Front Page Feature About FTL (FULL)

Triple Threat
By Erik Maza, Staff Writer
Photo by Chip Litherland

In the age of the iPod and other digital audio devices, even talk radio is getting a makeover.

A local radio show created by Ian Bernard and Mark Edge and carried on 15 stations nationwide is riding the podcast phenomenon in a bid to win new listeners -- and already is proving successful.

Syndicated in such diverse cities as Indianapolis and Tallahassee, "Free Talk Live" is more than a typical political jabfest.

With its innovative, multiplatform approach to broadcasting, it could show the crotchety denizens of conventional talk radio how to cross the online frontier.

Since its creation in November 2002, hosts Bernard and Edge have built an online community that serves as an extension of their live radio show.

"We were podcasting before podcasting was cool," Edge said.

"Free Talk Live" was among the first to embrace the technology. Not only does the Internet offer visibility for rising radio shows such as this one, it also allows international audiences to tune in. Already, Bernard said, the show has attracted listeners in countries as far off as China and Australia.

The show is No. 2 on June's Top 10 list at podcastalley.com, a Web site that tracks podcasts. On iTunes' news and politics podcast page, "Free Talk Live" is nestled between such heavy hitters as National Public Radio and CNN.

In March, "Free Talk Live" was rated by the trade magazine Talkers in the top 250 most influential talk shows in the nation.

It's impressive, considering that libertarian duo Bernard, 25, and Edge, 35, have been syndicated only since 2004.

"They talk about things that traditional political shows are afraid to talk (about). They don't have an agenda or even a format, for that matter," said Chris McIntyre, creator of podcastalley.com.

From a small studio near Riverview High School in Sarasota, they produce a live three-hour radio talk show six days a week, a live stream show online, and a podcast, the archives of which are available on their Web site (freetalklive.com) and iTunes for free. In Sarasota, the show can be heard weekdays from 1 to 2 p.m. on WWPR (AM 1490).

In stark contrast to traditional talk radio, the hosts allow the listeners to set the course for the show.

The conversation could be all about politics, or it could be about National Masturbation Month. Recently, Bernard and Edge spoke with Jack Thompson, a nationally known lawyer, about obscenity in the media, and also to someone the hosts called "crazy Paula" about the end of the world.

Bernard says he wants to step away from the "right-wing, left-wing" paradigm of conventional talk radio.

The politics of the hosts are informed by libertarian principles -- a live-and-let-live philosophy that dispenses with government intervention.

In September, they'll start doing the show from New Hampshire, where they'll move for the Free State Project, a plan to have 20,000 libertarians in one state to influence local politics.

A native of Sarasota, Bernard is as opinionated and tenacious as some of his callers, delivering his putdowns with savoir faire that is equal parts geeky and sarcastic.

He started working in radio when he was 17 years old and eventually became a disc jockey at WTZB (FM 105.9, the Buzz) in Englewood.

At 24, he paid $15,000 to build the studio where he and Edge produce the show. "The show is my life. I eat, breathe, live 'Free Talk Live,'" Bernard said. "If you want to be successful in radio, you have to pay your dues up front. It's been a labor of love for the past four years."

During his time at WTZB he pitched the show to the general manager, who needed a program for his prime-time lineup. Within three weeks, he and Edge had increased the ratings from zero to a 1.6 share (which reflects the number of people tuned to a specific program and the amount of time they spend listening for an average 15 minutes).

Like a Paul Begala to Bernard's Tucker Carlson (of CNN's "Crossfire"), Edge is a more quiet on-air presence than his co-host, his speech peppered with nervous laughter and self-deprecation.

The show becomes contentious more often because listener and host try to talk over each other than because of the subject at hand.

In 1999, the general manager at Clear Channel-Sarasota saw Edge selling gym memberships and offered him a job. At 31, he became the youngest general manager at WIBQ (1220 AM) in Sarasota.

Despite their years of experience, Bernard and Edge give the impression of two overly serious high-school students having a good time at the microphones -- a certain aplomb that lends the show a younger profile.

Because today's young people didn't grow up with the radio as much as previous generations, Bernard said, the online community was the best way to reach them.

"It's one of the only radio shows that create content geared towards the podcast consumer," McIntyre said.

Podcasting means regularly putting audio files online in combination with a technology called RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, that automatically informs listeners of each new program.

The technology is especially popular not only because of the variety of podcasters, but also because listeners can download a podcast and listen to it whenever they want.

Because there are so many podcasts, word of mouth is crucial to success, McIntyre said. It's through Web sites like his that Internet users discover podcasts based on other users' suggestions.

The message board of Bernard's and Edge's Web site already has 1,200 registered users, and the show is downloaded about 1,800 times a day.

Although some studies suggest otherwise, McIntyre said the audience is growing.

"We track shows that have more than 2 million downloads a day. Show me a traditional radio show that can do that," he said.

With so many media outlets vying for people's attention, radio shows have had to come up with new ways to attract audiences.

Although Edge said Rush Limbaugh has described this two-prong approach of syndicating and podcasting as "broadcasting to the cornfields," the Sarasotan said he thinks the use of innovative technology is the only way to reach young people.

"Rush doesn't know what radio is going to look like in 20 years," he said.

Unlike the conservative talk show host and other re-purposed radio shows, "Free Talk Live" also doesn't charge for its archives.

The cost of the show is small right now, about $150 monthly for basic utilities. All the donations from listeners -- about $1,400 a month -- are used for advertising.

Using the revenue from broadcast and online advertisers and from libertarian sponsors for the podcast, the radio show and the Web site, Edge said he expects the show to gross $10,000 a month by December of this year.

In June, he'll leave a job with a five-figure salary at SRQ magazine to sell advertising full time for "Free Talk Live."

"I do expect to make oodles of money in the future, but that's not the reason I do the show," he said. "I believe it's going to make it."

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