With BlogTalkRadio, the Commentary Universe Expands

Alan Levy's BlogTalkRadio, which began in 2006 and is averaging 2.4 million listeners a month, allows people to host their own radio shows online.
Alan Levy's BlogTalkRadio, which began in 2006 and is averaging 2.4 million listeners a month, allows people to host their own radio shows online. (By Steve Garfield)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

The press wasn't paying much attention to John McCain last fall when he called Ed Morrissey from the campaign trail and spent 38 minutes fielding questions.

"You sound pretty chipper for a dead guy," the radio host told McCain, whose presidential campaign had been all but buried by mainstream journalists. The Arizona senator joked that his wife had performed "mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."

The radio show McCain was calling isn't heard on the air, and averages perhaps 1,000 listeners. Morrissey's program is one of 3,400 carried on the Internet through an outfit called BlogTalkRadio, which has quietly emerged as a populist force in cyberspace.

"I wouldn't say I'm a national name, but it's a great way to connect with blog readers," says Morrissey, a conservative who has interviewed other GOP candidates. "There's an immediacy to it, a connection greater than when you're just putting words up on a Web site."

A year and a half after New Jersey businessman Alan Levy launched the venture, BlogTalkRadio is averaging 2.4 million listeners each month for programs that range from politics to the paranormal, along with sports, finance, food, religion and romance. The Pentagon recently started two shows on the network.

The question is whether this is a flash in the pan that appeals mainly to geeks and those with a need to talk to someone -- anyone -- or whether, like blogs, online radio could explode in popularity.

Most shows are hosted from home by bloggers who need no special equipment and pay no fee. The only requirement is that they put a link to the program on their Web site. On BlogTalkRadio's site, visitors can search for programs by name or category.

The process is nearly idiot-proof. The host logs on to a Web page with a password, types in when he wants the show to air, and then -- using a garden-variety phone -- calls a special number. The computer screen lists the phone numbers of guests or listeners calling in, and the host can put as many as six on the air at once by clicking a mouse. Listeners can download a podcast version later.

"It's a great tool," says James Boyce, who blogs at the Huffington Post and recently took a break from his online show to work for Bill Richardson's presidential campaign. "There's no barrier to entry. You set up your own show with simple-to-use technology." Boyce helped BlogTalkRadio launch a liberal channel but says conservative shows have become more popular: "The left is kind of behind a little bit right now."

Valencia Roner, a Los Angeles freelancer who writes a blog on the views of black women, was wary when she started a weekly show in January. "I was a little intimidated because I didn't want to get on and sound crazy," she says. But after being a guest on other blog radio shows, she decided to give it a shot. Her program is now drawing about 20,000 listeners each week.

"There are a lot of beautiful, well-read, articulate African American women who are not angry, and I want to be their face," the former corporate marketer says. "Why should political pundits, who are mostly white men, talk about the black community's perspective? You're not black; how do you know?" Roner, who attributes her early popularity to her enthusiastic backing of Barack Obama's candidacy, has had nibbles from local and satellite radio stations.

Some better-known people are also gravitating toward the outlet; former CNN correspondent Bob Franken recently started a show.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company