It looks like Air America is about to lose one of their best on-air personalities, Marc Maron. There's been no official announcement, but on his show, Morning Sedition, Maron has repeatedly said he's probably on his way out. And yesterday he said it's unlikely he'll be part of the Morning Sedition air team (with radio veteran Mark Riley) after this month. And they're promoting their live remote at O'Neal's in the Upper West Side this Thursday as their "last live appearance."
Why would Maron leave? Or why would Air America let go of the funniest guy on their talent roster? Best guess-- deadlocked contract negotiations.
When Air America went on the air over a year and a half ago, a lot of us in radio were dismayed that a new talk network would go on the air with so many air personalities and writers who made their mark in television instead of radio. Not that media cross-pollination in general is such a bad idea, but just that when a start-up radio network was trying to do something SO new (a national liberal talk network) AND they were also attempting to reinvent the medium at the same time by leaning so heavily on TV talent instead of loading up the schedule with radio veterans.
The big exceptions were South Florida's leftist talk bulldog Randi Rhodes who's held down the late afternoon slot since the beginning, and then a few months later acerbic career talker Mike Malloy who was tacked onto the late night end of the schedule. Those programs were the only ones done in the traditional talk radio manner-- one host on the air brings up issues, vents, and takes calls. All the other shows were more experimental-- with multiple hosts, many guests, and only a few (if any) calls. And all these programs featured one or more hosts best known for their work in TV or film.
Air America's biggest experiments were their two morning shows, both featuring teams of three hosts-- "Morning Sedition" and "Unfiltered." Morning Sedition came into its own after one host left the show (more on that in a minute). But Unfiltered only survived the first year. Two of the hosts, Rachel Maddow and Public Enemy's Chuck D now have their own programs (Maddow's early early morning show which now runs from 5 to 6 a.m. is a tight and timely review of the news well worth a listen). But the third other co-host Lizz Winstead (who was also one of the key programming-creative figures at the dawn of the network) is gone. Best known as one of the creator's of TV's "The Daily Show," Winstead was the biggest architect of the "television-vision" for Air America. And now she's in the middle of a lawsuit to claim unpaid wages from the network. While I don't know the details as far as which side seems to be in the right, the filing of the suit revealed that they were paying Winstead a quarter million a year for her services. And you wonder why they're having money troubles...
Oh and speaking of television, Unfiltered was replaced by TV crapmaster Jerry Springer. It's easy to forget that Springer was a politician before he became the host of one of the most inane hours in television. His Air America talk show is a serious one featuring his heartfelt leftist views on political issues. However, it is BORING. It's traditional talk radio run by a host who has no understanding of the medium. It's so boring that I don't have anything more to say about it, except to hope it's not long for this world. It's a waste of valuable radio frequencies across the country. And let's hope they're not spending a lot of money to keep Springer's big name on the schedule.
If you're talking to someone unfamiliar with talk radio or leftist media and mention "Air America," they likely won't know what you're talking about. Then tell them it's that new talk network with Al Franken, and then they'll probably recall hearing something about it. Best known as a TV writer and comedian, Franken has become a political media superstar. He's just finished another lefty book sure to rise up the best-seller list, and seems to be headed toward a U.S. Senate run in 2008 in Minnesota.
His mid-day show has been the flagship show for the fledgling network since its inception. Teamed with public radio's Katherine Lanpher, Franken's program settled into a groove pretty quickly as a breezy political talk show with plenty of writers, researchers and politicians discussing the issues of the day. And of course, there's always heaping helpings of Franken style humor to be found in between the serious bits. However, despite his big name and notable accomplishments in the comedy realm, Franken's constant retelling of bad jokes and his just plain hokey sense of humor doesn't often make for cutting edge radio.
And what's worse, Lanpher has left the show and Franken seems to be floundering a bit without her there to keep the show on track and keep Franken's expansive ego in check. Franken now is using the technical and production staffers around him as comedy foils and it's a little painful to hear. That said, his appearance on Letterman the other night was quite funny and almost electric. It all made it painfully obvious that Franken's charisma doesn't translate well to radio or the long form medium of a three hour talk show. And how will he fare on the campaign trail? Or on the Senate floor? You gotta wonder.
Which all gets me back to the subject at hand, Marc Maron. If you happened to see the excellent and insightful HBO documentary on the beginning of Air America, "Left of the Dial," you saw the good and bad of Mr. Maron at the dawn of his radio career. Previously Maron had been a stand-up comic (and author) best known for his appearances on cable and late night talk TV. Painfully neurotic and unsure of himself, Maron is seen in early scenes in the film as someone out of his element, having no idea how to navigate three hours of radio five days a week, as well as having to adjust to working pre-dawn hours every day. And in the beginning Morning Sedition show was a mess, with three separate personalities trying to find some kind of chemistry. Just to hear all three of them conduct an interview or take a call kinda hurt.
And it was plain to hear (and see in the documentary) that there wasn't a lot of love between Maron and one of this co-hosts, Sue Ellicott. A former BBC TV commentator (and frequent panelist on the NPR comedy show abortion known as "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me"), Ellicott didn't have much of a stomach for Maron's fast-paced acid humor. My favorite line in the whole movie occurs when the show is live and Ellicott tries to smooth out and "balance" something Maron had said in an interview-- and Maron fires back: "Who's side are you on British Lady?" Perhaps more than Randi Rhodes' first-day slap fight with Ralph Nader, that moment was a telling blow that Air America was going to be nothing like the limp-wristed and neutered political coverage of NPR. Thank god.
Since Ellicott has left the show, the partnership of Marc and Mark has gained fame and followers across the country. Each local remote appearance is packed with fans. They're a good team. Co-host Mark Riley's decades of newsroom experience grounds Maron's scattershot rants, and his "everyman" quality makes him the perfect straight man for Maron's rabid wit. And then you have some solid wacky writers (including comedian-writer Kent Jones who adds his stable of characters and impersonations into the mix), and the end result is a dependable helping of news and chuckles in every show. It's a radio program that offers up-to-the minute information, historical context, and wild-ass funny bits. And any moment can yield an impromptu dose of Maron's off-the-cuff self-obsessed rambling about his life. Somehow, it's about as good as morning radio gets in this era of incompetent and malevolent governance. It would be a shame to lose it.
Unlike anyone else on Air America (including Franken), Maron slams the idiocy and evil of the Bush administration AND makes you laugh at the same time (which isn't easy). If you can imagine combining the indignant anger of Mike Malloy (without the froth) with the dark comedy of Bill Hicks and the over-the-top irreverence of Andy Breckman, you get an idea of Maron's talk radio persona. Air America has grown a real radio talent with Maron, and while nobody on the outside seems to know the exact details of why they may soon part, you'd have to hope that Air America wouldn't let loose one of their best on-air assets at this point in the game.
You don't have to look far on the internet to find the details of the money troubles Air America has had since the very beginning. And Maron had a fairly successful career before Morning Sedition, and one would think that the radio show has probably given that career a boost. He also has a long-distance marriage (to his wife in California) because he has to be in New York for his Air America duties. If he's holding out for a healthy sum, it's easy to understand why. Maron has become a valuable asset to the network, and must he know that. One can only imagine what they pay Franken, and it's assumed that he's probably only going to be around for so long anyway. Air America should invest in their future, if they want to have one.
If you're not familiar with Morning Sedition or Maron's radio efforts, have a listen to some MP3 bits from yesterday's show. It ain't the funniest one I've ever heard, but hey it's fresh.
Here's Maron discussing possibly leaving the show:
And here's some comedy bits from yesterday's program:
And here's yesterday's show in full, without commercials.
Morning Sedition 10-31-05- MP3
And if you're not up early in the morning, or you can't hear Air America where you live, you can download Morning Sedition (without ads) every day right here, and even easier, you can podcast it with links from this page.
Maron is now saying that he may occasionally be part of Morning Sedition in some small way, and he occasionally hints that there's some small chance he'll remain as co-host. But it's important to remember, even if you love the host of any show or love the station that carries it, radio is really a cutthroat business. It's rare that a radio personality remains on the air when contract negotiations are failing. And you can hear in Maron's on-air discussions of the matter that he's being very careful about what he says, and what he doesn't say. If you piss off the boss and you're on your way out, you're likely to be off the air in as soon as they can drag you out of the studio. It happens all the time.
Ongoing online conversations regarding Marc Maron leaving Air America can be found on the Morning Sedition Blog, or the Morning Sedition Message Board. An online petition to keep Marc Maron on Morning Sedition can be found here, and the official email address to plea for Maron's survival at the network belongs to the Air America CEO, Danny Goldberg (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Air America is not Clear Channel, and they undoubtedly have some hard financial choices to make, at least for a while. However, there's a couple of weak shows in their lineup that are just ripe to be plucked from the schedule and replaced with something else. But Morning Sedition isn't one of them. And while Riley is a real radio talent with more experience than almost anyone else on the air at the network, it's the manic magic of Marc Maron that keeps people listening every morning. Let's hope Air America figures that out before it's too late.