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Calling Air America

Before Air America and Democracy Radio it was a settled truth that talk-radio was right-wing territory. But in some form or other, progressive talk is here to stay.
 
 
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A year ago March, Air America, the liberal/progressive talk-radio network, took off from New York into the wild blue yonder with an HBO documentary film crew in the cockpit and a mighty blast of publicity acting as a tail wind. The craft was barely airborne before it hit turbulence. Its Los Angeles and Chicago outlets pulled the plug on the fledgling network over money squabbles. Paychecks were late, rumors abounded, the original set of pilots left, to be replaced by others. The plane, it turned out, had been allowed to take off with an insufficient fuel load--meaning working capital--and was going to have to be refueled in midflight, never an easy operation.

The frail craft, though buffeted by violent winds and sudden air pockets, stayed aloft. Now flying into its second year, Air America says it has enough new investor money to stay airborne at least until we hear otherwise. Stations in some 50 cities are broadcasting the network's programming 19 hours every weekday with repeats and additional programming on the weekends.

As of this writing Air America is still not yet back on the air in Chicago, but it has returned to Los Angeles, where, given the number of very rich, very liberal people, silence would have been next to fatal. When asked about what it cost to return to Los Angeles, Danny Goldberg, Air America's new CEO, did a small leap over the question and replied, "We're certainly going to spend a lot less money to get profitability than Rupert Murdoch spent to launch Fox News or the New York Post . It's not going to cost as much money to get a self-sustaining vehicle on the left as it did on the right, but it costs some money to start a new business, whether it's ideological or nonideological."

Goldberg, who comes to the network after a long career in the music business, predicts Air America will start taking in more than it's paying out by the end of 2006, a tall order if it has to buy its way onto stations in other major metro areas. The most common arrangement in the industry is that a syndicator or, in this instance, a network supplies the programming in return for which a station allots it a certain amount of air time for broadcasting whatever ads it can sell. However, Air America is half business, half crusade and thus cannot be judged by conventional measures.

Goldberg himself is part businessman and part red-hot. He is not one of your modern mumbling liberals who isn't sure he wants people to know what his opinions are. He shouts them with a self-assured truculence. "To some establishment Democrats, it is people like me who have screwed up the party," he says. "I was against the war in Iraq, and I met with and supported Howard Dean in the early stages of the primary campaign. I have been involved with political fundraising concerts, I'm an ACLU board member and I'm a friend of Michael Moore. To me, it is the conventional wisdom prevailing in Washington that has screwed up the party."

Regardless of who screwed up what, Air America has some building to do before it becomes a business success or a political force. Before April, when Jerry Springer, the redoubtable TV personality, became one of Air America's barking seals, Al Franken, the network's star personality, had been on fewer than 10 percent of the number of stations carrying Rush Limbaugh. Springer could cause the number of network affiliates to jump, but some think Air America will still struggle as long as it tries to be a lefty network instead of a lefty syndicator. "Ultimately syndicating individual shows is the way it works. Networks are not a viable method of dealing in the radio broadcasting industry with talk shows," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine and the wise old owl of the business.

A disagreement over network versus syndicating was one of the reasons for the birth of Air America's progressive talk competitor, Democracy Radio, based in Washington. "The founders of Democracy Radio and the founders of Air America all originally started as one organization back in the fall of 2002," explains Tom Athans, that organization's executive director.

Democracy Radio, which for the nonce has only two nationally syndicated programs, broadcasting a combined six hours a week, is on about twice as many stations as Air America. It also has associated with it a bundle of people with much experience in radio, including Frank Mankiewicz, the father of NPR news. "Syndication is the way of the future. The network is the way of the past," says Mankiewicz, who explains that syndicators have a built-in advantage: It's a lot easier to sell a station one or two programs than 19 straight hours of programming.

The two groups fell out over differences in "approach," which included more than the business plan. While saying that both have the same progressive point of view, Athans explains that Air America was "very big on creating a splash with celebrities, and our belief was celebrities in the long run don't make as big a splash as real broadcasters do. If you want to be successful in broadcasting, use experienced broadcasters."

Another point of difference is that Democracy Radio is not banking on coming up with a liberal Limbaugh, a national personality so vivid and so well-known that even the millions who do not listen to talk-radio are at least vaguely familiar with the person's name, as they are with Limbaugh's. So Athans' organization is finding and placing liberal talkers in various cities. They are expected to build up a fierce following in their locales. The first such is Nancy Skinner, an experienced talker who was brought back to her native Michigan from WLS in Chicago and installed at Detroit's WDTW to do a morning drive-time show. There are supposed to be a score more like Skinner dropped into major markets soon. Since the rule of thumb is that it takes about three years for a talk personality to start turning a profit, this is going to cost nonprofit Democracy Radio a ton of seed money, but Athans insists there are checkbooks out and ready, although he will not say whose.

A few talkers--maybe it's only one--are carrying the liberal torch in deepest Boondockia without benefit of network, syndicator or checkbook. Louie Free, whose voice can be heard every weekday morning across the Mahoning Valley on WASN, Youngstown, Ohio, is, with his faithful, Sancho Panza-like producer, Bun-E, a discordant progressive voice in a state where the word of God is said to drown out all others. But not that of the uncompromising Free, who has been fired from several stations in the area for his opposition to former Congressman James Traficant Jr., presently residing in a federal home for wayward politicians near Ray Brook, N.Y.

The problematic Jerry Springer and Louie Free aside, two men are vying for the lead in liberal AM yak-yak: Democracy Radio's Ed Schultz, a side o' beef radio personality out of Fargo, N.D. and Air America's Franken. Schultz is a boomer, a fast-talking, ham-fisted, quick-paced table banger with years of radio experience and a perfected technique. Franken is an accomplished comedian, a famous writer and liberal headliner who puts on a friendly, slow, NPR-paced radio performance that stamps him as someone who has either not yet learned to be an AM talker or has decided to succeed by being a different kind of talker.

TV is a cool medium, exemplified in action by the late Johnny Carson (or Jay Leno), and radio is a hot one, exemplified by--who else?--Rush Limbaugh. It remains to be seen if the cerebral Franken, with his cerebral guests ambling cerebrally up the high road, will make it in the long run. Whether he or Springer, a coolish TV type also, are or aren't hits, Air America has a peppery veteran performer in Randi Rhodes, who noncerebrally drove cerebral interview guest Ralph Nader out of the studio with a high-decibel, high-speed verbal barrage against his candidacy. Rhodes came to Air America after years of successful GOP-bashing on a Miami station, although she is an old-school New York wisenheimer with a polished technique who can seethe on air with the best of 'em.

What some of the other Air America regulars may lack in hours logged in front of the microphone they make up for in the energy with which they hurl themselves at their listeners. Mark Maron, one of the performers on Air America's Morning Sedition program, whiles the early hours away attacking right-wing malefactors with such epithets as "douche-bag," "zombie" and, my favorite, "Christo-fascist." Nor is Maron, who first bloomed as a stand-up comic, the only hyperenergized lefty swinging brass knuckles for the Air America lineup.

Later on in the day you can hear movie actress Janeane Garofalo behaving like a confused, avenging liberal angel or venomous pixie, depending on your tastes and politics. I was lucky enough to tune in on Garofalo one day when she was discoursing on "ass babies." Ass babies are infants conceived by buttfucking young women who will do anything of a sexual nature except have their hymens broken by a marauding penis before marriage to, presumably, a person of another gender.

Doubtless there is an audience for such discussions, but how big it may be and whether its members vote is yet to be established. Before the arrival of Democracy Radio and Air America it was a settled truth that AM talk-radio was right-wing territory and that portsiders who tried to muscle in would fail.

This being the case, some people assumed Air America was an election-year stunt that would disappear after the Democratic defeat last November. Lefty radio was considered an impossible thing, Danny Goldberg explains, because it was thought that "liberal ideas were too nuanced, that anger is what fuels conservatism in a unique way, that liberalism was elitist and that talk-radio was populist. That turned out to be completely untrue." Assuredly no one is going to accuse Garofalo and Maron of over-nuancification. Franken is a known and named nuancer and we have yet to see what kind of a talker Springer will be, but the guy is a clever politician, able to adapt his tactics to his needs.

In some form or other, progressive talk is here to stay. "I'm sure my mother and father said there could never be such a thing as rock-and-roll radio in 1958, no one would listen to that quote unquote crap on the air," says Gabe Hobbs, a vice president in charge of programming for Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations, including 28 that carry Air America. "To say that only conservative people would listen to talk-radio and a discussion of important issues and cultural issues and things of this nature is just naïve and misguided."

Once upon a time, Hobbs will tell you, liberals held their own in talk-radio. "Talk-radio has been largely conservative for the last fifteen years, but that has nothing to do with what people are willing to consume. It just sort of evolved that way. Prior to 1988 talk-radio was largely liberal. In 1988 Rush Limbaugh comes along and is an overnight wild success. What happens is there're 500 guys out there the next day trying to imitate what he did, and suddenly it's a conservative medium. Oh, wow! Let's all do it, and so we all did it. I'm not saying it was wrong. We made a nice living doing it."

Hobbs has a simple calculation that predicts a minimum level of commercial success for lib-lab talkathons. "In radio, let's say you go into a market that's considered to be a 'conservative,' red-state area. It's still going to have maybe 40 percent Democratic registration. If I get just 1 or 2 percent of that constituency to listen to the station, it's a huge, wildly successful radio station." To nail the point down he adds, "I have yet to see a major U.S. radio market that was all conservative or all liberal. That's like saying in Boise, Idaho, they don't like rock music; they'll only listen to country. Maybe country is the number-one station there, but I'm guessing there are some rock-and-roll fans as well."

Even so, nothing is automatic. As Harrison of Talkers points out, "It's a tough business even when you serve a need. It's a tough business for conservatives, it's a tough business for liberals, it's a tough business for pet shows, it's a tough business for doctor shows, it's just a tough business."

Harrison was referring to getting the audience that gets the advertising that keeps a program on the air. He's not discussing political impact. "This is a business proposition. I'm not out to promote some agenda, get federal judges appointed or anything like that. I'm trying to run a business here, trying to make a fair profit," explains Hobbs. Air America does have Dr. Scholls, Geico and American Express, but from what I've heard, most of the ads are low status and, one assumes, low-priced. Let's face it, how much is Proton, the one-hour erection pill with horny goat weed extract, prepared to pay?

There's another question. You and I may be tolerant, fully nuanced elitists who have been known to pop a horny-goat-weed pill from time to time, but coupled with Springer's reputation and Garofalo's mouth, is there a danger that Air America may be a hit among a white-boy, 14-to-24 demographic and Smut America to political fence sitters in Ohio, Washington and New Mexico? Air America could be, using the Hobbs formula, a commercial success and a political zero. No one can say how large the ass-baby vote is, but on the face of things it does not seem probable that it will elect many Democratic senators. Besides, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show already do what they want to do better. Goldberg has no fear of such things. He sees something new stirring in the boonies. He says that progressive radio needs to "address the culture that's been emerging with things like MoveOn.org and the people who went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 and bought Al Franken's books."

Air America may have tapped into a new and vital stratum of political thought and activity, but even if it loses itself in its own smog, Democracy Radio will not. Ed Schultz is not going to play the game of hipper-than-thou, so even if Air America does wander off into a cul-de-sac of its own devising--and it may not--there will be other, straight liberal shows. Jon Sinton, Air America's president of programming, says all the arrows on newest-audience surveys are steeply up. "They're just radio hosts, primarily entertainers," Michael Harrison reminds us, "entertainers with political and social impact." But how much, and how telling, is the impact they have? A widely used set of figures of uncertain reliability has it that every week the national air is drenched with 40,000 hours of right-wing yak-yak, as compared with a mere 3,000 hours of left-wing palaver. Those hundreds of thousands of conservative talk hours must surely have had some impact, but was it to make new conservatives or was it to whip up the foam in the mouths of inveterate right-wingers?

With a 40-to-3 lead, right-wing radio must have made a major contribution to the conservative atmospherics that we've been choking in for years. A man like Rush Limbaugh has grown rich and famous, the two qualities we have the most respect for--if he's so rich, he must be smart. His top-ten, bestseller success lends additional weight to what he stands for, enabling him to dominate the landscape as New York Review of Books writers never will. As was the case with reactionary radio some years ago, left-wing radio is good at finding and exposing villains and villainy; it is deft at unearthing conspiracies, real and not so real; it is developing a rich vocabulary of invective, all of which is useful. People need to read and hear their opinions and beliefs shouted back at them. They need to know that they are not alone.

Thousands of hours of liberal blabbery on hundreds of stations will go part of the way toward changing the impression that this is a right-wing world, that reaction is the default setting and that anything to the left of Tom DeLay is a foreign, New York kind of idea. Reactionaries must not be allowed to make all the noise, but lib-lab noise-making will not assure the winning of elections. It can make liberalism respectable in the eyes of the impressionable, feckless, white-collar American masses; it can validate it, but it will not put a lefty in the White House any more than Limbaugh and his clonish imitators captured Congress for Jesus and the big-money people in 1994. He helped, but untold numbers can't stand listening to call-in programs. They find hearing talk-radio--left, right or center--akin to having a tooth drilled. All the callithumpian, pot-walloping noise in the world will not break liberalism out of the ghetto in which it is currently confined. Not alone. Not by itself.

Progressive talk-radio has to be for something. You can't live off a straight diet of political paranoia. Liberalism has to have its thrilling moments, its heroes. It has to have a platform, a positive agenda, a program. But the invention of same is not the job of a small group of overwrought men and women leaning into microphones. When liberalism and liberals do find their platform, their new, progressive talkers will surely broadcast it. And if all will not be good, it will be better than it has been.

Nicholas Von Hoffman is a columnist for the New York Observer and is the author, most recently, of Hoax (Nation Books, 2004).