A little over two years ago, talk radio legend Neil Rogers offered his appraisal of the impending launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network. "I wish them luck,” he said, “But I don't see it succeeding... Hard-core conservatives gather around the radio to listen to Rush. Liberals are too busy having a life for that."
Was Neil right?
Maybe. Maybe not. While it seems that liberal or “progressive” talk radio has a discernable future in AM talk radio, whether the network that brought the idea into the mainstream can survive is whole ‘nother question.
Air America was founded in a flurry of idealism born out of frustration. In fact, it’s safe to say that without the mass proliferation of right wing radio that burgeoned during the 1990's there never would have been an Air America at all. Air America was a reaction. A thoughtful one. However, much of the idealism has given way to damage control, inaction and a general spirit of compromise. Especially here in New York.
As Evan Davies mentioned on this blog a few days ago, Air America is losing their grasp on WLIB here in New York City. This story was reported as gossip in early April, and then denied by the involved parties until the other day. Now it’s true, and this is a HUGE disaster for the Network. They had a long-term lease with WLIB’s owners (Inner City Broadcasting Corporation), but apparently Air America screwed up somehow and Inner City took advantage of some clause in their contract and opted out of the whole deal. Oops. Wonder how that happened?
Money. It’s gotta be money. As documented in HBO’s “Left of the Dial”
(Available on DVD and worth watching, by the way), Air America jumped
out of the box with a rat CEO who quickly disappeared and left the
network in woeful financial straits. It’s a good guess that despite
minor victories and plenty of accolades over the last couple of years,
Air America has yet to prove itself as a profitable venture. The radio
grapevine here in New York has been ripe with tales of financial
hardship at the network for a long time.
When Air America launched, it was far from perfect as a product. But for talk radio listeners who were angered and sickened by profusion of right wing blabbermouths the event was exhilarating. And with the infusion of TV comedy types (especially Comedy Central vets) into the mix, Air America was immediately different and even entertaining at times. But that was 2004.
The creative team who lined up the initial talent roster (Shelley Lewis and Lizz Winstead) are long gone now. The first six hours of the initial Air America line-up were experimental in that they each featured three hosts who had never worked together, and only one of each trio had actually done radio before. The first few months were rough as both tri-ego programs attempted to find a balance and chemistry between the hosts themselves, and for each show to establish a rhythm and sense of itself.
Bottom line, one show gelled the other never did. “Unfiltered,” wasn’t a horrible program, but it was never a great one. Hosted by Winstead herself with Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Rachel Maddow, the only one left on the air at the network is Maddow who now hosts her own show from 7 to 9 in the morning. The dissolution of Unfiltered occurred at the beginning of former music exec Danny Goldberg’s tenure as CEO of Air America, and as his first major programming decision plugged the hole in the lineup with something truly awful-- “Springer On The Radio.”
However, as I discussed in the pages of this blog months ago, the other half of the grand morning experiment at Air America did gel. After a few months, the radio/TV comedy alchemy produced a totally unique and often hilarious left-wing talk show– Morning Sedition. Comic Marc Maron teamed with local NYC radio voice Mark Riley was a rollicking idiosyncratic chunk of fun every morning. Riley provided the grounding for irreverent and manic Maron, who grew into a powerful radio talent in the daily grind of putting out the show. Apparently, Mr. Goldberg wasn’t amused. His next big programming decision at the network was to dump Morning Sedition as well.
In it’s place, you get an extended Rachel Maddow show (which was doubled from it’s previous one hour configuration) and a trimmed down version of Morning Sedition WITHOUT Marc Maron. And just like Al Franken without his former co-host Katherine Lanpher, Riley is left to banter with his production staff. And that’s how Air America sounds in general– less inspired and a feeling that decisions are being made with financial desperation trumping the willingness to take risks or invoke any real creative changes in the programming or in the business model of the network itself.
And while Air America seems to be constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep its fledgling left of center radio network together financially, former Clear Channel CEO Randy Michaels has been working behind the scenes slowly laying the groundwork (and gathering capital) for his own “progressive” talk empire-- “Product First.” And in one bold stealth move, Michaels has suddenly gotten the upper hand and dealt a crippling blow to his competition by snatching away Air America’s flagship station, WLIB. Come September, WLIB will be under his control. What does this mean for Air America programming in New York? Good question.
Almost all the scenarios for Air America having a respectable presence in New York (the biggest radio market in the U.S.) after August are lousy. Even grim. There don’t seem to be any AM stations in New York with signals as good or better than WLIB that Air America are likely to be able to afford or convince to carry their programming. Not that WLIB is blowtorch, but they do cover the city and immediate area pretty well. And FM seems out of the question.
Then again, there is one obvious choice. They could STAY at WLIB, under the thumb of Randy Michaels.
The sneaky deal with Inner City is classic Randy Michaels. While he may have fallen from the highest position in all of radio, Michaels is still a force to be reckoned with. He’s high rolling wheeler-dealer motherfucker, and takes no prisoners. Before he was the head of Clear Channel, he ran a much smaller radio entity, Jacor Communications. At their peak, Jacor ruthlessly dominated four medium radio markets in the U.S. and were buying up more stations at a rapid pace. They also owned The Rush Limbaugh Show and Dr. Laura as well. And then when the company was absorbed by Clear Channel, Michaels and his Jacor gang actually TOOK OVER operation of Clear Channel.
Product First, or “P1" is the creation of Michaels and Stu Krane, who (get this) was involved in the national launch of the Rush Limbaugh program in the late 80's. And last year they put their progressive talk radio network on the map by purchasing the most popular left-wing show NOT on Air America-- The Ed Schultz Show. A bulky and boomy fellow who broadcasts out of North Dakota, Schultz is now on over 100 stations. A former right-winger who somehow went through some mystifying born again political experience, Schultz fashions himself as a manly progressive. He makes a point of bragging about his affection for guns and meat.
What’s Randy Michaels up to? The best guess is he’s up to his same old tricks-- media domination. In the interim after he lost his gig as the king of Clear Channel and before he started a new company, Michaels was asked what he was going to next. “I was the architect of the largest radio group in the world, and I’m ready to move on to the next,” he boasted. And he borrowed a quote from the new CEO of Proctor and Gamble– “Change is inevitable…lead it.”
This is the irony of Air America. Left-wing talk, and maybe more importantly, talk radio that doesn’t follow the Republican talking points, is obviously a ripe for development and investment these days, but Air America’s leadership in the field hasn’t yielded a viable business model for the network itself. And Randy Michaels isn’t an idealist. He’s a businessman. And now Air America is getting the business, from Michaels.
Now over a barrel, Air America has to be in the middle of all sorts of discussions and/or negotiations right now to maintain some radio presence in New York City. The left-wing talk network is at a crossroads. Outside of some trimming and cutbacks, there’s been no rethinking of Air America’s programming or vision. Now, at least here in New York, there’s some hard choices to make and it will be interesting to see what Air America does next.
While I have no facts (or even unsubstantiated rumors) to back this up, I have a theory. Randy Michaels is a brilliant business strategist, and maybe this savvy chess move has given him the perfect opportunity to become the emperor of progressive talk radio in a hurry. What if Air America somehow merged with “Product First” and Michaels was put in charge? That would put the network in the hands of a proven predatory radio legend and would spell huge changes in Air America. And it might work.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not really in favor of this idea (or fantasy), but Air America is certainly at a weak point and there doesn’t seem to be any good news on the horizon. They need leadership, and Michaels is a proven leader. Is he actually liberal? A very good question indeed. One thing's for sure-- he doesn't fool around.
Whatever happens, I do predict some big changes at Air America in the next year. And in that time there will be some drastic changes in their programming, or they won’t be on the air at all. That’s a guess I stand by, for now.