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Hundreds of liberals rallied Tuesday night to protest Clear Channel Radio's decision to ax a popular progressive radio station, urging the company to back away from a planned format change to sports Jan. 1.

Local activists, politicians and business owners said the Texas-based radio giant's decision to replace its highly rated progressive talk station with Fox Sports Radio simply doesn't make sense. They said the station, known as The Mic, provided a voice for progressive causes and helped inform the public in a city long known for its liberal views.

"This can't happen. The airwaves belong to us and we will take them back," said Valerie Walasek, a 28-year-old listener who organized the rally that filled the High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave., to its capacity of 400 people. She said more than 5,000 people had signed an online petition asking Clear Channel to reconsider.

Former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin threatened to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission against Clear Channel's local stations in the coming years if the company didn't "tear up its contract with Fox Sports."

"For every ounce of energy we put into it, we can create a pound of aggravation for them," he said. "The secret is convincing them that's not the way to go. That's what we got to do today."

\ Not backing down

But so far, the company shows no signs of backing down from the planned format change.

The company's market manager in Madison, Jeff Tyler, said too many advertisers stayed away from 92.1 FM because of opposition to the 2-year-old format, which mixed nationally known liberal talkers such as Al Franken with local hosts who discussed everything from city politics to animal rights.

The station is making money but has consistently ranked dead last out of 14 Madison stations that report earnings, Tyler said, noting that liberal talk has faced similar problems nationwide. Air America Radio, the progressive talk and news network that provided some programming to the Madison station, filed for bankruptcy protection in October.

Terry Kelly, a Madison businessman and an investor in Air America Radio, said the Madison station was one of Air America's highest-rated affiliates in the country. He said he doubted the timing of the announcement -- just three days after the Nov. 7 election as the left was celebrating electoral victory -- was a coincidence.

He acknowledged Air America's financial problems but said the company was close to finding new financing.

Tyler said the format change on WXXM will answer a growing demand for high school and UW-Madison sports coverage and feature highly rated sports personalities Jim Rome and Dan Patrick.

"Madison is a sports town in a sports state," he said.

Jack Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin journalism professor who had a 30-year career in public radio, said he doubted the left's attempts would sway Clear Channel.

"The backlash doesn't prove anything more than the ratings did: There are a lot of people that like the station," Mitchell said. "People in Madison think they can make a difference, but they may be disillusioned."

\ High ratings

The station had the second highest ratings in Madison for news talk and the 11th highest in the market overall over the summer, according to Arbitron, Inc., a media research company. That means about 30,100 listeners in a media market of 468,800 tuned in during any given week.

The top-rated news talk station, WIBA-AM, features a mix of straight news and conservative talkers.

National hosts featured on The Mic have joined in the outrage. Ed Schultz, a Fargo, N.D.-based progressive talker whose daily show is heard on more than 100 stations, blasted Tyler on the air for what he called a failure to turn high ratings into ad sales.

"This is not a ratings issue because the station is No. 1 in Madison. It's an issue of management," he said. "Instead of changing the format, maybe we ought to change Jeff Tyler."

Tyler said the company was exploring ways to continue progressive talk in Madison, including picking up liberal hosts on one of its other five local stations.

"Our company sales team embraced the station, the format and enthusiasm we all had for the station and its role in our community," he said. "However, there are many advertisers, local and national, who have been at conflict with the programming or stay away from controversial programming."

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