Very soon, the Air America radio network will either be sold or "so long." The word on the street is that if somebody doesn't come forward and bail out the network by December the bankruptcy proceedings will move into Chapter 7. Liquidation. The end. And if that does happen, it will be sad to see a brave media experiment crash and burn so quickly, but it won't be tragedy. However, if after the votes are counted the opposition party long championed by Air America doesn't take at least the House, if not the Senate, THAT would be tragic. If some folks from the other side of the aisle can't put some reigns on all these ongoing runaway disasters the Republicans have brought on, then we got trouble. Big trouble.
And please, if you disagree with me politically on this, just leave me alone. To say I'm tired of getting embroiled in such online debates would be an understatement. This is a post about radio, not the start of an argument I'm willing to engage in, or will host.
As before, I'm admittedly repeating a few unsubstantiated rumors as I have in earlier Air America commentaries. And what I've heard is that Air America does indeed have some solid leads on finding a buyer, and the brain trust is making plans for 2007. Then again, I’m not going to underestimate Air America’s potential for making mistakes (or worse). There's very little time, and the possibility that Air America Radio may soon be a memory is still very real.
However, if it they do survive the year I”m happy to pass along that one of the supposed decisions that should soon follow the anticipated sale of the network is the departure of Al Franken from Air America. While I'd hate to dismiss all of Franken's activism, authorship, and (for lack of a better word) comedy over the years, it's increasingly obvious by the day that Franken is out of his element, and chronically tedious on the radio (beyond brief and tightly formatted guest appearances). Whether you liked Franken's show or not, you ought to be glad to see it go as well. Not only is his yawn inducing program a high profile disaster, but the huge drain on the now bankrupt corporation is intolerable. It makes no sense. Thom Hartmann would make a fine replacement.
Speaking of has been TV celebrities hosting AAR programming, Jerry Springer's demotion from the regular lineup into syndication was almost enough to make a few of us think that Air America's management might be on the right track again. But perhaps the TV ringmaster has been getting his revenge by lending his program out to a couple of Air America’s disgruntled former hosts. While Springer was "Dancing With The Stars" (or something else) he turned his show over to Mike Malloy a couple of days, and to Marc Maron (with his partner Jim Earls) twice as well. You can download archives of Maron and Earls filling in for Jerry Springer here if you have a BitTorrent client installed. Or you can hear a clip here. And now Malloy is actually back on the air nightly with a new network. And if a deal can be worked out, The Marc Maron Show may join the lineup too.
Two of Air America founders, Anita and Sheldon Drobny, have partnered with Arizona entrepreneur Dr. Mike Newcomb to form “Nova M,” a new liberal talk radio syndication startup. After offering a failed bid to purchase Air America, the trio decided to go into business for themselves. And for now, Malloy provides the star power. You can stream his live from nine to midnight from the Nova M site. You can podcast his program (for free) from Nova M as well, and as always The White Rose Society offers full shows as well. (However, the Nova M downloads and podcasts have the commercials removed.) No news yet on whether Maron will actually join up as well. So far, their programming is only reaching a handful of lesser market stations, but taking on one or two rejected Air America programs with built-in grassroots support isn't a bad start. And several west coast stations in larger markets have already signed on to adding Malloy’s show to their roster in short order.
It seems to me that in the scheme of things it would make sense
for Air America to scale back their operations (within a realistic budget) and become more of a
provider of sydicated progressive programming, along with companies like Nova M
and P1, instead of attempting to provide a round the clock network. In
general, real competition helps engender better programming.
Of course, the neocon nutbags and their online goons are rubbing their calloused knuckles together over the possibility that Air America may go down in a ball of flames. And if that does happen, you can be sure that clowns like O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin will spin around in circles, spittle flying, howling that liberal talk radio is dead! (And perhaps that it should be made illegal.) Just like Kerry’s botched Bush joke was superficially covered as some monumental exposure of Democratic Party disdain for America troops, the supposed demise of progressive talk will certainly reverberate within the rightist media machine if Air America bites the dust. And not surprisingly, it will be picked up by what’s left of the mainstream media as well, and well meaning talking heads will repeat it as if it were a foregone conclusion. And that’s why progressive talk will live on, and why it was created in the first place.
As far as Air America's fate, it's important to remember this. When the network was assembled in early in 2004, there were no "progressive talk" radio stations. And if AAR does go under, progressive talk is NOT going to go away. Although Air America didn't exactly invent the left-wing talk show format (one might say i.e. America did that), they were the first to introduce shamelessly liberal commercial talk stations into major cities. Probably the primary reason AAR made the risky decision to create a seventeen (and ultimately eighteen) hour clock of weekday syndicated programming out of the box was that there was this overwhelming opinion that liberal talk shows couldn't work and wouldn't fit on all the established talk stations then in operation. Talk radio that dared to oppose the Republican Party in any real way just didn't fit on mainstream talk radio by 2004. According one of Air America's founders (and he's still there!), Jon Sinton: "Just as you wouldn't tune in to a country station to hear jazz, so you wouldn't turn to a conservative talk station to get a liberal show." Air America was slowly adding affiliates through the spring of 2004, coaxing stations into airing all, or most, of their programming, and then to the surprise of many, radio giant Clear Channel decided to help out, even if just for business reasons.
Shortly after Air America went on the air, Clear Channel revamped a losing oldies outlet in Portand, Oregon by incorporating and up and coming new lefty host Ed Schultz with AAR programming, and it was almost an instant success. With that victory, the station's positioning statement- "progressive talk" became a format beyond the name of any network or host. While Air America programming has generally been a part of all these Clear Channel liberal talk outlets, each is programmed individually, with other local and (left-leaning) syndicated hosts mixed with other content. So in reality, although there are a number of stations which do carry exclusively just Air America (and perhaps local) programming, that's the minority. The loss of Air America would hardly mean losing the foundation of the format itself. Although I don't see it ever becoming more popular than conservative talk radio, progressive talk isn't going away. At least not until things get a little more... normal.
Not long ago, blogger Michael J. West wrote a post entitled: “Rush Limbaugh And Company, Air America Radio, And The Folly Of All Of Them.” In his piece, West quoted the late talk host Bob Lassiter giving his opinion of the talk radio format: "This is not a battle between the forces of good and evil," Lassiter had said. "It's entertainment. Period." And in the piece West puts forth the idea that conservative and liberal talk radio merely preach to their respective faithful, and that they have no real political influence. And in a Lassiter inspired closing West intones: "Let the babies have their bottles."
The problem with West's dialectic isn't the logic itself, but that he only discovered Lasstier and his inherent talk radio wisdom on the other side of a paradigm shift that has changed all the rules. The clip he quoted was from something I recorded and used in the Lassiter profile I wrote a decade ago. And back in 1996, that provocative evaluation of talk radio made sense, or at least explained the self-serving zeitgiest within right wing talk radio that made it immediately distasteful at the time. But, in the scheme of things 1996 seems like a thousand years ago. And it would be folly to ignore or deny what has happened to AM talk radio since then.
I’ve always felt there was something fishy about the rampant breakout of conservative talk radio that's gone down since Lassiter uttered those words. And now an ugly “exhibit a” has emerged that increases my suspicion. Although it was barely covered in the major media, a talk show listener made an in-house ABC radio memo public last week, and it included a list of over eighty heavy-hitter radio sponsors who have an ongoing request that “NONE of their commercials air within Air America programming.” On the list– Microsoft, GE, Sony, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Exxon Mobil, the US Navy... and so many more. Jeez. No wonder I hear half a dozen Geico ads per hour on Air America. (Download the memo here.)
Just like how Tom Delay and his friends gerrymandered Texas to assure Republican dominance of the state’s representatives in the U.S. Congress, these huge corporations have gerrymandered talk radio itself to assure their money flows specifically to the Republican talk show hosts who support their corporate/political interests. And need I remind you that ABC initially launched Limbaugh’s national program, and since have spawned rightist smearmerchants like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin into syndication as well.
And speaking of 1996, at that time ABC stations like WABC had notably non-conservative hosts like Lionel and Lynn Samuels on the air. And Mike Malloy had just started his successful four year run on their Chicago affiliate, WLS. Over the years, almost all the on-air voices of dissent against the Bush administration have disappeared from the official ABC affiliates as well. (However, as the memo says ABC syndicated programming appears on many other stations, including those that broadcast AAR content.)
By 2004, talk radio had not only become incredibly political, but
feverishly right wing across the board. And worse than that, every talk
station in the country had become a defacto public relations outlet for
Republican party. And if the US was really really overwhelming
Republican, maybe that might be... okay. But however you feel, be real.
That’s never been true, and never will be.
Who would want that? It's bad enough they play "The Twist" and
"Runaround Sue" everyday on oldies stations, but do you want Bush
talking points to become the sole topic of conversation on commercial
syndicated talk radio? I mean, even if you agree with that crap you
must have limits. The fact that the right wing media commandeered the commercial talk format created a grassroots demand for a counterpart-- a
“pole” to balance an extremely polarized media landscape. Something never really needed or desired before, progressive
talk radio, is an artificial construct setup to resist and oppose the near monopoly of syndicated Republican spew across the
Today we find ourselves immersed in a talk radio cold war. Unless you're doing a specialty show on pets, nutrition or investment, it's almost impossible for a talk program to ignore what's been going on in Iraq and within our government itself. In the previous environment, liberal, moderate and conservative political sentiments arose occasionally in commercial talk radio, as well as on NPR. Just like in real life. And left-wing thought always had a home on many community and college stations (and of course the Pacifica network). Conservative talk, which was already on the rise, became ever more powerful over the course of the Clinton Impeachment and the 2000 Election disaster. But once the 2001 terrorist attacks launched millions of Americans into a fear-based jingoistic frenzy, the talk radio industry purged nearly every host who might question the Bush regime, or any of the questionable actions they have initiated since that lethal day.
And NPR? In the ensuing years National Public Radio has been busy pleasing the empowered right wing critics in the government who are trying to eliminate federal funding from anything they deem as “liberal media.” NPR is now so balanced that their programming seems to counter every bit of common sense with a right wing commentary giving the Republican counter-spin. While there are exceptions, more than ever NPR has evolved into of a "lifestyle" network focusing on apolitical cultural fluff. And the community and alternative stations do their reporting as bravely or ineptly as one might hope, but their reach is so small in the scheme of things. And sure, the internet and podcasting makes it easier to find alternative news sources, but the "turning on the faucet" aspect of local traditional radio still overwhelmingly trumps new media by the numbers. And if the original talk radio faucet was bought and paid for by the Republican party, radio types opposing the Bush talking points had only one choice– build a new progressive talk radio faucet.
Frankly, I'm not convinced that progressive talk radio can influence the electorate, or sway national opinion. In general, political radio is as Lassiter claimed– "support group radio." And while it seemed like a pointless idea in the middle of Clinton’s two terms, in this scary new America there’s a lot of listeners in need of some support. And when you realize the AM dial is bursting with lies and smears and narratives skewed beyond belief, there is comfort in knowing that there are “entertainers” on the same band who are actually telling the truth, and making fun of the villains and propagandists. It's kind of sad, but we really do need progressive talk now. Not because it's the best radio concept ever imagined, but it's the reality we’re left with-- communing with broadcasters who are willing to counter the Republican media loudspeaker, and hosts who can figure out how to make us laugh when there’s not much funny to go around.
Optomistically, perhaps progressive talk radio will actually win over a few heartland listener’s from the clutches of the Republican spin machine. But that’s not why it’s so important. Outside of a few interesting non-commercial radio stations, music radio is dying. Dead, perhaps. For many of us the only radio format that consistently offers personality and humanity is talk radio. And if in these incredibly political times one side has been practically eliminated from the debate, we need to support the underdog, even if you don't agree. And for those of us angered and frustrated from being shut out of the dialogue, it's heartening to gather around these new progressive radio troughs and have our meetings and exchange information. In the rampant madness of our times, it's so important for us to try to hold on to our sanity.Let's face it. Two plus two must continue to equal four, no matter what. And when so many talk hosts are shouting "five,"with great emotion and rightousness it helps to hear from more thoughtful voices and be reminded that the equation still yields "four," no matter what they say, and to celebrate the glory and importance of that small fact.
Whether you like it or not, progressive radio is here to stay. Get used to it. Whether Air America continues is really beside the point. However, if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (and a number of others) find themselves on trial for war crimes one day, and our government embarks on a path of trying to heal all the grief and hatred it has engendered all over the world. And if some of these high roller war profiteers are actually rounded up and tried... And if all those talk radio entertainers who cheered our nation into a needless bloody war of aggression are publicly shamed, then maybe once again the idea of "support group radio" for dissenters will be just as absurd as it seemed a decade ago. And then perhaps talk radio can once again be as mischievous and truly experimental (or even pointless) as it was in the days of Bob Lassiter. Maybe.
Meanwhile, all we're left with now is satire and bad news. In fact, I suspect more bad news is on the way. Get ready. So I offer a word to the progressive talk hosts who might come across this post – Bring the funny. And bring the facts. Oh, and for everybody else reading this on the day of publication-- don't forget to vote for your local Democratic representative who may be able to join forces with a legislative majority who can begin to put the brakes on these hellhounds of the White House. The time is now.