, we talk to two or three news makers -- people who are either in the news or reporting the news. So it's a combination of news, analysis, calls, interviews, and keeping it light and entertaining, and just giving people a good start to their day.

BuzzFlash: That 6 to 9 a.m. time spot presents kind of a challenge, because you're getting the stories from the evening before, and you're also dealing with the stories that are likely to come up that day.

Bill Press: Yes, but it's the best time of the day, actually. I've been doing talk radio for a long time, and the morning drive is the pot of gold for most radio stations. It's where they have the most listeners and make the most money. As a talk-show host, you can make the most impact because you've got the first crack at everybody listening that day. They're hearing what's happening first from the Bill Press Show, and they're having a chance to weigh in on the Bill Press Show. And I get the first crack on what it all means. So I really love that timeslot.

BuzzFlash: We often listen to you in the morning when we're kind of putting together BuzzFlash -- the first setup for the day. You have a very relaxed style. You're not nonplussed by a whole lot that happens. Is that accurate?

Bill Press: Yes, I am comfortable. I enjoy it, I have a good time, and I hope that comes across. I really love talk radio. I started doing television and radio in Los Angeles in the Eighties, and people always ask me, if I had to choose between the two, which would I choose? My answer has always been talk radio because of the immediacy and the intimacy. You're one-on-one with the listener, and it's a very personal relationship. You don't have that relationship with a television viewer.

BuzzFlash: You were on "Crossfire" for quite awhile. Anyone who's on television has to constantly be aware of their appearance and how they're coming across visually. How do you compare that to being a remote voice that comes through the airwaves?

Bill Press: In radio what counts is whether you're for real. Appearance is much too important a factor when it comes to television. Often people will say, gee, I saw you on CNN or MSNBC yesterday. I ask them what I was talking about, and they'll say, I don't remember, but you really looked good. You don't have that in radio. What really counts is whether you know what you're talking about, and whether the people believe what you're saying. The external appearances factor is stripped away, and it's really a heart-to-heart, gut-to-gut relationship you've got with the listener.

BuzzFlash: When we listen, you seem to have very few of what I would call nutty calls on your show. Do you screen them out?

Bill Press: We do have a screener, but let me also say that I think the calls make talk radio. When I'm driving and listening to talk radio, I learn as much from the callers as I do from the host. That's why I think they're an important part of my show and an important part of talk radio overall. Like most talk shows, we do screen for the best calls, which are callers who know what they're talking about and are going to make a good point, whether they agree with me or not, and they are kind of on target. We don't want people who are going off on a tangent or introducing some entirely new topic.

I think the only rule is I don't take any calls on the 9/11 conspiracy theory -- that 9/11 was all cooked up by George Bush and Dick Cheney to take us into war. I don't think they're that evil or that organized, and I just think it's a waste of time. I take a lot of grief for not being willing to spend hours discussing that theory, but I've dismissed it, and I don't think it's worth spending any time on.

BuzzFlash: How do you handle calls from the standpoint of someone who's talking too long, or they're incoherent, which I don't hear very much on your program?

Bill Press: The reason you don't is I won't tolerate it. It took me awhile, but as a talk-show host I just learned if someone is not on topic, you have to quickly get them off the air. There's sort of an unwritten minute-and-a-half rule. If any caller is on for longer than a minute and a half, people just tune them out. So you have to keep them on topic, you have to keep them moving. If they go off topic or start repeating themselves or are not making a valid point, I try as politely as I can just to thank them and move on.

Let me just add that I really do encourage people to call. They ought to think about what they want to say and be able to say it quickly and get to the point, and that's the way to really be an effective communicator on the radio.

BuzzFlash: The call-in relationship on radio has long been really what makes talk radio kind of a town hall.

Bill Press: Yes. The candidates feel good when they expose themselves to a town hall meeting maybe once a day, or once a week. We do it every day. It's our life. You open up the phones, and it's like Russian roulette, really. You never know what someone's going to say. But that's the fun of it.

BuzzFlash: Rush Limbaugh's appeal to his constituency is emotional. He has said at times that he's an entertainer. He has a certain political outlook that he is paid to convey, but he conveys it in an entertaining way that engages listeners by appealing to emotion.

You run much cooler, from my perspective. How do you engage people? When progressive radio started, there was some question as to how to have some entertainment value, too. It can't just be a public policy discussion. What do you do that keeps people from turning the dial?

Bill Press: That's the secret of talk radio, I would say. As a talk-radio host, you either figure that out or you die. I don't have an easy formula, but a couple points.

Is Rush an entertainer? Absolutely, one of the best entertainers in the business, which is why he's so successful. I might also add that there have been people who have called Rush Limbaugh to inform him of something that I have said which they heard. They called Rush to basically tattle-tale on me. On more than one occasion, Rush has dismissed me as just an entertainer, which I find very funny, because he knows entertainment is a big part of it.

I think I try to grab people through the strength of my logic and the facts and the arguments that I can muster on behalf of any particular position that I feel is important. I do not so much reach for the emotions, as the intellect. But I have to say that you're right. It's got to be done in a way that is informative, and yet easy to listen to and easy to get into.

You can't preach to people. You can't talk down to people. You have to engage them so that they want to listen to what you have to say and participate in the discussion.

One thing a lot of people said about "Crossfire" was, oh, it's just entertainment. Well, no, it wasn't just entertainment. If it were not entertaining to watch, "Crossfire" would not have been the most successful show on CNN. It's got to be smart and entertaining, and I think talk radio has to be the same.

BuzzFlash: You make the listener feel very comfortable. I call the style relaxed. You're not panicking at the latest outrage of the Bush administration or the Republicans. You're analyzing it. You bring on experts and convey to people some informed sense of whatever is the latest "red alert" -- what to make of this -- by expressing your own opinions and bringing in experts.

Bill Press: Yes. Let's take, for example, what I call the CIA torture tapes. Confronted with that, what works for me is not to just get on the radio and open up the microphone, and start screaming about how terrible this is. I do express my outrage. I condemn it. But also I explain why it's wrong, how it happened, and what the significance of it is in the bigger picture.

To do that, I brought in Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent, who pointed out that most likely Bush himself watched these videotapes of the waterboarding, because he's the one who approved it. Nobody else had even mentioned that possibility. We also brought in Joe Sestak, a freshman Congressman, and a former Navy Admiral from Pennsylvania to talk about what Congress might do to get to the bottom of this in terms of holding some hearings or getting some testimony. I bring in other people who can help us understand an issue.

BuzzFlash: That's something which seems to indicate they were covering up the fact that they tortured because it'd be a potential war crime. But it turns out to be a lot more complicated than even that. Some people have even speculated that the tapes reveal, in one case, that under torture, one of the alleged al-Qaeda leaders implicated members of the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani secret police in terms of financing al-Qaeda. So we can have endless speculation. We don't really know the answers now because the tapes were destroyed. But there's a lot of potential dimensions and implications as to why that happened.

Bill Press: Yes. And it gets back again to the most fundamental question as to whether we should be doing torture in the first place. A lot of liberals out there still think, in certain circumstances, for certain reasons, torture is effective, and it's the only way to get the information that we need. I don't believe that, so I wanted to expose that, and raise the issue, and help shoot it down one more time.

BuzzFlash: One of the other complicated wrinkles was that the White House told the Washington Post that Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harmon and Jay Rockefeller all knew about this. Nancy Pelosi's office really was extremely low key in responding to that article, and Jay Rockefeller has kind of been on both sides of the fence about his response, which means there's probably some truth to it, even though it was clearly a White-House-planted story. It complicates the matter even further.

Bill Press: Well, it does. I asked one of our guests, David Obey, and he said, look, here's what happens. They come in and they just dump so much stuff that the members of Congress can't possibly follow all of it or understand everything that they're being told. And they do that deliberately. Sometimes they'll dump it, and in the middle of it, there will be some sort of juicy potato they're just trying to slip by.

Remember, afterwards the committee members not allowed to talk about these meetings, not even with each other. They can't call each other up and say, did that mean what I thought it meant? Did you come away from that meeting with the same thing? That, under the rules, is not even allowed. So Obey says they might have slipped it in, but nobody focused on it.

The more fundamental question is the one that I asked Larry Johnson -- again, former CIA agent -- that, even if they did brief members of Congress, so what? It's still wrong. It's still against U.S. law, and it's still forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.

BuzzFlash: Tell us how you prepare for your program.

Bill Press: I am always preparing. All day long I'm thinking of things we might want to do the next day. All day long I'm in touch, either listening or watching the tube, or reading and thinking about things I want to share with my listeners the next morning. My antenna are always active. And that's true with any talk-show host.

The actual preparation starts immediately after a show. We huddle together and do a post-mortem on that day's show-- what worked, what didn't, who was good, who was not. Then we make an outline of the next day's show, or at least what stories we know are coming up for sure. Then we go about our business during the day.

At about 4 o'clock, I get an outline from Dan -- what we call the trawl of all possible stories we might want to do the next day. At 5 o'clock, I have a conference call with my executive producer, Peter Ogburn, and we make a rough outline of what the next day's show is going to be.

I get up at 3:45 a.m. and get to the studio at 4:30. Then I comb all the sources -- thank you, BuzzFlash -- and Dan and look at the Center for American Progress and several other sites. At about 5:15, we meet and make the final outline for the show. As you can see, a lot of thought and research goes into it.

By the way, we have six monitors in the studio, so if there's any breaking news while we're on the air, we just shift and cover it as it comes across, as well. So it's an ongoing process. We probably put about five hours of direct preparation into a three-hour show -- a lot more than you do for television, by the way.

BuzzFlash: How are you feeling about the future of progressive radio?

Bill Press: I feel both very confident and very worried, and I'll tell you why. I feel very confident because I think we have proven in the last two years -- and when I say "we," you know, I'm talking about Air America, I'm talking about Stephanie Miller, Bud Schultz and myself, and basically that universe -- I think we have proven that, given an opportunity, we can win. We can build an audience. We can hold an audience. We can make money. We can be successful in talk radio. We have disproven the old theory that liberals can't do talk radio. That's why I feel good about talk radio. And I particularly feel good coming into 2008. I think this year is going to be the golden era for progressive talk.

Where I worry is that there are so few outlets for progressive talk -- there are probably sixty total progressive talk stations in the country, compared to some four or five thousand for conservative talk. And the ownership of those stations is just about exclusively held by companies that are very conservative, that have very little commitment to progressive talk, and that have proven that they're willing to pull the plug on progressive talk even if their ratings are good, if they think they can make more money from sports or some other format.

So we have very few outlets, and we're at the mercy of networks owned by conservative Republicans who don't really care about progressive radio. For example, in San Diego -- KLSD. Great station, great audience, good ratings. Clear Channel just pulled the plug and turned it into their second sports talk station in that market. Now there's no more progressive talk in San Diego. The audience is there. The demand is there. The need is there. But the outlets and the ownership are lacking.

BuzzFlash: We are doing this series of interviews with progressive hosts like yourself to encourage people to listen to and support progressive talk radio. One of the things we ask people is to let advertisers know that they heard about the company from an advertisement on a progressive show. We're confident and hopeful that the progressive radio and the Internet can continue to grow together, with strong programming like you provide. So thank you very much.

Bill Press: I always tell listeners, if you have a good progressive talk station in your market, support the advertisers. It's very important. Make sure the station owners know that you like the progressive talk in your community. Go to your favorite local businesses and tell them they should advertise on the progressive talk station. It's just important that we all support each other, because that's how we're going to make it.

BuzzFlash: Bill, thanks a lot.

Bill Press: This was great fun. Thank you.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Bill Press Bio

Read 2433 times Last modified on Wednesday, 09 January 2008 23:15