It’s been three months since I've discussed Air America here at Beware of the Blog, and there’s some fresh news to report. But Perhaps more significantly, there’s rumors aplenty flying around town here regarding the lefty talk network these days. In May, I predicted there would be “some drastic changes” at Air America this year, that seems to be coming to pass. And some other prognostications and hopes I tossed around regarding AAR in these pages may bear fruit as well. But one big alleged “fact” that I passed along here seems to have been either misinformation, bad reporting, or that a certain deal was never final in the first place..
First, the big headline is that Air America is in fact jumping frequencies here in New York City– moving from 1190 WLIB to 1600 WWRL on September 1, 2006. And like Humpty Dumpty’s tumble from his perch, the results of this fall (note: the broadcast range of WWRL doesn't quite have the coverage of the audible radius of WLIB) may result in local and network AAR programming in a bit of scramble. At least that’s what I’ve been hearing. As you read on, realize that while I’ll link to online sources when I can find other sites that back up what I’m asserting here, other hearsay I’ll offer here is based on innuendo and whispers I’ve heard from people I trust. That said, I also am led to understand that negotiations are ongoing with several of the parties concerned and possible changes being spoke of today could turn into something else over the course of the next two and half weeks when Air America actually makes the switch. If you've listened, you'd know that Air America has always been a New York-centric national radio operation, and if there's going to be a changes in what will be offered here it will probably alter the media footprint of Air America nationally as well.
Now, onto how I have probably misled readers at BOTB when I was basing my commentary on “official” online sources. Contrary to a news story I linked to and discussed, it now does not appear that (the former CEO of Clear Channel) Randy Michaels and his new lefty talk company, Progress First, is actually going to be doing very much, if anything, with WLIB. Yet, at the end of April that was the story and I based what I wrote what I understood to be fact. Then, it was strange. For many weeks, there was no news whatsoever the supposed P1 takeover. As memory serves, when Michaels launches a radio project, he launches big. He's not a coy operator. Something was fishy.
And then early this month Air America announced they were actually going to leap over to WWRL. on the date the story about P1's deal with WLIB said it would have to abandon the frequency. And new reports appeared that Michaels “might be interested” in leasing the station, but no longer affirming that it was a sure thing. It makes you wonder where the initial story that P1 was certain to take over WLIB (in MediaWeek and Billboard) came from in the first place?
And now on to get into some more of the unsubstantiated rumors I’ve heard. You know, I know people who know people and I spend too much time Googling the fate of Air America. And from what I understand, the only sure thing about Air America’s move to WWRL is that Al Franken and Randi Rhodes will certainly be broadcasting at 1600 AM in New York come September 1. And that’s not all! According to Mike Malloy’s website, his powerful program will also be returning to late night New York radio with the big frequency switch in September. Good news, but I hear that just like WLIB, WWRL is going to hold onto the six post-midnight hours, as well as the morning drive spot. Which is fairly canny for WWRL I suppose. If they part ways one day as WLIB is about to do, they can maintain their on-air identity in the meantime.
And that reminds me... I expressed my outrage and disappointment in this blog when Air America supplanting Malloy’s show with the inane “Satellite Sisters” on WLIB in January of 2006. The yuppie siblings not only produce really mindless radio for ABC (and originally for NPR!), but I frankly would honestly characterize their program as one of the most repulsive and worthless instances of broadcasting in modern history. Listen to this promo Air America was running in New York this summer (download MP3), encouraging local listeners to tune out the show that’s currently on WLIB (the dopey perky sisters) and switch over to Malloy online or via XM instead. Amazing.
Rhodes, who has apparently had some of the best ratings results on the AA schedule, has recently signed a multi-year contract, and Franken remains the reigning mascot/celebrity figurehead at Air America. And speaking of that, number two AAR mascot Janeane Garofalo has officially parted ways with the network, although the word is that they may maintain some relationship and Garofalo may fill in now and then. Oh well. I mean, how much shrill psychobabble can you take? To be honest, it's not my favorite form of comedy either. I can’t believe they kept (or just kept a “place” for) Garofalo for over two years on a national radio show. Is she really that beloved of a celebrity? Did I miss something?
From what I’ve heard, Air America and WWRL remain in molar grinding up-to-the-finish-line negotiations on how the implementation of Air America at 1600 AM is going to actually pan out. The rumor I've repeatedly come across is that WWRL has successfully bargained to hold onto the morning drive hours. And don't forget this is the prized branding daypart of regional radio media. This could leave Rachel Maddow and Mark Riley (who’s radio legacy is completely New York based) without an air slot in the Big Apple. Not good for Air America if true. (Although I’ve also overheard that Riley may land some role in the early evening slot if the Majority Report is actually axed. Stay tuned.)
The current WWRL morning show (which I assume would remain in place if
this rumor is correct), is hosted by local liberal voice Sam Greenfield
(yes, he's a man) and closeted right-wing goofball Armstrong Williams, who is best known
for taking a quarter million bucks from the Bush regime to parrot their
party line on the “No Child Left Behind” idiocy. A hack like Armstrong
Williams holding a drive time slot on Air America’s flagship station
would certainly be a sad state of affairs. And I haven't heard whether Air America will continue a national morning drive program for other stations to carry.
However, an encouraging rumor abounds that Jerry Springer is going to be dropped from Air America’s schedule in New York very soon, and it seems his run with Air America in general may be coming to an end as well (One can hope.) Yet if Michaels is really investing himself into WLIB, Springer could remain on 1190 since he also has a working relationship with P1. Also, if Michaels really does have some upcoming relationship with WLIB, Ed Shultz (the meat eating, gun toting liberal who USED to be conservative), P1's biggest property, will probably immediately take over afternoon drive there, giving the corn-fed North Dakota yakker a home in New York City.
Then again, this story in the Amsterdam News claims that Springer and the rest of the daily Air America schedule will follow the WWRL morning show (with Greenfield and Williams) at 1600, AND that “Radio One,” an African-American radio syndication outfit would be taking over some hours on WLIB. So perhaps Randy Michaels may not be gaining any headway into the New York market after all. It’s hard to imagine Ed Shultz floating in the middle of an all-black talk and/or music format.
As far as Air America nationally, there are probably other programming changes on the way. For instance, as the nightly “Majority Report” has now lost Garofalo, co-host Sam Seder is currently flying solo weeknights and acknowledging on air (download MP3) that the future of the program and his gig at the network are in jeopardy. And he’s been asking for supportive email to lobby Air America to keep him around.
I hear the Majority Report will soon indeed be history. But as Seder has been a good soldier for the network (carrying on solo while Garofalo was away for weeks at a time, and filling in for Franken and Rhodes when they were away) I’ve heard he may move into the late morning slot after TV sleaze king Jerry Springer gets the boot. While I’ve never felt that Seder matured much as a talk host on the Majority Report, I’d hope that by landing his own program it might encourage him to reinvent his somewhat hyperbolic and smug radio style into something more compelling. Of course, the fact is just about anything would be an improvement over the childish musings of Springer for three hours every day.
There have also been rumors that Air America’s ace morning whirlwind, Rachel Maddow, has been gunning for an evening or afternoon slot on Air America. However, the accompanying rumor is that former AAR bigwig Carl Ginsburg was working behind the scenes to relocate Maddow on the schedule, and since he recently parted ways with the network the chances of Maddow taking the Majority Report slot may be less likely as well. It’s worth mentioning that Ginsburg's guiding hand has been navigating Air America from the very beginning, and with his departure there's been almost a complete turn over within the original brain trust behind AAR. Another omen of programming changes to come. (To get an idea of Ginsburg’s importance in the early days of Air America check out HBO’s documentary on the birth of the network– “Left of the Dial.” It’s worth renting if you have any interest in AAR.)
Not to blow my own blog horn, and I have no proof that the Air America brain trust has been reading my AAR posts, but it seems that a few the suggestions I’ve made here were surprisingly valid. Not only does it appear that Springer and the Majority Report are toast, but something else I mentioned may be coming to pass too– AAR reducing the epic "Randi Rhodes Show" to a more reasonable three hours. Even for fans of her daily manic lathering of the news and her self-referential asides, it just has always seemed like that fourth hour was just overkill. But I've been led to understand this change is still being negotiated at press time. And then there’s one other issue I made a big stink about here...
If there’s a punch line to the whole unfolding reinvention of Air America it’s that AAR really did end up coming to regret their biggest programming mistake (which I discussed here and here), and tried to fix it up in a rather awkward and bumbling fashion. That’s right, Air America practically BEGGED Marc Maron to return to their national morning programming. Don’t believe me? Listen to Maron himself spill the beans (download MP3) right before his L.A. based show (which Air America repeatedly alluded would soon syndicated on the network) bit the dust in July. “The Mark Maron Show,” while it lasted on that one California radio station (and available for pay via podcast) was a great program. More entertaining, savvy and energetic than anything else on the national Air America roster. It was everything one might have originally hoped for, and wanted from, the (ultimately tedious and smarmy) Franken show when it launched over two years ago. If you listen to the clip, you’ll realize that Maron would probably have settled for a very small fraction of the money Air America currently wastes on Franken’s doomed program. (Dozens of Maron’s old shows are still available for free as torrents online here and here. Have at it. Well worth checking out.) Maron says he’s going to try to shop around the program he developed in California with Jim Earls (and AAR's Brendan McDonald). I wish him luck. Maybe he should call Randy Michaels.
As a listener it’s been interesting to hear Air America’s on-air radio presence on WLIB transform after they officially announced they were moving to a new “flagship” station. Suddenly, all sorts of promos and bumpers proudly announcing the WLIB call letters were gone. Instead, the new productions replaced the calls with a drawn out and emphatic “AIR... AMERICA... RADIO.” In fact, the only time you hear “WLIB” in any way during the Air America programming on the station is when they have to say it-- for the official top of the hour ID. You have to listen carefully (download MP3) to even hear the call letters (almost hidden and moderately distorted) in the legal ID they’re now using. Here’s the old ID (download MP3) just to hear how it used to sound.
In general, some of the promos spots on the network and WLIB over the course of this year have seemed ill-conceived at best, and just plain not funny in general (despite the obvious intention.). The pleas to sucker listeners into buying their podcasting service (Air America Premium) have truthfully been PAINFUL. And here’s some numerology fun they slapped together (download MP3), reminding listeners that Air America is moving to a numerical locale on the NYC AM dial that actually matches the address of the White House! (“1600" Pennsylvania Avenue). But this one’s worse (download MP3). Check out this promo announcing that Air America is “movin’ on up” to WWRL and that they might finally get their “piece of the pie.” Yes, it ends with “The Jefferson’s” theme. You would think the fact that Air America is moving from one station where the network usurped a black format, to another station where it will also usurp a primarily black format might have made them think twice about airing this production piece. But, the thinkers at AAR are probably too busy to spend much time reflecting on such things.
But the fact is, they’re certainly smart to dump featuring the official call letters and make a point of driving the 1600 frequency reference into listener’s mind right away. After all, the fall Arbitron book is just around the corner.
In case you’re new in coming to my commentaries regarding Air America on this blog, I want to be clear– I’m not in any way in league with a number of online stooges who are following the Republican playbook in routinely trashing Air America or their programming. While I’ve occasionally been critical of programming decisions and AAR network content in my writing here, I’ve also been equally complimentary and encouraging when it was appropriate. In many ways, Air America’s sound has gone from being inspired and messy in the early days, to offering predicable branded radio product that just doesn’t have the same magic. I hope that the impending mini-evolution at Air America is a harbinger of better things to come. At least they tried to get Maron back, even if they screwed it up.
Finally, let me say that if there’s one thing I’ve never heard done quite right on Air America. These absurd times call for talk radio hosts who can dispatch a misguided or moronic right-wing caller in an entertaining and enlightning fashion, without resorting to hysterics (or just cutting them off). And one particular talk host I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog, Lionel, is getting better and better at just that. While Lionel does run on some stations which carry Air America, he’s also syndicated on a good number of outlets who carry the typical burden of right-wing propagandists. Many listeners from across the heartland who wouldn’t likely tune into an Air America station end up running into Lionel’s show on the dial anyway. And some of them are extremely unhappy to hear him say unkind things regarding our chimp-in-chief or this insane Iraq war. Not only that, but Lionel’s been routinely questioning the official 9-11 narrative as well. And although he’s not touting any particular conspiracy theory, to even question such things REALLY upsets some listeners.
Anyway, some of the calls to Lionel’s show featuring lost Bush followers aren’t just poignant and satisfying, but they’re ultimately top-shelf radio theater as well. Check out this tasty talk radio takedown of Sean from Maine (download MP3) from last week on Lionel's program. It’s beautiful in its perfection. And Lionel never breaks a sweat during the entire four minutes. “The Lionel Show” show which runs locally in New York, from 10 to midnight on 710 WOR, is available nationally from 10 to 1AM (Eastern Time) weeknights. And I heartily continue to recommend his (free!) podcast, available by subscription or as individual hours here.
So ends the biggest episode of rumor-mongering I’ve ever typed up. But it was fun. Air America was a brazen startup, and it would be nice to see some sense of vision remake it into an exciting media prospect once again. It's really time for them to make more inherent changes other than just shuffling around their ongoing roster of air talent. I hope that the next time I write about Air America here that I’ll pass along a rumor of Franken’s impending departure from the network. That really seems like the next step AAR should make to completely let go of old concepts that might have once looked good on paper but never really added up to much. And maybe one move could save Air America some of the huge wads of dough that it might need to come up with some new and compelling programming.
Hey, let's hope.