Photo By David Robert KJFK’s general manager Daniel Cook is backed by the new station’s logo, designed to emphasize a bit of liberal history.

A Reno radio station Monday changed formats to what its manager calls talk radio with “a left-leaning slant.”

KJFK took over the KPLY frequency at 1230 AM. No ownership change was involved, just changes in programming and call letters.

KJFK will broadcast programs from Air America, the “progressive” radio network (www.airamericaradio.com) that features such personalities as Arianna Huffington, Janeane Garofalo, Mike Malloy, Al Franken and Randi Rhoades, and from the Jones Radio Network.

The station will begin the day at 6 a.m. with the Stephanie Miller Show, followed by Franken’s program from 9 until noon, followed by the Ed Schultz Show, and then Randi Rhodes at 3 p.m. Environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.'s show Ring of Fire will be heard on weekends.

The 1230 frequency in Reno has a long history. Its glory days were the 1960s, when, as Top 40 AM, it was the area’s most popular station, first as KDOT, then as KCBN. But the advent of FM was not kind to the station, and it has moved from one format to another over the years, most recently to sports.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, when told of the station’s launch, said, “Wonderful!”

He said it’s an indication of the growth of what its supporters cautiously call “progressive talk radio”—avoiding the L word.

“Well, progressive talk radio is taking off all over the country,” Reid said. “Even some of the big companies like, what’s the name of that—has a thousand stations? Clear Channel—they’re even going to progressive talk radio formats.”

Reid specifically praised show host Schultz.

“Ed Schultz is now in about a hundred different markets. Wherever he’s in the markets, with rare exceptions he’s ahead of Limbaugh.”

Reid said “well over a hundred stations” around the nation are now “progressive talk radio.”

Clear Channel has previously been known as a conservative corporation because it syndicates Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger and because of incidents like its distribution of a list of disapproved songs to its corporation-owned stations. Its executives are heavy Republican campaign contributors.

But nothing gets in the way of commerce or political cover, apparently, because Clear Channel cut a deal with Air America and is switching some of its stations to a liberal format.

Air America, which will provide the Reno station with some programming, was launched in March last year specifically to combat conservative broadcasting. It stumbled quickly, first with an exodus of executives and then by losing its Los Angeles and Chicago affiliations over financial problems.

Early on, online radio critic Corey Dietz wrote of Air America’s show hosts that their politics were getting in the way of first entertaining the audience: “Their reason for being did not emerge from a will to entertain their listeners. … After some listening, it’s painfully clear that entertainment has been subjugated to what is mostly a political safari where anger and resentment overshadows all else.”

Earlier this month, a newspaper review said, “Sure, it’s flawed too, in the same ways that a lot of liberal things are flawed. Like the Democratic Party, Air America is not original enough, taking too many cues from the way the right wing has been running things for the past decade. Like too many politicians, some of Air America’s on-air talent can be too apologetic, too obsequious to guests, too slow to engage in an active debate, too easily flustered. As with many voters, there’s more whining than doing.”

But the network rallied from its early problems to add stations and gain new financing. Some analysts saw the election of George Bush in November as bad news for Air America, but the Wall Street Journal suggested it was just what the network needed to galvanize its base. In January, the Journal reported, “[W]ith an infusion of new financing and new management, the radio network has won high ratings in some of its local markets and has garnered the support of radio-industry giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. … People familiar with the situation say Air America is also finalizing a deal that would get it back on the air in Los Angeles via KXTA-AM, a Clear Channel sports station.

“But local market research … indicate[s] that the network is gaining traction. On the Internet, Air America is the fourth most popular radio station, with almost 200,000 weekly Web listeners, according to Webcast Metrics.”

As of this month, Air America had grown to 48 stations. The challenge facing it can be demonstrated by Rush Limbaugh, who alone is carried by more than 600 stations.

Reno labor leader Charles Cox, president of the United Auto Workers local, says he welcomes KJFK.

“I think it’s about time,” he said. “I think the liberal point of view has to be out there, so that people can choose.”

KJFK general manager Daniel Cook says the station is planning local programming and is reviewing material from applicants.

Cook says not all of the station’s programming will be liberal. Some programs will be middle of the road. But there won’t be conservative programming, since that point of view already dominates radio, and the new format is intended to provide viewpoints that have been missing.

He also said that sports will continue to be a part of the station: “We’re still doing Giants.”

Cook says no one will be put out of a job.

“Bob D moves over to KBZZ, the Buzz, which has been the Howard Stern station. So he’s going to be doing his programs from 8 to 10.”

Tom Quinn, who owns the station and five others in Reno (KLCA, KRNO, KODS, KZTQ, KBZZ, and KPLY/KJFK), says one of the reasons he decided to try the format was the remarkable gains experienced by KPOJ, a Portland oldies station, when Air America programs were used there by Clear Channel in its first experiment with liberal programming. Among Portland listeners ages 25 to 64, the station’s ratings jumped from number 26 to number 3. The gains attracted industry-wide attention and have been a factor in the spread of liberal formats.

“Talk radio used to be basically pretty balanced,” Quinn says. “There’d be liberal talkers and conservative. In the last 15 years or so, it’s become almost all right-wing talk.”

He says he knows Mary Lou Gunn, the manager of Portland’s KPOJ, so he called her and picked her brain on how to make the format work. He also studied other markets where liberal formats are doing well.

Quinn was an aide and cabinet member to California Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s. He says his motives for changing the Reno format include both commerce and politics.

“I think this will be good business, and it gives me personal pleasure to do something that’s good business and that I also think is in the public good. … There should be a balanced voice.”

The call letters, KJFK, were a product of a brainstorming session with Quinn and his staffers.

Avatar photo

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...