While corporate consolidation of the Montana newspaper industry continues virtually unimpeded, local radio hasn’t remained immune from mergers and buyouts either. On Nov. 1, Hamilton’s KLYQ AM station went from a country music format to all talk radio, courtesy of the station’s new owner, media giant Clear Channel, the world’s largest radio conglomerate, based in San Antonio, Texas.
Operations Director Steve Fullerton, a familiar radio voice to Bitterrooters for more than two decades, acknowledges that the new corporate ownership and direction co-opts local control to some degree, but he puts a positive spin on the buy-out.
“I realize we don’t have the constant companion of music anymore,” Fullerton says. “But we saw audience erosion. I’m willing to try new things. What the heck?”
In fact, he says, the focus on local issues has actually grown under Clear Channel’s ownership. Between 6 and 10 a.m. Fullerton holds court in the studio with colleagues Don Davis, another long-time KLYQ voice, and well-known Hamiltonian Mary Borden. Their four-hour chat features more Montana news than was carried previously on KLYQ, and interviews with local movers and shakers. The trio may also begin fielding on-air calls from local residents to broaden the local dialogue.
In the meantime, KLYQ listeners can tune in to Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, black helicopter conspiracy theorist Art Bell and former first son Michael Reagan—just like much of Middle America.
“[Clear Channel] wanted to cover a different part of the audience and the thinking behind us changing formats was that there were three country [music] stations that you could hear in Ravalli County,” Fullerton says. “But in Ravalli County you didn’t have talk radio. They’re not doing this out of pure profit. They think it’s a good idea for us to go to talk radio.”
It’s not as if KLYQ was locally owned before. Begun by two transplanted Idahoans in 1961, the station has changed hands several times over the years. In 1998, then-owner Steve Benedict, a Bitterrooter and former state senator, sold the station to Chicago-based Marathon Media.
Still, Clear Channel may be the radio equivalent of Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based media giant that dominates the Montana newspaper market. According to Fullerton, Clear Channel has purchased all of Marathon Media’s Montana radio stations in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Shelby and Hamilton.
Thus far, the reaction to the change in ownership has been mixed, he says, with roughly half the callers pleased with the all-talk format.
Fullerton says the new boss is allowing him to retain some creative control. “We’re just starting to play around with it, and we’re allowed to play around with it.”