Even a liberal has to feel sorry for Michael Zwerling.
The 49-year-old former real-estate investor bought Santa Cruz 10,000-watt radio station KSCO-AM (1080) 10 years ago, in part, to give conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh a forum in a city so far to the left it's almost slipped off the map.
But then, last week, Clear Channel Communications, the radio, concert and billboard behemoth that owns the syndication of Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger and Art Bell, announced it was taking the shows off the independently owned station and moving them to a competing Salinas AM station that it owns.
The move to 5,000-watt KTX-AM (1460) will take place June 1.
Zwerling was stung. For years he'd faced the wrath of his liberal neighbors, and those three shows made up a good chunk of his broadcast day. He had built ratings of about 2 percent of the Monterey Bay market, a relatively strong showing given competition from San Jose and San Francisco stations.
The week after the announcement, his phone mail was packed with passionate messages, for and against the move. Some thought it was a liberal conspiracy. And then, even Limbaugh took a shot at him, on the air, claiming that he couldn't tell the full story on his national show, for fear the Santa Cruz station would cut him off.
"I think it was uncalled for, inappropriate and wrong. We didn't cut it off and we wouldn't cut it off," says Zwerling, a flamboyant and emotional man who does a Saturday morning talk show on his station.
Zwerling is mixed in his reactions.
On one hand, he knows it's just a business decision that has affected about 100 independent broadcasters. "If I were Clear Channel I would be doing the same thing," he says.
On the other hand, he now knows what it's like to be a victim of a marketplace that is rapidly shifting into what some view as monopolistic.
Clear Channel not only owns some 1,200 stations -- the radio hardware -- in Zwerling's words -- but it also owns the software, the syndicated shows.
"Clear Channel paid like $51 million for Rush; $71 million for Laura and $9 million for Bell. For that money, it was like buying radio stations all over the country. It's a brilliant move from a business point of view, but I'm not sure it's in the interest of the consumer."
The San Antonio-based Clear Channel bought Dallas's AM/FM in a deal approved in August, making it the largest radio company in the country with 1,170 stations. Nearest competitor Cumulus has 235 stations. CBS/Viacom has 185 stations.
And Clear Channel is also the country's largest concert promoter, owning a piece of entertainment ranging from the Broadway show "The Producers" to the latest U2 tour. It owns local promoter Bill Graham Presents.
The huge growth in radio corporations began in 1996, when Congress, in response to complaints from then-suffering smaller broadcasters, deregulated the industry, increasing the number of stations that could be owned, so that they could streamline business operations and increase profits.
The result in this case may have some benefits for the community, even as it was a stick in the eye to the small broadcaster who filled much of his day with nationally syndicated commentators.
Zwerling, who says he wasn't really listening to much Rush anymore, has begun a campaign to develop more local shows. The station's recent ratings have dropped a bit (although the paid programming in the middle of the day can't help much).
OTHER LOCAL DEVELOPMENTS: KSJO-FM (92.3) dumped the Kramer & Twitch afternoon show, a couple of months after the DJs shocked area bicyclists and motorcyclists by claiming they should be killed. "They just didn't fit in with the Bay Area," said station manager John Sutherland. "Sloppy Joe" takes over the afternoon drive time slot.
In the latest San Francisco winter ratings, ABC/Disney talk stations KGO-AM (810) and KSFO-AM (560) were Nos. 1 and 2 with a 6.3 and 4.9 share, or percentage, of the area's 5.3 million listeners over 12. They were followed by KCBS-AM, 4.6; KOIT-AM/FM, 4.2; KYLD-FM, 3.9; KDFC-FM, 3.6; KMEL-FM, 3.4; KBLX-FM, 3.3; KKSF-FM, 3.0 and KSOL/KZOL-FM, 3.0.
San Jose's ratings: KGO, 7.0; KYLD, 4.6; KSFO, 4.5; KCBS, 4.3; KSOL/KZOL, 4.3; KSJO/KFJO, 4.3; KDFC, 3.4; KBRG, 3.2; KARA, 3.1; KRTY, 2.9; KEZR, 2.9; KBAY, 2.9.
Contact Brad Kava at email@example.com or (408) 920-5040. Fax (408) 271-3786.