November 9 - November 15, 1995

Tuning Out

ABC Squelches Jim Hightower.

B y  E r i c  A l t e r m a n

THE BIG QUESTION," says former talk-radio host Jim Hightower, is, "is talk-radio going to talk only about what big money wants discussed? Well, one thing that big money sure doesn't want discussed is big money." Not on the ABC Radio Network, anyway. Hightower's show was canceled as of September 22.

A genuine populist, Hightower was the left's best hope in the talk-radio wars. Unlike the rest of us pointy-heads, Hightower speaks American. Rooted in the subculture of the Texas farmer, he is willing to oversimplify and hyperbolize to make a larger point. He is also funny, a rarity on this side of the political divide. The fire-breathing former Texas Agriculture Commissioner and editor of The Texas Observer had a chance to build a Rush-like constituency of the left. Hightower had been slowly nurturing an audience since May 1994. He referred to Newt Gingrich as a "slimy salamander" and Orrin Hatch as "a lowlife, butt-kissing industry hack."

He regularly broadcast a "Hog Report" to focus listeners' attention on direct links between corporate contributions and Republican sweetheart legislation and tax giveaways to these same corporations. Hightower advised listeners, "Don't just get agitated, get to agitating," and at the end of every hour he offered the names of organizations to connect potential activists to sources. Despite a decided lack of enthusiasm on the part of ABC's advertising department, the show was adding stations, including, most recently, Oklahoma City and Denver. On cancellation day, it boasted 2 million listeners in 150 markets.

Frank Raphael, vice president of programming at ABC Radio Networks, flew out to Austin to give Hightower the bad news. The show was over, effective immediately; Hightower would not even be allowed to say goodbye. His contract was supposed to run at least until November 11, whereupon he would have had time to line up a new network. "It was, in a word," says Hightower, "chickenshit." (Hightower intends to continue doing his two-minute daily commentaries, which run on 77 stations a day, and hopes to get back on the air with a new sponsor.)

Raphael, who did not return my call, told Hightower the show was not producing sufficient advertising revenue. Hightower estimates the show had the opportunity to run perhaps $250,000 worth of union ads, which would have made it profitable, but ABC's Standards and Practices division would not accept ads from sources like the teamsters, because they constitute "advocacy." Ever since August's announcement of a Disney/Capital Cities/ABC merger, in fact, the "warm and fuzzy feeling" Hightower had gotten from the network cooled considerably. Immediately after the announcement, ABC stopped trying to sign up new stations for the show.

In his zeal to expose "global corporations and their puppets in Congress," Hightower didn't spare his own employers. He devoted part of one show to Disney's practice of replacing its full-time workers at Disneyland with contract labor, recruited in a homeless shelter, in order to ensure a "steady flow of very cheap, easily dismissable, homeless day laborers." In another August report, Hightower attacked ABC-TV for "bending down and kissing the toes" of tobacco giant Philip Morris after a Day One report on tobacco tampering brought on a libel suit and fears of lost advertising revenues.

Disney "big cheese" Michael Eisner promised to make ABC reflect "what this country stands for." When Charles Gibson interviewed him and Thomas Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC, upon the announcement of the Disney deal, Gibson asked his new bosses, "Where's the little guy in the business anymore? Is this just a giant that forces everybody else out?" Murphy replied, "Charlie, let me ask you a question. Wouldn't you be proud to be associated with Disney? ...I'm quite serious about this."

We don't need to be told anymore just how serious Disney can be.

This story originally appeared in The Nation.

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November 9 - November 15, 1995

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