After nearly four years hosting “Local Edge Radio,” Blake Butler stepped down recently to pursue other projects. Co-host Lesley Groetsch, with whom he founded the show, left in 2011.
Despite the duo’s total lack of radio experience, Clear Channel Asheville gave them a Saturday show and eventually expanded it to five days a week during the coveted 3-6 drive time slot — making it one of only a handful of successful local progressive talk-radio shows in the country.
Butler, a former chair of the Buncombe County Democratic Party, says the show was hatched "on a whim" after he appeared on Matt Mittan's right-leaning talk show, which then ran on WWNC. “I said to myself, we need to have a local show that represents the other opinion: people who I know believe in some of the same things that I believe in," Butler explains. He went on to garner broader exposure, regularly filling in for Norman Goldman on his syndicated show.
Butler says he'll continue exploring national radio opportunities with Goldman, Bill Press and other friends in the business. But his main focus will be on building a public relations/governmental relations firm that will work on issue advocacy with local and state political candidates and elected officials. He also says he wants to run for office himself at some point, perhaps against Republican state Rep. Tim Moffitt.
Meanwhile, Vonciel Baudouin, a frequent guest on Butler’s show, is filling in while Clear Channel management looks for a new local show to fill that slot.
On one of Butler’s last days on air, Xpress turned the tables on him, conducting an exit interview. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Mountain Xpress: In the early days, the two of you had a lot of energy, a lot of creative excitement, but not much experience. Were there any memorable on-air disasters?
Blake Butler: Oh yeah, absolutely. We had our uncomfortable moments. Our first broadcast was rough, very rough, because we didn't have the flow down and we didn't know how to play off of each other. Probably the most interesting situation we got into early was covering a story on the "angry beavers" in Hot Springs. That was very, very difficult. It was one of those situations where we were told, "When you're covering a story, don't break up laughing too much." We had a lot of fun with that.
When Lesley decided to leave, it changed the dynamic. I didn't have anyone to bounce things off of anymore. So I was definitely disappointed, but I understood that she had to move on to a full-time job.
How were you greeted by Matt Mittan? And more recently, what has the relationship been like with his replacement, Pete Kaliner?
As soon as I got the call from Clear Channel, the first person I told was Matt Mittan, and he was happy. He knew my whole quest, to have a balanced voice from 3-6 in drive time, and he applauded that. I think we never really had run-ins with Matt and Agnes, because Lesley and I came in here without any experience and no egos, because we didn't know what we were doing.
Pete Kaliner is a different character altogether, because he's a libertarian. And how I want him to defend the Republicans, he refuses to do it. So sometimes it doesn't give me anybody to go after. But yes, I like Pete just fine.
You gave a lot of Republicans a hard time. Do you have any regrets? Do you think talk radio tends to create a sense of divisiveness? Or do you see it as more of a positive force?
I definitely think I've been divisive — and a positive force too. This whole game is about being divisive in the election cycle. And it's very difficult not to try to win political points each broadcast.
Thinking back, I got ahead of myself on the BP oil spill. That day, I immediately started, on air, calling for people to boycott BP and the stations here, and that was a mistake. I was upset with what the corporation itself was doing, but what I didn't realize is that I was hurting local business owners. And I regret that.
As far as being divisive, Hannity, Beck, Rush — I hear stuff coming out of their mouths that's like, wow, they want to launch some sort of civil war.
In what ways do you think you had a positive impact?
I think I was very successful in being a strong voice in the Amendment One discussion. …
If I think about the  election cycle, we had James Taylor, we had Stephen Stills. The list of celebrities we had on in that eight-week period was amazing. They were all here to talk about President Obama and his re-election effort. I was able to bring some of those big names onto this little local show, and that made me really proud.
Are you concerned about the future of talk and progressive radio?
Asheville is such a progressive stronghold. So when I walked in and wanted to do this show, even though they said "no" initially, the reason they called back three months later is because they probably sat around and said, "If there's anyplace you can launch a local progressive talk show in the South, it's Asheville."
So I think there's opportunity in certain markets, but the signal is limited. So a lot of the growth we've seen has been on iHeart Radio. And that's really the future of radio. … iHeart Radio, a lot of it is run by robots.
Local talk across the board is under fire. These local folks here have always fought for me. But there are situations where certain media conglomerates are just flipping the switch, and local stations don't have any choice in that. I'm not going to be that kind of victim.
I started this for the right reasons, and I'm ending it on a high note, for the right reasons. They've got the moneys here to launch a new local show, which I'm very excited about. But you look at what's happening with local talk, and this isn't just progressive, folks — this is also conservative. As there's more of a push to try to consolidate and syndicate, a lot of times that pushes the local voice out quickly.
Why are you stepping down now?
After four years, it was time for me to move on and pass the torch. I really sat down and thought about what I was all about personally. Knowing that I've spent the last four years complaining about some of the problems that exist, I thought it was time for me to roll up my sleeves and get involved.
This marks the first article in a series of Media Matters stories Xpress plans to publish looking at the local media landscape.