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With BlogTalkRadio, the Commentary Universe Expands

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.

Levy, who runs two telecommunications companies that also service BlogTalkRadio, says he came up with the idea after his father's death, hoping to move beyond the memorial Web site he had set up. After looking at "the whole ecosystem of millions of people having a blog," he recalls thinking: "Wouldn't it be interesting if people could have their own radio show? Why should there be only one Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern? . . . You have all this talent with no place to go."

After the August 2006 launch, Levy began doing several shows a day himself. He had his headset on at home when his 12-year-old daughter walked in with a homework question and asked, "Who are you talking to?"

"No one," Levy replied. And for a time, that was largely true.

For the next few months, Levy e-mailed every blogger and commentator he could find. The concept spread by word of mouth. Some corporations, such as Sun Microsystems, joined up to webcast what are essentially in-house shows. Levy's company brings in revenue by inserting commercials into the programs, a portion of which is shared with the hosts -- as much as half if the host lines up the sponsor. But BlogTalkRadio remains in the red.

Unlikely stars have been born. Marla Cilley, known as FlyLady, dispenses home and lifestyle advice and has tapped into hundreds of thousands of fans on her Yahoo group. The offerings run the gamut, from "Bachelorette Angelique" to "Army Wives Talk Radio," along with "Feast of Fools," "Single Girls Sweat Club" and the "Pillow Talk Show." Celebrity guests, from Brad Pitt to Yoko Ono, have popped up on various programs.

Morrissey, a call center manager in the Minneapolis area who had done some unpaid weekend gigs on local radio, was an early skeptic. "Are people really going to listen to me?" he recalls thinking. "It was the same thing when I started my blog: Who's going to read this?"

He is now a true believer, drawing as many as 5,000 listeners for a big-name guest. In fact, Morrissey, known online as Captain Ed, doubles as customer relations chief for BlogTalkRadio. While he is taking calls during the show, he also types answers to 50 or so listeners who want to chat with him simultaneously online.

"I try to do it without stumbling over myself," Morrissey says. "I don't always succeed."

Levy sounds surprised that his little brainstorm has spawned thousands of programs. "I'm humbled, and my dad would be proud," Levy says. "He thought I was a little crazy."

Affairs of State

"It's not the kind of thing anyone likes to ask," Juan Gonzalez says.

The veteran New York Daily News columnist was talking about his sit-down with David Paterson and his wife, Michelle, hours after Paterson was sworn in as governor last Monday. Amid high hopes for the genial, legally blind man thrust into the job after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, who has not disputed allegations of patronizing prostitutes, Paterson and his wife acknowledged to Gonzalez that each had an affair several years ago. The columnist, who approached Paterson through an intermediary after getting a tip about a specific paramour, was "stunned" by the couple's candor. A phone discussion with Paterson the previous Saturday led to the interview in Albany.

"He knew some of this stuff was going to get out eventually," Gonzalez says. "He wanted to have his wife there to make clear she knew what was going on."

Since Gonzalez's scoop, Paterson has admitted to several other affairs, one of them with the head of the aptly named Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and the governor has reimbursed his campaign for some expenses related to the trysts. "I have to confess," says Gonzalez, "I was negligent in not saying, 'Have there been others as well?' "

Who's the Worst?

In his New York Times op-ed column last week, Bill Kristol, citing a conservative Web site, said Barack Obama had been at a July sermon in which his former pastor made some of his more inflammatory comments. After bloggers noted that Obama was off campaigning that day, Kristol ran a correction.

That night, on his MSNBC show, Keith Olbermann declared that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller should have fired Kristol. Olbermann went a step further, naming Keller his nightly "Worst Person in the World."

When I told Olbermann that Keller has no authority over the op-ed pages, he quickly acknowledged the error. The next night, in fact, he named himself a runner-up in the "Worst Person" competition. Now that's accountability!

Trick Play

When Sam Zell, the new Tribune Co. owner whose domain now includes the Chicago Cubs, said he might rename storied Wrigley Field, the rival Chicago Sun-Times started a "Zell no!" video contest.

The winner of the $1,000 prize, for a song parody titled "We're Not Gonna Change It": 22-year-old Cubs fan Katie Hamilton -- who, the Sun-Times belatedly discovered, works for the Tribune. The tabloid had to report that "the Sun-Times has been punk'd."

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