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The Devolution of American Media: In Madison Take-No-Prisoners Politics Gives Way to “Power Shopping”
As a news hound and a mom, I have an early morning routine for catching up on developments while getting the kid ready for school. I head downstairs, snap on the radio, start making coffee, and packing a kid-friendly lunch. The kitchen radio is permanently tuned to 1670 AM WTDY's "Sly in the Morning" show because I know that Sly has been up since 4 a.m. reading half a dozen state and national newspapers, scanning the front pages and the classifieds for the critical, the controversial, the funny, and the obscure.
By the time I drag the kid out of bed, I know what is going on in D.C., I know what is going on in Madison, and I have a jump on the day.
This Monday morning, I tuned in as usual and heard Christmas music. I was reminded that it is "Cyber Monday" and the station stands ready to provide "music to power shop by."
Something was terribly wrong at WTDY.
WTDY Takes the Low Road
As most folks in Madison were getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving last week, Mid-West Family Broadcasting decided to fire its entire news staff, which included seven people in addition to John "Sly" Sylvester, who anchored their popular early morning show for many years. Apparently, the station is changing its format to "talk sports."
Radio stations across the nation have discovered that they can make more money by putting on prepackaged syndicated content and cutting their local staff down to button pushers and ad buyers. Mid-west Family Broadcasting evidently decided to take that low road even after a remarkable year in which Sly's show had some of his highest ratings yet and was chosen by local listeners for the "The Best in Madison" award given out by the Isthmus magazine.
For Madison, the decision is a disaster. Not only is the local news replaced with cookie-cutter national content, no other station in town provides the sharp, savvy political analysis, and abundant content that Sly did. This made him an essential source of information during the protests that engulfed Wisconsin in the winter of 2011. A meticulous workhorse, Sly would capture audio clips throughout the daylight and evening hours in order to roll them out at 6 a.m. along with interviews and analysis by key newsmakers, reporters, and community leaders of all stripes. For a city like Madison with an intensely progressive, political audience, his show has been essential.
But Sly and the news team, which included producer Morgan Welk, roving reporter Dylan Brogan, news announcer Crystal McKenzie and evening news anchor Amy Barrilleaux, went beyond the latest protest to unveil the behind-the-scenes players. The news team often hosted reporters from CMD and larger media outlets to delve into the details of the financial crisis, voter ID, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, all topics vital to understand our current political moment. While Wisconsin Public Radio does a good job covering the basics, they too often shy away from controversy and pull their punches -- making their shows a bit too tame for some tastes.
But the pundits and politicians, protesters and even the pontificators on Sly's show (that's you Glenn Grothman) made for very entertaining radio.
"A Hole in Our Daily Routine"
I am not the only mom that relies on Sly to get them going in the morning. Dane County Board Member and Representative-Elect Dianne Hesselbein tells me that her house is wired with an old speaker system that pipes the radio into every room. She woke up her three kids to Sly each morning. "They were practically raised on Sly and his absence not only leaves a hole in our daily routine, it leaves a hole in our conversations. Walking to the school bus or at the dinner table we would often discuss what we agreed with and what we disagreed with about Sly's positions and programming." Plus, "It was very, very funny radio," she said. She and I both have learned about and utilized small businesses advertised on Sly's show, often getting a discount. I am a huge fan of File 13 which has recycled many of our defunct computers.
She is not the only one feeling the absence of WTDY. Moms at the local middle school were abuzz, as were the guys at the liquor store. Builders arrived at my house this week bundled for the Wisconsin winter and ready to start ripping off the roof of our garage. "What's up with WTDY?" Alex Hohlstein asked me, saying not a day goes by when he doesn't listen to Sly's show. Later his dad, Ernie, explained that the change was a shock and "a real disappointment to me." "Sly has been a voice for working people, for guys like me for many years," he said. No other show in Madison fills this niche.
In the bigger picture, the WTDY firings are the poster child for the devolution of American radio into a purely commercial tool for 24-7 shopping and the deep need for alternative funding models for U.S. newsrooms which are critical to a functioning democracy. Imagine if each citizen could use a tax deduction to support the media of their choice like Sweden does, what a vibrant news scene we would have then.
Grassroots Effort Underway to Get Sly Back on the Air
Now some of Sly's loyal listeners and dedicated sponsors are organizing to keep him on the air. They are petitioning the savvy news team at 92.1 FM "The Mic" to "Give Sly the Mic." The Mic is a good fit for Madison with excellent national programming through the day (Stephanie Miller, Ed Shultz) and sharp local programing with "The People's Mic with Doug Cunningham" at 5 p.m., but no local morning show since the wonderful Lee Rayburn left.