Whatever Happened to Progressive Talk Radio? Did Air America Kiss it Good Bye?
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When Air America announced that Montel Williams would be the second émigré from the television talk show circuit to appear in the prime nine a.m. to noon slot originally occupied by Unfiltered (hosted by Rachel Maddow, Chuck D and Lizz Winstead) many across the blogosphere shared the sentiment of itsrobert, who wrote on DemocraticUnderground.com: "Montel Williams? Air America just keeps getting worse."
In June, the network had Montel Across America broadcasting live at America's Future Now, the largest annual conference of progressive activists and leaders in the country.
From his table in "radio row," located next to Thom Hartmann's -- who was named Top Progressive Talker this year by Talkers Magazine -- the newest member of the Air America family had an interesting perspective on his foray into progressive radio:
I don't know if ‘progressive' is necessarily the moniker that should be hung on the show. We are independent. We are independent and unfiltered. And I think there's a difference because progressive seems to denote a new party. And I have no party affiliation whatsoever in this world. I was a Republican, you know, my background is a little different. I did 22 years in the military, I did 17 years as a television personality, and through that period of time I was a motivational speaker also helping people blend what Dick Cheney just realized is empathy and conservatism together. I walked away from the Republican party, I'm now an Independent, I'm a registered Independent, I vote that way, and that's what I really want to see this format of radio become: the home of inclusive thought. I'm a home for as many voices as we can reach.
If Montel Williams is any indication, Air America may have as many lives as a cat. The network's most recent incarnation could be traced to the spring of 2008 when Charlie Kireker, former Vermont government official, investor and creator of Pendulum Media, purchased the network from real estate mogul Stephen L. Green, the brother of NYC politico Mark Green (who served as the network's president). Kireker went on to hire Bennett Zier as CEO, a former executive vice president at Clear Channel. Zier helped direct the merger of several radio stations into what would become Clear Channel Communications in 1994. At the same time Kireker brought on Zier, he also introduced another Clear Channel alum, Bill Hess, to top management as senior vice president of programming. Prior to joining Air America, Hess handled various programming and management responsibilities for four Washington, DC stations.
While Zier and Hess may be very qualified, it does seem odd that the two leaders brought in to run the new "progressive" AAR were associated with the company that symbolized for progressives the worst excesses of media deregulation. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which radically deregulated media ownership and the number of stations any one broadcaster could own in a particular market, Clear Channel went on a buying spree. By 2000, the media conglomerate would own over 1,200 stations -- gaining the indignant ire of media reformers. By 2006, however, with ratings and revenues plateauing, Clear Channel was sold off to Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners, and the company agreed to trim off more than one-third of its radio stations and all of its television stations.
What is Progressive Talk Radio, Anyway?
"Progressive radio has a real opportunity right now to continue to define and re-define itself with the most recent election," says Zier. "We see progressive media as really moving into the mainstream and being more welcoming and having an opportunity to have more listeners based upon the mood and the feel and the direction of the country."