Former Texas agriculture commissioner, former editor of the Texas Observer–and, now, former radio personality? Jim Hightower hopes not, but even he’s not sure what the future holds. Officials of the ABC Radio Networks recently notified the self-described “kick-ass populist” that they were dropping his weekly talk show, “Hightower Radio,” which had 1 million listeners across the country. If Hightower can’t find a new syndicator, progressives will lose yet another sympathetic voice in the media.
On a mild day in early September, shortly after his meeting with ABC Radio, Hightower met with Mother Jones at Las Manitas, Austin’s classic Mexican eatery. Over barbacoa tacos, he spoke–in his distinctive drawl–about his show, Bill Clinton, and the Republicans who would be king.
Q: So what happened to your show?
A: I see the ABC action as the result of what I call the three M’s: my message, the merger with Disney, and marketing, or lack thereof. ABC did a terrific job of getting me an initial stable of stations–it’s very unusual for someone who’s never had radio experience to be able to launch a national show. But in our second year, some of the stations began to balk–I believe because of pressure from advertisers. We lost San Diego and St. Paul. At that point, ABC began to get a little antsy about what I was doing. Then came the merger, which, of course, I took on-on the air. The next thing I know I’m hearing ABC is in all kinds of budget meetings. It seems the bean counters were very focused on what was being broadcast. I think somebody higher up began to listen to the show and decided this is not a message for the new Disney/ABC, and that they didn’t want to put more money into it.
Which gets me to the third M: marketing. We had been having a battle for a year with ABC-they weren’t marketing the show. We were arguing with them that you have a very unique product, that you can’t take a progressive voice and put it on a conservative medium and think that just naturally you’re going to draw progressive listeners. They don’t even know it’s on the air.
Q: How many stations did you start out with?
A: We started out with 100 and we’ve got 150 now.
Q: Despite the ones that dropped?
A: Yeah, because we added stations too. We added Oklahoma City; we added Denver.
Q: Did you ever hear directly from advertisers complaining about stuff you’d said?
A: We had a great instance right up the road here at our station in Temple, Texas. They were airing the commentaries I do. Well, one involved bank fees being rip-offs-the extraordinary increase in the number and amount of fees, and the profits they bring banks while service is being cut. While this guy from the station is on the air, he gets a call from a local banker, who says, “I’m pulling all of my advertising.” It turned out to be his biggest advertiser. To this guy’s credit, he stood up, and it cost him his top advertiser. Then there were the oil companies in Mississippi. I forget which station it was, but I was told, “The oil companies don’t like what you’re saying, and they’re the biggest power in this town, so adios. It’s you or them–and it ain’t gonna be them.”
Q: Do you think it’s possible for a show like yours to actually attract advertisers?
A: We’re exploring that right now. We’ll find out. Mother Jones advertised with us for a while, but they got sick of ABC because its Broadcast Standards and Practices division wouldn’t let the magazine say certain things on the air in their ads–even though those things were factual. And some unions wanted to advertise on the show, but Standards and Practices decided there couldn’t be any “advocacy” advertising. ABC rejected what could have been at least $100,000 a year worth of advertising right there.
Q: Why is it so hard to get a progressive voice on the radio?
A: A handful of companies own all the stations here in Austin, and that’s repeated all across the country. With the new telecommunications bill, any one company is allowed to own a third of the stations in America. Those stations are not inter-ested in talking about the class warfare their parent companies are waging against the American working people.
Also, the program directors and general managers of these stations are worried about their own butts, so they tend to program in a “me- too” fashion. You’d think that if one station has Rush Limbaugh on, across town the competing station would say, “Well, hey, I’m gonna fight back with the other market niche.” But no. Instead, they say, “Hey, Rush Limbaugh seems to be working, I need a Limbaugh, too.” And so they go get the Black Avenger in Denver, or Gordon Liddy, or Ollie North.
Q:I imagine you don’t have many good things to say about the Republican candidates for president.
A: Actually, as a radio person they’re a godsend for me.
Q: Of all the Republicans, who do you think is the most threatening to the country?
A: From what I’ve seen, the whole bunch wouldn’t make good landfill, much less a president. You have a major political party that is willing to play one group of powerless people against another. At the same time you don’t have any political party willing to stand up for the majority of us who, as the old saying goes, might not have come over on the same boat but are in the same boat now. There’s an enormous potential to build a true majority in this country around the fact that we’re all being kicked in the teeth, but you have no political party doing it.
And look who’s kicking us in the teeth. You have Phil Gramm–of those who actually have a chance to get the nomination, just the ugliest, meanest, most purely ambitious of them all. Then you have Bob Dole, you know, willing to just sell out and do whatever kind of ugly dance he’s got to. And Pat Buchanan.
Q: Who do you think the Democrats should want to see nominated?
A: The easiest to beat would be any of the far-right-wingers, but particularly Phil Gramm. You know we had to tolerate him in our own party for a while. He’s just a hoot. Here’s a guy who was literally born on the public dole–totally educated, from kindergarten to the Ph.D. level, on the public dole, never had a job in the private sector, totally taxpayer-supported his entire life–talking about needing to get the “wagon riders” in our culture off the public dole.
Q: I take it you’re not a big fan of the president, either.
A: At least Clinton isn’t aggressively doing damage, which Dole, Gramm, Newt, and the rest of them would do. But right now Clinton just doesn’t have it in him to be the president that history demands and the Democratic Party demands.
Q: Do you think he did at any time?
A: No, not really. Even though I was a delegate for Clinton at the Democratic convention, I’d been with Tom Harkin when he started and then Jerry Brown.
Having experienced Clinton in Arkansas, I knew he wasn’t going to make much progress for us. Arkansas has one of the largest poverty populations in the country. It’s a minority state. It’s a working-people state. It’s a small-farmer state. If you can’t be a populist in Arkansas, you ain’t going to be a populist in Washington.
But you don’t have to be in love to dance, and that’s what brought me to Clinton. Progressives just have to use him and not vice versa.
Q: Do you have any optimism about Clinton’s chances of winning?
A: Oh, yeah. Two points of optimism. First, Clinton can win because he’s a far better campaigner than he is a president, and he’s not running against nobody; he’s running against whatever piece of ugliness the Republicans put up. And it’s probably going to be Bob Dole, who’s been in Washington for something like 35 years and is butt-deep in special-interest money.
The second point of optimism I have is that there are some real Democrats kicking around the country, even in the Congress: Marcy Kaptur, David Bonior, Johnny Bryant, Lloyd Doggett. There are some people in Congress who had sort of been silenced in the past by the Tom Foley-George Mitchell-Bill Clinton-stick-to-the-middle-of-the- road program and are now liberated. They’re not tied to Clinton and they’re sure not tied to the Democratic Leadership Council and big money, so they’re doing some pretty good work.
Q: What about you? Have you thought about running for office again? Maybe against Phil Gramm for the U.S. Senate?
A: Well, I’ve been in the political arena all of my life, and 10 years of that as a candidate and elected official, and that’s about enough. At this time in my life, the most effective place I can be is right where I am, trying to use the radio, writing pieces and books, giving speeches–being a Johnny Appleseed of populist ferment.
Evan Smith is the deputy editor of Texas Monthly.