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Air America Radio, RIP -- It Didn't Have to Be This Way

Conservatives believe in spending whatever it takes to promote their ideas through the media. The crash of Air America shows that progressives don't have the right attitude.

I think the New York Times got it exactly wrong on Monday in declaring that "the enduring legacy of Air America's failure is that political media from either side of the aisle is more successful when run as a business instead of a crusade."

That very attitude is what has hobbled the growth of liberal talk radio, but conservatives have never thought about media that way and they still don't. The week before Air America shut its doors the Rev. James Dobson announced he was starting a new radio show with his son Ryan, a 39-year-old tattooed surfer who shares his father's ultra-conservative views. On Dobson's Facebook page he asked his supporters to fund the new show. "Your participation will be greatly appreciated, especially during this time when startup costs will be very expensive. The budget for the first year, including the costs of radio airtime, will be about two million dollars."

Conservatives believe in doing whatever it takes to promote their ideas. Richard Viguerie, viewed as one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, wrote a book in 2004 called America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media To Take Power, in which he explains how the right wing used talk radio among other tools. Viguerie stresses that conservatives understand that ideological change does not usually occur overnight; that it takes patience and long-term thinking to build a movement.

In the early 1970s the Washington Post and New York Times were instrumental in helping expose the Watergate scandal and publishing the Pentagon Papers. Conservatives felt liberals had an advantage in setting the agenda because of the influence of New York and DC newspapers on the national media. In 1976 Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and it has lost money every year since—the total loss estimated to be more than half a billion dollars.

In 1983, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon created the Washington Times, which has also lost money every year. Widely published reports place Moon's losses at over $1 billion on the Times and other political media including a purchase of the venerable wire service UPI. These money-losing properties have put dozens of conservatively slanted stories onto the national radar screen, altered the framing of every important political issue and nurtured virtually every right-wing pundit who now thrives as a TV talking head.

More recently, Phillip Anschutz bought the money-losing Weekly Standard from Murdoch and announced plans to invest in more conservative media. Meanwhile his fellow billionaire and former Republican Treasury Secretary Pete Petersen started a digital news service called the Fiscal Times.

The fatal flaw in Air America's genetic code was the pretense that liberal talk radio was a great business opportunity, that progressives could have their cake and eat it too, could do well by doing good, make big salaries and get a great return on investment while also pursuing an ideological agenda. Sure, every once in a while political media like Michael Moore's movies or Rush Limbaugh's radio show will make money, but for those interested in influencing public opinion, media in all venues is vital whether it makes money or not.

Air America's lesser-known competitor, Democracy Radio, had a more coherent rationale. Set up as a non-profit it spawned the Ed Schultz Show and the Stephanie Miller show, both of which survive but would never have been launched were it not for Democracy Radio's initial funding. (Democracy Radio folded in 2006 as a result of a lack of financial support from progressive donors.)

Some blame bad management for the failure of both Air America and Democracy Radio, and since I spent one unhappy year midway through Air America's life as its CEO I suppose I am one of a dozen or so who are in that category. But if progressives really wanted to address talk radio they could have started competing companies with different management. Instead, most of the monied progressive community did the opposite of their conservative counterparts and bought into the notion that media should stand or fall based on media market forces.

It's not that the left doesn't have money to spend on communication. Labor unions, public interest groups and Internet activists have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on TV spots and digital marketing even during non-election years.

One-hundred-thirty-eight million people commute to and from work in automobiles, where they have no access to computer or TV screens. For around a third of them, or 48 million, AM talk radio is their entertainment of choice. Of the top 10 AM talk radio shows, nine are hosted by extreme conservatives, giving the right wing a captive audience of around 40 million listeners a week—at least seven times greater than the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Talk radio's audience dwarfs that of every other category in the news political arena, including the network news and Sunday shows, NPR's public affairs shows and political Web sites.

It was not preordained that all of the millions of people who identify with the Tea Party movement would believe the conservative narrative that the economic ills afflicting the middle class are the result of liberalism. But given that tens of millions of them had no alternative explanations or solutions, it is not surprising that conservative ideas and candidates are ascendant.

Many progressives blame the current political climate on the Obama administration. While I disagree with a number of Obama's decisions, including his Afghanistan policy, why should progressives expect any president to lead the way on our issues given the nature of our political system? At the outset of the Obama administration there were dozens of columns reminding progressives that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had told liberal activists of his day to "make" him initiative progressive programs by mobilizing public opinion.