My career in radio began with The Russ Belville Show on XM Satellite Radio when my ex-wife heard a radio ad on AM 620 KPOJ in Portland. It was mid-2006 and liberals were excited about Air America, a progressive radio network organized to compete against the conservative AM talk radio juggernauts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. KPOJ was the most-powerful (50,000 watts) and most-listened-to progressive talk radio station in the nation at that time.
The Jones Radio Network (not affiliated with Air America, but with shows like “The Ed Schultz Show” that were syndicated to those stations) was holding a contest called The Search for the Next Great Progressive Radio Talk Star. The winner would receive a yearlong contract to host their show on the competing radio stations, as well as XM Satellite Radio. Contestants would submit a two-minute audition of what their radio show would sound like to be considered.
My ex-wife told me about the contest, then proceeded to hound me about it until I finally succumbed to her pressure. The day before the deadline, I hurried into the studio where we produced Oregon NORML Presents (our cable access TV show) and cut together a two-minute audition that parodied Bill O’Reilly’s annual claim of a progressive “war on Christmas.”
My audition for The Russ Belville Show on XM Satellite Radio won out of all the entries submitted to KPOJ. That put me in a field with 22 other entries from the 22 other stations nationwide in the competition and 1 at-large internet entry. From those 24 contestants, judges selected eight quarterfinalists to compete live on The Bill Press Show, the number-one morning drive-time progressive talk show in Washington, D.C., and I was one of them.
The quarterfinals had us each riffing for one segment (12 minutes) of his two-hour live show. That show aired Saturdays at 6am in D.C., so I was up at 2am Portland time to be ready for the show at 3am. As fate would have it, I won in the quarterfinals, leading to a two-segment spot in the semi-finals the next week, which I also won.
The finals pitted me against Curtis Hannum, a fellow from Denver. The two of us were flown to D.C. and we competed live on The Bill Press Show on location at the Center for American Progress with a live audience of 300. We each three segments to work with. Despite being told to stay away from drug war issues, I made it the centerpiece of my three segments. I could not leave Washington without having spoken toker truth to prohibition power.
The gamble paid off. Two of the five judges, the ones with a sales background, chose Curtis. The two judges with a background in talent chose me. The deciding vote came down to celebrity judge “Big Ed” Schultz, a fast-rising progressive talk star who’d later end up with an MSNBC show, who decided that “when it comes down to talent and potential” he’d choose me.
Alas, the promised prize was not as advertised. Nobody running the content secured commitments from the participating radio stations to run the winners’ show. Thus, The Russ Belville Show on XM Satellite Radio only aired live on Saturday afternoons, and on replay Sunday mornings at AM 620 KPOJ. There was also no salary or assistance offered for the show — I performed it pro bono for almost two years. Finally, when XM Satellite and Sirius Satellite merged in 2009, they folded two progressive channels into one and axed half their talent, including me.
But that taste of radio turned me on to my calling in life. I was born to be a broadcaster. Soon, my experience in radio and status with Oregon NORML led to the opportunity of a lifetime: professional marijuana podcasting.
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