After 18 Years of Conservative Talk, Radio Pioneer Closes Shop

Just weeks ago, the radio station that pioneered the tremendously-popular conservative talk radio format announced it was switching to a "classic hits" music station, thus ending a groundbreaking near-20 years of conservative talk.

In 1992, Seattle's 570 KVI picked up a rising radio star by the name of Rush Limbaugh to run a political talk show amidst the station's daily broadcast of 50s hit music. The show became an instant success, and the station proceeded to fill the slots around Rush with other conservative talkers, including Mike Siegel, John Carlson, and Michael Medved.

Success breeds competition, and soon other stations had created their own lineups of talk radio hosts. KVI couldn't keep up, and announced earlier this month the switch to a music format.

Throughout its years broadcasting conservative talk, KVI had a real impact on the political conversation. Former KVI talker John Carlson wrote in the Weekly Standard:

I used the airwaves to advocate for America’s first Three Strikes, You’re Out law, which passed in 1993, before migrating to California and many other states. Siegel helped qualify a ballot measure to limit state spending, which passed that same year

In July 1994, Hillary Clinton came to Seattle to rally for health care reform at Westlake Park. It was a disaster. She arrived to a crowd of about 700 supporters – and nearly a thousand boisterous counterdemonstrators, courtesy of KVI and its evening host, Kirby Wilbur. The first lady comically distorted the event in her memoirs, saying her safety was in danger, but the only thing imperiled at that now famous rally was the “Health Care Express.”

A state version of Obamacare passed in 1993 but with encouragement from KVI hosts, it was largely dismantled over several years (a lesson for the new Congress). Dozens of candidates over the years were helped or hobbled because of how they came across on the station’s airwaves. And many worthy charities, including Make-A-Wish, Toys 4 Tots, the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, homeless shelters and especially causes to support the troops were lavished with air time and fundraising support.

And as with any successful political force, KVI garnered its share of foes. Some even did their best to silence the station's voice,

In the summer of 2005, following a nine-cent increase in the gas tax, Kirby and I encouraged people to support an initiative aimed at repealing it. 250,000 signatures were required in 33 days; more than 420,000 people signed it.

Even though we weren’t part of the campaign, gas tax supporters convinced a local judge that our advocacy was essentially in-kind advertising, and was subject to disclosure requirements. In the state of Washington, disclosure law limits donations in the last 20 days, which conceivably could have gagged us from talking about it. George Will cited it as another example of the left trying to regulate away inconvenient free speech. The case went up to the State Supreme Court, where KVI and free speech prevailed, 9-0.

The lesson from KVI's 18 years in the business of conservative talk? Wrote Cartson: "The station with Rush is the leading conservative voice in that market. Period."

But more than that, KVI demonstrated the power and popularity of conservative ideas. The talk radio medium continues to thrive and to influence the national debate. The movement created in Seattle in 1992 established one of the country's only significant political alternatives to the mainstream press.

So if you're listening to talk radio today, keep KVI in your thoughts. It really is where it all began.