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During a fraught time for local media, B-N's conservative radio station sees an opening

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Cities 92.9
The Cities schedule includes a local weekday morning show, plus several local shows on the weekend. The station touts it has “most local talk shows in Bloomington-Normal.”

On the surface, it was a very typical radio interview: A Cities 92.9 reporter asking Bloomington City Council member Nick Becker for his perspective of the cost of Bloomington Public Library’s expansion project.

But during that 18-minute interview over Thanksgiving weekend, that reporter, Catrina Petersen, also played the role of pundit and opinionated talk show host. Listeners heard not only Becker’s views on the expansion, but Petersen’s too.

“I have major issues with the Bloomington Public Library right now, and I’d would much rather not spend one cent,” Petersen said. “Taxation, to me, I think, is theft.”

This blend of local news reporting and opinion—often from the same person—has become the hallmark of Cities 92.9, Bloomington-Normal’s conservative talk radio station. The station is playing an increasingly prominent role in the local media and political ecosystem in Bloomington-Normal, thanks in part to its investment in local newsgathering and shows, rather than relying only on nationally syndicated programming. That’s happened after significant staff reductions at The Pantagraph and the main local talk radio competitor, WJBC.

But that same local pivot has also opened the station up to criticism that it’s veered too far to the right in an increasingly purple McLean County. Recent moves by Cities have cost it at least one advertiser, and one local school superintendent has stopped giving interviews to the station over concerns about the fairness of its reporting and how that reporting is fused with activism.

Nationally, the right has built its own media operation—first with Fox News, and now with conservative podcasters and next with former President Trump’s new social network. Local media may be next.

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Cities 92.9
Cities 92.9 hosts Catrina Petersen, right, and Ty Smith.

“There’s so much media available these days,” said Steve Vogel, a Bloomington-Normal journalist and author who spent over 20 years at WJBC, before moving to State Farm. “And people—unfortunately, I think—tend to gravitate to the space that’s occupied by their own tribe to get their information. Even if they suspect that what they’re getting is more opinion than information.”

Conservative talk radio is not new in America, but it’s relatively new in Bloomington-Normal.

The king of conservative talk, Rush Limbaugh, actually aired on WJBC until 2007. That year, the station that would become Cities (WRPW) and two music stations were sold to Great Plains Media, who then turned WRPW into a talk station. They picked up Limbaugh’s show after its cancellation on WJBC. Cities was born.

Limbaugh and other syndicated conservative hosts, such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, allowed radio stations to make a lot of money cheaply, without having to invest in local hosts and local news, said Brian Rosenwald, a researcher and instructor at Penn who wrote the book, “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.”

However, Limbaugh’s death earlier this year and the rise of on-demand podcasts, among other forces, make it harder to print money off a 12-hour block of syndicated talk, Rosenwald said.

The smart stations, he said, will invest in local content, even newsgathering.

“Some of them are trying to experiment a little bit more with investments in their communities, because they understand that’s the key to saving the stations. People will listen to more commercials if you have a unique product,” Rosenwald said. “They can be community institutions, community forums.”

The Cities schedule includes a local weekday morning show, plus several local shows on the weekend. The station touts it has the “most local talk shows in Bloomington-Normal.”

Earlier this year Cities added Petersen, a former WGLT intern. She splits her time as a reporter, producer and show host. Tom Davis is listed as news director on Cities’ website, although he now lives out-of-state and works remotely. Davis did not respond to requests for comment.

Influencing the debate

It’s hard to quantify the growth of Cities’ audience in the past year. Twice-a-year radio ratings show Cities is tied for 10th in the Bloomington-Normal market, with fewer listeners than pop music stations and competitors like WJBC and WGLT. But radio ratings are famously unreliable in midsize markets like Bloomington-Normal, where sample sizes are smaller. Cities’ social media accounts have only a fraction of the followers as, say, The Pantagraph.

Yet Cities and its listeners have played a key role this year in stoking debates involving Bloomington-Normal schools—over critical race theory, mask mandates, school safety, and other issues.

One example: Cities encouraged its followers in advance to attend the District 87 school board meeting on June 9, asking them to “Join the national fight against indoctrination of our kids,” related to critical race theory. (CRT is an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in American institutions.) The speakers that night included Megan Zimmer, the general manager of Cities, and Cities weekend host Ty Smith, who is Black. Video of Smith’s anti-CRT comments went viral (one version had 4.6 million views), earning retweets from national Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Madison Cawthorn who called them “powerful.” Smith was invited onto Fox News. After the board meeting, Cities sent out a press release to Bloomington-Normal media to brag about making “national news.”

All of this despite CRT not being taught in District 87 schools.

“It feels very packaged, and the fact that it’s happening across the nation is the evidence we need that a lot of people are encouraging parents to get together and show up to board meetings and say these three talking points,” said Brandon Thornton, a teacher at Bloomington High School in District 87. “To me, that doesn’t feel like a real social issue, if you have to tell people, ‘These are three things you should be angry about.’”

Cities has also aggressively covered safety issues at Bloomington High School, reporting on several fights at the school this year. One headline read: “The Pandemic In District 87: Violence.”

Thornton said school safety is an important, legitimate issue, as evidenced by the recent arrest of a student who brought an unloaded gun to school. But Cities’ approach, including the posting of in-school videos of fights, is simplistic, unfair and makes the job of teaching even harder, Thornton said.

“It just seems like they’re trying to rile people up to get listeners. And it works. It’s a very effective tactic unfortunately,” Thornton said.

District 87 leaders have taken notice. Superintendent Barry Reilly no longer gives interviews to Cities as a result of its coverage, WGLT has learned—a rare move by a high-profile public official.

Bus trip to the insurrection

Advocacy is not new for conservative talk radio, said Rosenwald, the Penn researcher. Republicans credited conservative talk for helping them win back the U.S. House in 1994 for the first time in 42 years, he said. Former Cities host Ian Bayne ran unsuccessfully for Bloomington mayor in 2017.

“It’s a unique political force in that their goal is to put on a good show every day. They’re not driven by politics as their primary motive. Especially when they’re picking up things in the community, or they’re passionate about something, they’ve always been willing to do advocacy for candidates and causes,” Rosenwald said. “Even Limbaugh, who didn’t do many guests, would tell people to get out and vote, and on Election Day would bring on big-time Republicans.”

Critics say this advocacy has occasionally gone too far.

Cities and one of its hosts, David Paul Blumenshine, organized a trip to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally that turned into the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Blumenshine was a Normal Town Council candidate at the time and had previously ran for the Statehouse. The rally was built on false allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Cities hosted its Freedom Fall Fest on Oct. 30 at Tipton Park on Bloomington’s east side. The station posted a video on its Facebook page of a far-right speaker at the event who claimed to be at the doors of the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The speaker urged support for a “Tactical Civics” approach to seize power.

“There’s a myth that people say that violence is never the answer. I’m sorry to tell you: Violence is always the answer,” the speaker said.

Cities has since deleted the Facebook video of his remarks. But the owner of a Bloomington-Normal business who advertised on Cities saw the video and in response opted to pull his ads from the station. He asked WGLT to withhold his name for this story. The advertiser said he was concerned by Cities’ decision to offer unfiltered footage of such extreme remarks.

“It was just the posting of the raw feed. It felt like Cities was condoning what they were saying,” said the business owner, who has continued to run his ads on the two music stations that are part of the same ownership group. “I can’t associate with that kind of rhetoric.”

It’s true that Cities has veered more into activism that it has previously, said Steve Suess, who hosted a weekly show on Cities and teaches radio in the School of Communication at Illinois State University, where WGLT is also based. Suess left his Cities show on friendly terms.

"There was a large number of people who felt that their perspective wasn’t being represented elsewhere."
Steve Suess, former Cities host

“But I don’t think activism is a bad thing,” Suess said. “I think that most radio stations, if they’re providing content that’s relative to the community, could be accused of the exact same thing. A story about an upcoming protest, or a protest that just happened, is a story that could be perceived as a story that’s encouraging activism as well.”

To be sure, other local media outlets do cover political activism but do not typically encourage involvement—one way or the other. Cities is an outlier there.

Cities is also an outlier in its approach to local news, in which reporting appears side-by-side with opinion content—with the two often blended together. Cities has broken accurate stories ahead of other media outlets, including the gun being found at BHS last month. At other times, it’s spread false information, including about COVID-19. A Nov. 5 article about Unit 5’s vaccination efforts quotes Superintendent Kristen Weikle, but wraps her comments in a widely debunked study that falsely claims that COVID vaccines can harm pregnant women and children. Cities’ website has also repeatedly plagiarized stories from other local media and even national outlets, including The Washington Post. (Compare this Cities story with this WaPo one.)

Suess posits that the pandemic has helped Cities (and other media outlets) raise its profile—that the government’s response has given it something to talk about.

“There was a large number of people who felt that their perspective wasn’t being represented elsewhere. And I think that probably helped Cities’ listenership and prominence in the community,” Suess said.

But it doesn’t take a novelty like the pandemic to increase the need or interest in the conservative talk format, said Michael Harrison, who runs the Talkers trade publication for talk radio. He said that view implies that conservative talk success is a sociological anomaly, that it’s not meant to be, he said.

“That misses the point that there’s a huge constituency in the U.S. for radio stations and personalities to express the conservative point of view. It is, in fact, a real school of thought. It is a real, large segment of the population. And from a radio station programming strategy point of view, it’s a very, very achievable, attainable target audience.

“Because whereas liberals may vote for the Democratic Party, they may not have the same other aspects of their personalities and interests to be a cohesive target for a radio show,” Harrison said. “Whereas card-carrying conservatives are more of a homogenized group and are much more targetable by radio.”

‘Doubled down on the conservative message’

The long-term strategy at Cities is unclear. Megan Zimmer, the station’s general manager, initially agreed to an interview for this story but later became unavailable. She sent a statement instead.

“(Recently) Cities specifically doubled down on the conservative message we have always broadcast. Freedom is the primary theme shared by all of our hosts,” Zimmer wrote. “In a time that many consider unprecedented government overreach and obvious censorship, the message of freedom that we broadcast is more important than ever.”

The station is owned by Jerry Zimmer, a second-generation radio broadcaster who lists an address in Tennessee, where he also owns a group of stations in Cookeville, according to FCC records. He has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Republican causes in recent years, including the Trump presidential campaign and Republican National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While ripe for talk, the pandemic has been tough on the local media business. Zimmer’s Pilot Media (under which Cities operates) has been helped by over $300,000 in PPP loans, according to ProPublica’s database of PPP recipients. Many media companies have received PPP loans, and WGLT itself is also supported by public dollars through the state and federal governments.

Conservative political candidates have taken notice of Cities. Political advertisers this year have included Becker, the city council candidate; Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe; and former Normal mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli, according to the station’s FCC filings. State Rep. Dan Brady and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, both Republicans, have also advertised on Cities, among others.

Scott Robbins hosted a local morning show on Cities for years. He left on good terms earlier this year to work on his syndicated program, which airs nightly on Cities.

Robbins said Cities struck a chord with listeners who felt they were alone and not well served by the “far left media.” It turns out there were a “lot of people out there who think like we thought,” he said.

And what about the blending of local news and opinion to the point they’re one and the same?

“Does anybody care? Other than people working in the industry?” Robbins said. “We’ve blurred lines on everything. The lines were blurred a long time ago.”

Suess, the former weekend host, said Cities has an unfair reputation of only broadcasting conservative views. Suess is a local and statewide Libertarian Party leader, and he said his Cities show often focused on issues well outside the mainstream conservative perspective.

“I was never once told to alter or change the content I was providing,” he said. “Cities does a good job giving a platform to opinions that don’t have a platform elsewhere.”

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