Friday marked the end of an era in Tulsa radio with the departure of Michael DelGiorno from News Talk 1170 KFAQ. After nearly five years at the station, he is moving to WWTN, the top news/talk station in Nashville.
Many readers' brains may explode as they read the following sentence, but it's true nevertheless: Politics and public dialogue in Tulsa are better off for Michael DelGiorno's tenure here.
All told, DelGiorno spent 17 years in the Tulsa market, serving as program director and afternoon host at KRMG for nearly a decade, then as operations manager for Clear Channel's Tulsa stations and host of the morning show on KTBZ 1430 ("The Buzz").
At loose ends after parting company with Clear Channel and then working on State Sen. Scott Pruitt's unsuccessful 2001 run for Congress, in the spring of 2002, DelGiorno approached Journal Broadcast Group management with the concept for KFAQ's format, a talk radio station that would be, like the bulk of metropolitan Tulsa's population, unapologetically conservative.
While right-wing national talk show hosts were easy enough to find on Tulsa radio, local talk was dominated by John Erling, who delighted in poking fun at Tulsa's conservative Christians. Here is a market that repeatedly sent conservatives like Jim Inhofe, Steve Largent, and John Sullivan to Congress, that attracts students from around the world to attend two major charismatic Christian colleges, home to evangelical and charismatic megachurches, and hundreds of smaller churches with a conservative social and political inclination, but you'd never have known it by listening to local radio.
Until DelGiorno began to exploit the obvious. Just like some transplanted Tulsans discover fertile, virgin soil in untapped treasures (much as coffee table book author Michael Wallis discovered as he began cultivating interest in Route 66 with his "Mother Road,") there was a niche to be filled, and DelGiorno, a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist, persuaded Journal Broadcast Group to let him step in and fill it.
Where other attempted alternatives to Erling had come and gone -- like Ken Rank's valiant efforts on KAKC 1300 in the late '90s -- DelGiorno succeeded. He switched from afternoons to mornings in 2003, and swiftly moved past Erling in the ratings.
It was DelGiorno's passion in speaking about the issues and his ability to rally listeners to action that made the difference. Even those who disagreed with him found his show to be compelling listening.
As the Vision 2025 debate heated up that summer, for the first time the opposition to the establishment consensus had a 50,000-watt platform for their message.
And it was that aspect of the DelGiorno show -- giving a voice to people whose concerns had been ignored for years --that is his most significant legacy.
Community activists in north, east, west, south, and midtown Tulsa found out that they weren't alone in their frustration with the status quo, and through KFAQ, they started to find each other and support each other's issues.
Coalitions were born. The long ignored and less prosperous periphery of the city began to be heard. Friendships were formed across partisan and racial lines. It's telling that, during his final broadcast, DelGiorno singled out two African-American Democrats, Jack Henderson and Roscoe Turner, as the city officials for whom he felt the most respect and affection.
Issues like zoning and appointments to boards and commissions and airport management weren't on DelGiorno's radar when he began, but he could see the common thread of media bias and the use of government power to benefit the politically connected -- the daily paper's tardy acknowledgement of their significant ownership interest in Great Plains Airlines being a prime example.
Here's one way to quantify his impact: Since KFAQ was launched in May 2002, we've had two City Council elections, the only two (so far) in which the daily paper failed to get a majority of its handpicked slate elected. The 2004 election almost went the other way, but DelGiorno used his show to spotlight voter irregularities in Council District 3. The result was a court case, a new election, and Roscoe Turner back on the City Council.
I feel a personal debt to Michael: I first got to know him during the Vision 2025 debate.
After the vote, he asked me to come on the show on a weekly basis to track the implementation of Vision 2025. As the 2004 city elections approached, our visits expanded to include all aspects of local government.
Those weekly spots attracted the attention of then-UTW reporter G. W. Schulz, and his profile of me led to the opportunity to write this column.
I've often been asked whether his on-air persona is a pretense, a shtick to gin up ratings. For better or worse, Michael's personality, his demeanor, and his opinions never changed when the ON AIR light went dark. His passion for Tulsa was heartfelt -- it's his wife's hometown and the birthplace of his kids and was his own home base for a decade and a half.
DelGiorno often expressed his frustration with local leaders who seemed too pleased with themselves over half-measures and irrelevant initiatives while the big, basic issues -- crime and infrastructure -- continue to go unaddressed.
It was hard for him to have hope in the future of a city that put a priority on building new facilities when we can't afford to maintain what we already own. Why build a new arena and pocket parks and a jazz hall of fame when we can't field enough police officers, fix our streets, keep the expressway lights on, or put water in our pools?
At the state level, he saw the embrace of casino gaming and a state lottery as the first step toward Oklahoma becoming just like his hometown of New Orleans, with all the social dysfunction but minus the Old World charm. Perhaps he understood the risks better because of his own weakness for gambling.
Adding to DelGiorno's frustration with what he saw as a lack of political progress, personal pressures took a toll: A libel lawsuit by City Councilor Bill Christiansen (now in its 20th month, and the pretrial conference won't happen until July 30th), the year-delayed revelation of his expulsion from two Indian casinos in a single day, and the foreclosure on his home.
There had always been humor and playfulness to leaven the earnestness, but those qualities weren't evident much over the last year or so. He was ready to start over somewhere else.
Despite the continual pressure on station management to take him off the air, DelGiorno left on his own terms. His contract was due to expire at the end of 2007, but he had already been investigating other possibilities. In early April, after a visit to WWTN, he requested and Journal granted him an early release from his contract. Two weeks after he accepted the Nashville station's offer, he was doing his last Tulsa broadcast.
WWTN is the highest rated of the two talk stations in the Nashville market, despite the fact that its competition, WLAC, runs the top three syndicated talk shows -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. DelGiorno's hiring represents his new station's increased commitment to local talk. He's replacing the syndicated G. Gordon Liddy and Bill O'Reilly shows, increasing WWTN's local content from 8 to 12 hours daily.
DelGiorno may seem mild compared to his new stable mates. Morning host Ralph Bristol once hung up on John McCain when the senator seemed to be dodging his questions. Afternoon drive host Phil Valentine is legendary for leading the "Tennessee Tax Revolt of 2002," stopping efforts by a Republican governor and Democratic legislature to impose the state's first-ever income tax. Michael should feel right at home.
More and more drivers are tuning out traditional radio and tuning into narrowcast music stations or national talk shows on satellite radio or programming their own stations on their iPods. Local content may be the only way for analog broadcasting to compete, whether that means local politics or locally programmed, consultant-free music.
Wisely, KFAQ management's understands the value of local content. While the pioneer has moved on (still pulling arrows out of his back), the station remains committed to the mission of "Standing Up for What's Right" and to maintaining a focus on local news and politics.
If DelGiorno's detractors were celebrating at news of his departure, the party didn't last long. His longtime sidekick Gwen Freeman and former Councilor Chris Medlock are the new co-hosts of KFAQ's morning drive, ensuring a continuity of the station's point of view.
With Medlock on board, I would expect as much if not more focus on local and state issues. And unlike the competing news/talk station, KFAQ's format will continue to allow time to discuss issues at length and in depth.
DelGiorno could be frustrating. He would let passion get ahead of precision. It could be tough at times to get a word in edgewise. Thoroughly suburban in his outlook, he was never going to see eye-to-eye with me on the importance of a healthy urban core.
But Michael's time at KFAQ opened up the airwaves to voices and issues that never before got a hearing. Although it was time for him to move on, I'm thankful for his time here. Even if you didn't care for his manner or his take on social or religious issues, if you value the richer, broader, more open public discourse we now have in this city, you ought to be thankful, too.
To Whom Does the Mayor Answer?
It appears that Mayor Kathy Taylor is waffling on signing the ordinance annexing the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. After the measure passed 5-4, Taylor said that the Council "did the right thing for the right reason." So why, two weeks later, has she still not put her signature on the measure?
One possibility is that she's feeling pressure to veto from individuals who could help or hinder her climb up the political ladder.
If that's so, it's disappointing. Although I didn't support Taylor's election, she had a reputation for decisiveness, and I hoped that a mayor with plenty of her own money would be insulated from the financial and social pressures that afflict politicians of more modest means.
Her first instincts were sound: The Council had the benefit of a great deal of financial analysis by administration and Council staff and came to the conclusion that it was good for the City of Tulsa and would not harm the interests of Tulsa County government.
In addition to the five voting in favor, two more councilors indicated that the economic case supported annexation, although constituent concern aroused by the fair board's prophecies of doom kept them from voting "yes."
While a mayoral veto might endear her to County officials -- at least until the next time they regard a City initiative as a threat to their interests -- it would alienate five councilors who risked a considerable amount of political capital to do what they believe to be in the City's best interests.
The Mayor has until Friday to make her decision. I'm still hopeful that she'll make the right one.
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