One doesn’t often think of vibrant local progressive talk radio, but that’s just what one station and its morning host has provided for several years in a key market. AM950, the Progressive Voice of Minnesota for more than a decade has served as a beacon for progressive radio success. And Matt McNeil, their morning talk show host, starts each day with a lively and engaging two hour show called “The Morning Grind” (from 6-8 a.m.) that caffeinates any liberal-minded listener for the rest of the day.
McNeil has built a loyal listener base for a variety of reasons: his focus on local issues; his research and knowledge about topics he discusses; daily guests who talk national, regional, and local issues; and his fearlessness commitment to truth-telling. McNeil is skilled at connecting dots for his listeners on national stories and how they play out at home.
For example, he has hammered multi-national corporations who continue to stash billions of taxable dollars offshore in what McNeil often characterizes as an illustration of the era of greed in which we now live. It wasn’t hard for him to highlight just what that looks like locally when Minnesota-based Medtronic recently announced its decision to merge with an Ireland-based company to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Medtronic announced, however, that its executive officers would continue to live in Minnesota. In a “down home” example of just what that looks like, McNeil suggested that if Medtronic no longer wanted to do business as an American company paying U.S. taxes, perhaps it was time to discuss whether city and state workers should plow the streets in front of Medtronic’s offices still in Minnesota or should the plow crews from Ireland be called in. Or that if the executive officers of Medtronic wanted the Minnesota Department of National Resources to cut down weeds that grow just off the docks of their lakefront homes, perhaps they should call the DNR of Ireland.
It’s not too difficult to find the exact point when a self-described “Minnesota Democrat” took a line-in-the sand approach to today’s Republican Party. “I’ve told this story before, McNeil said in a recent interview. “In 1992 I walked into the voting booth and I didn’t know if I was going to vote for Clinton or HW Bush. I may have even voted for a Republican in 2000 or 2002. But that all changed…after Iraq.” McNeil, an army veteran, speaks with first-person intensity about how George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives built a false narrative for the Iraq war. “Military troops are a brilliant thing; they will leave their blood on the beach; they will leave their lives for the fight for patriotism. What you don’t do is send them into harms way under false pretenses and that’s exactly what the Republicans did in Iraq.
“And when people try to tell me, ‘Well all the Democrats voted for it.’ I say yup that’s because they lied to us. And it was after that I said, this is the last time I will trust you (the Republican Party). If you’re going to lie about a threat for your own personal gain and put troops in harms way and kill just under 5,000 of them and permanently injured tens of thousands and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis…under false pretenses. You violated a basic code of trust.”
It was during his military service (early 1990s) in Germany that McNeil developed his training and love for radio, broadcasting on Armed Forces Radio. It could be safe to say radio broadcasting was “in his blood.” His great uncle was Cedric Adams, who for years was acknowledged as the “most recognizable voice in the Upper Midwest,” broadcasting on Minneapolis’ WCCO, a giant on the AM dial. After the Army, McNeil worked the radio station circuits throughout the Midwest honing his interviewing skills from Ames, Iowa to Bemidji, Minnesota, before landing back in his native Twin Cities working for Metro Traffic, Clear Channel, and Hubbard Broadcasting. In 2010 after Hubbard flipped to ESPN, McNeil found himself unemployed before he received a call from AM950 owner and founder Janet Robert. His career in progressive talk was off and running with an afternoon drive time show. Don’t live in the Minneapolis area? You can download the free AM950 SmartPhone Ap from the web site or stream live at am950radio.com.
It was in 2012 when Minnesota — still reeling from the impact of 2010 elections that turned its state legislature over to Republicans — faced state constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and to impose voter ID that AM950 decided to expand its local coverage. It bookended its national programming during the day with a local morning and evening program. McNeil made the shift to mornings and has been a steady feature since. For a variety of reasons, including strong progressive local radio shows, Minnesota turned back both amendments and sent a Democratic-controlled house and senate to DFL (Democratic, Farmer, Labor) Gov. Mark Dayton.
“I’ve always said that when you vote in a presidential election… really how many presidential decisions directly affect your everyday life? Maybe 2-3 in a four-year term?” McNeil said. “It’s not that the president doesn’t have power (or that those elections don’t matter), but the president is dealing with things on a much larger scale. Our daily life is like looking through the microscope…the president is looking through the telescope.
“For example, it’s pouring rain outside today,” he said as he pointed out the window. “I better hope that my water commissioner knows what he’s doing…that the city has taken care of the sewer lines and sewer systems. If school is in session and we have a natural disaster, I want to know that there’s funding there and that teachers and staff have been trained to know what to do. Your day-to-day life is more impacted by your local elections.
“I’m not a wonk but I care about local issues because it affects you. You should know who’s on your school board, who’s your county commissioner. You have to make those issues important ones, because they impact you.
“I love having a local show,” McNeil continued. “I never had the desire to have a morning show where I’m talking about my national outrage. I want to have a good conversation. It’s not about an agenda; it’s about the truth. I work in a radio industry where conservative radio can lie constantly and no one holds their feet to the fire. If I have one dotted “i” out of place, I get harped on and conservatives will use that as a springboard to rip me (and the show). I may not know where the conversation goes when I start the morning show, but I have to know enough about the issue we’re discussing to get the conversation started. That’s whether it’s a local issue like getting the Green Line started (light rail in Minneapolis and St. Paul) or if it’s national. It helps to read a lot,” he chuckled.
So, how does someone centered in the progressive talk radio world, see the state of progressive messaging and progressive talk?
“Progressive radio definitely has its challenges,” McNeil said. “You have to take a look back and see how we got here. During the Reagan years, they got rid of the Fairness Doctrine. When that was removed, we went from quality radio programs to ideology overnight. You used to have radio stations that were brilliantly diverse. The conservative gardener and the left-leaning sports guy were backing up each other’s shows. That all changed. You started seeing all conservative line-ups under the guise of ‘we need to give more variety’ and what it did was destroy that.
Then in 1996 (Telecommunications Act of 1996) the ownership rules opened up. You could now have one station in Minneapolis with conservative talk, but now it could be owned by a radio group with 500 conservative stations nationwide. Diversity was blown out the door. The narrative changed. I think it was an orchestrated play, but the problem was no one factored in the Internet.
“Now people can have access to the news — any news. Progressive news like Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and other outlets out there are unfiltered. But, no doubt there has been a concerted effort after 2012 to shut down progressive talk with Denver, LA, San Francisco, and others all going dark.”
And McNeil’s major concern echoes those of so many today: “I’m concerned where we are at as a country with so much concentrated wealth at the top that commands everything underneath it. You don’t have to go back to ancient cultures, you just have to go back to the 1880s-90s when a very few controlled tremendous swaths of money. It was oil, trains, cars, lumber, the most basic forms of our building blocks that build the country.
“Today, there is a Koch-fueled element that wants to take us back there, telling us ‘you’re lucky we allow you to exist.’ To change this there will have to be a major change in how elections and politicians are funded. There has to be a system that says you can’t become a lobbyist after your term in office. Too many in politics use it as a stepping-stone to lobbying and don’t care at all about their constituents. But it will take a Herculean effort to change things. We are still a long way from doing that and it has to start with grass-roots efforts. But I recently went to the Prohibition Exhibit at the History Museum and it was fascinating to see how quickly we went from a country that was drink, drink, drink to Prohibition. It really was just a matter of 10 years, and even if you look back to 1880s – and you think in 40-year span, it went from just starting to a constitutional amendment.
“I’m not advocating for a return to Prohibition, but a movement to change things today will take people who are not afraid—some candidate who’s going to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to take your money.’ We need publicly funded campaigns. If you did that it would become about the merits of the candidate and the platform. If it doesn’t it’s about who can buy the votes.”