University of Montana graduate Aaron Flint wanted nothing more than to break into the Missoula market with his conservative-styled talk radio program. But Flint, 29, didn't anticipate that his personal success would come at the expense of Missoula's only progressive radio station.
After concluding a recent live broadcast from the Montana Farm Bureau convention in Missoula, Flint sits next to a dead microphone and spins the contentious format switch as something that's good for the community. "Voices of Montana" is the only statewide radio talk show, and Flint believes a Missoula audience will bring some balance to the traditionally right-leaning discussion. It's something he and his bosses at Billings-based Northern Broadcasting System (NBS) have discussed for months.
"[NBS President] Taylor Brown and [news director] Rocky Erickson and I have been saying we've got to get on the air in Missoula," Flint says. "Not just because it's a big market, but because we want to have a diverse picture of callers calling into the show. We need these voices in Missoula calling into the program, whether they're liberal or conservative. We pride ourselves on the fact that we're the only statewide talk show."
Loyal followers of Missoula's KMPT 930 AM couldn't have cared less about the reach of Flint's show when it came on the air last week. To them, the "Voices of Montana" program—and the station's abrupt switch—signaled another surprising setback for local progressive talk radio.
Steve Lindahl, marketing manager for KMPT parent company GapWest Broadcasting, says the station first discussed dropping its schedule of nationally syndicated progressive shows in July. That format generated consistently poor ratings since its launch over a year ago, he says, and advertising revenue proved similarly bleak.
"We're no different from any other company out there," Lindahl says. "We've had to lay off a lot of people this year, and when we have a radio station that's underperforming to that extent, we've got to do something."
GapWest spent the summer exploring other format options, including local and national sports coverage. Lindahl says he and station programmers settled this fall on a conservative talk format based on the financial success of similar stations under GapWest's umbrella.
"We have two conservative talk stations," Lindahl says. "One of them, KGVO 1290, is the second highest billing station in our cluster. The other one is in Hamilton and it bills $16,000 a month. KMPT was billing $3,000, and that doesn't even pay our power bill."
Lindahl credits the Missoula-based conservative show "Talk Back" featuring Pete Deneault and Peter Christian with KGVO's success. Comparatively, progressive radio is a tough market to break into for commercial stations, given the overwhelming popularity of Montana Public Radio on KUFM.
"The majority of progressive talk listeners listen to KUFM and it's very difficult to get that audience to listen to a commercial progressive talk station," Lindahl says. "No ratings, no revenue. And if you don't have advertising revenue you can't function."
But GapWest's decision has come at some cost to the station. Upon hearing that KMPT had killed its progressive format, Steve Corrick, a realtor with Prudential Montana Real Estate, pulled his on-air advertising. Corrick had been a political and financial supporter of the station for over a year.
"There's certainly a market for progressive radio in Missoula, and that's where I prefer to do my advertising," Corrick says. "If the company makes a decision for whatever reason that they're not going to continue that programming, no, I'm not going to advertise with them anymore."
Corrick says there's now "tremendous disparity" in the political voices offered on Missoula airwaves. Lindahl openly acknowledges the void, but explains the station's hands were tied. Since the format switch, Lindahl has personally returned over 100 calls from upset listeners. He's carefully justified the station's decision each time.
"I would say 98 percent of the people who called didn't like the decision," Lindahl says. "They don't like what I'm telling them, but they understand it. They're just really surprised at the fact that a progressive talk station doesn't perform better, doesn't have more listeners."
Despite the initial backlash, Flint remains hopeful that he'll make inroads with local listeners. He graduated from UM's journalism program in 2004 and, between two stints with the Army National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan, has worked in both television and radio. He took over as host of "Voices of Montana" in September, and believes he understands the Missoula market.
"Are we always going to agree with them? No," says Flint of Missoula listeners. "But to create an environment where somebody from Missoula feels just as comfortable calling in as somebody from Circle or Miles City or Libby is what we're looking to do."
Flint says the local liberal majority can easily isolate itself politically, but in an ideal scenario he'll break that habit.
"The bigger picture is that this is a chance, at least on our show, for those progressives in Missoula to be a voice statewide," Flint says. "Call in, be a part of the show. Get out of your Toyota Prius for just a second, just get mad and throw your coffee cup. Call in, get your voice heard and you'll be heard in Circle and Glendive and all these other places. Or you can just sit and whine about it."