Whatever Happened to Progressive Talk Radio? Did Air America Kiss it Good Bye?

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."

It's true that this moment in American history provides a unique opportunity for progressive media. A recent study by Center for American Progress Senior Fellow John Halpin and Karl Agne shows a 25-point increase from 2004 to 2009 in Americans who view the progressive label favorably. A majority of Americans favor progressive approaches to education, the environment, business, energy, regulation and international affairs.

Why then, at such an opportune moment, would "the nation's leading progressive media network" turn to hosts such as Montel Williams, who seem anxious to distance themselves from progressivism? Strangely, at the same time that Air America appears to be shifting away from progressivism, MSNBC, a truly mainstream outlet, is reorienting in a progressive direction. The cable network's progressive bent has yielded great ratings thanks to hosts like Rachel Maddow, whose career was launched by Air America.

According to Laura Flanders, who currently hosts GRITtv and was a member of Air America's original lineup with The Laura Flanders Show and subsequently, RadioNation, "Rising unemployment, rising resentment at the super rich, a liberal controlled Congress: there's never been a better time for forthright, truth-talking voices for radical change that would outflank Obama from the left as Limbaugh and Hannity outflanked the GOP leadership for two decades. Even if AAR plans to move to a less radio-based and more web-based model, Montel Williams' content just won't cut it. It won't stand out in the crowd and it'll keep AAR at best limping along, nothing better."

To make sense of some of the recent programming decisions, Bennett Zier offered the following analogy: "We're redefining and grabbing the pulse of what Americans want, and by redefining we're serving up product that they want. So it's kind of like a retail store that's been open for five years and realizes that there are two or three products that they do really well, but they need to close a few stores in order to expand and that's the way you should look at us."

Those "closed stores" include virtually all the progressive talent that defined the network when it was launched on March 31, 2004 as the antidote to the tens of thousands of hours of conservative talk radio then filling the airwaves. Within ten months of AAR's premiere, their programs could be heard on over 90 stations in the nation's top 25 markets. At the top of each hour, there was a recognizable newscast followed by a diverse roster of hosts including Al Franken, Jeanine Garafolo, Randi Rhodes, Marc Maron, Mike Malloy, Sam Seder, Chuck D, Flanders and Maddow, among others, winning the hearts of loyal listeners across the country. Of AAR's early crop of progressives, currently only a taped hour of Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show is still in the mix on a daily basis.

Slow to the Web? Searching for a Business Strategy

If Air America is becoming more savvy about its web presence (e.g. its daily internet newsletter has improved to be a worthy read), it's been a long time coming.

Early on, AAR saw a clear path to building a truly national audience. Their strategy would not be dependent on reaching listeners through the traditional broadcast market. Doug Kreeger, an investor and AAR's third CEO, who stepped in during a key transitional phase, recalls, "We stripped down the website so that we could focus on streaming. Within days of the launch we had the 2nd highest internet-radio streaming audience in history. So that was evidence early on that streaming was a way to reach people. We built up a need for people to have a place to listen."

But also in its beginning phase, Air America had its first of many waves of money troubles, and cuts had to be made -- and new money people found. Rather than building out its web approach, the web was pretty much abondoned and the overwhelming focus was on revenues from the broadcast radio market, where, reported Kreeger, "We couldn't convince the advertisers that progressives were a good target."

Ongoing economic pressures resulted in a turning point for Air America. It was announced in 2005 that Jerry Springer, aka "the King of Trash TV," would fill the prime-time slot that had been occupied by Marc Maron's highly popular Morning Sedition. While core listeners were outraged, Danny Goldberg, who at the time had recently become Air America's third CEO in a year, assured The New York Times, "What we're trying to do is broaden out the progressive audience."

Today, Air America is still trying to "broaden the audience," but history seems to show that every effort made by the business side of AAR -- mostly populated by corporate radio guys and sales people -- has meant hiring a strange brew of characters. In addition to Jerry Springer, there was The Lionel Show, brought over from the WOR radio network, which offered little in the way of progressive politics and preferred to talk about conspiracies (that show was pushed to the 6 AM slot by Montel Williams' program). In the meantime, Ron Kuby, known as a radical lawyer but one who did not enjoy a progressive listenership, was hired after the demise of a "strange bedfellows" show with right-winger and Guardian Angels founder, Curtis Silwa. Like many of those dropped along the wayside, Doing Time with Ron Kuby aired its last segment on June 22nd. It's hard to recognize what these on- air people have in common besides some kind of "media" recognition; they certainly did not have a progressive brand.

According to Thom Hartmann, "Radio is the most risk-averse business I've ever encountered." Hartmann, a former Air America host whose 2002 article, "Talking Back to Talk Radio", provided the early model for the network says, "Program directors wake up every morning and ask themselves, ‘how can I keep from getting fired?' No one was ever fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air."

This March, Hartmann left Air America to air his show independently through his website, podcasts and subscription service, along with a new syndicator. All but a handful of the sixty-plus stations that had syndicated The Thom Hartmann Show through Air America followed Thom as he switched to Dial Global --- an independent network that syndicates successful progressive talkers including Ed Shultz (who now with his own show on MSNBC) and Stephanie Miller. "As Air America has lost brands, people followed the brand, not the network. I've been building the brand of Thom Hartmann since the 1980s."

The Audience AAR Is Really After

Why does Air America seem content to abandon its progressive brands? Perhaps it's the audience they keep seeking, which continues to dovetail with the old school, radio advertising philosophy and securing the "right demographic" for those sales. In the eyes of the "pros," progressive brands are not what makes advertisers happy.

Bill Hess, senior V.P. of programming, indicated, "Our target audience is the 25 to 54 year old adult. Quite frankly, we have found that the programs we're putting on by design appeal a little bit more to the younger end of that, which is very strong." That would be the Millennial Generation, or those born after 1978, and the most diverse generation in U.S. history – and one that, it could be argued, is pushing U.S. politics in a more progressive direction. But one has to wonder: does this younger-guy demographic -- and for sure they are mostly male -- even listen to talk radio? And aren't we well past the dawning of the Internet generation where the Gen Yers are likely to be camped out?

So when you add it up, AAR seeks to attract younger males to AM talk radio, with an ever-changing and  eclectic gaggle of on-air middle aged males with virtually nothing in common. Is it possible for this formula to work ? At this point, the network's most widely syndicated program The Ron Reagan Show, hosted by the liberal son of the conservative icon, appears on only 40 U.S. stations. It would seem AAR is burdened by the need to appear to be progressive with a line up of guys who undermine that need. After all, Lionel, Montel, Kuby and Ron Reagan are mainly quirky name brands, some with more radio experience than others. They are not likely to motivate a progressive audience.

Where are the next generation's Maddows, Flanders, Rhodes, Millers and Hartmanns? Where is the appeal to women in the AAR line up? And most importantly, where's the commitment to the tough political analysis that social change is organized around? Perhaps AAR should just drop the progressive pretense, because most people aren't fooled, and perhaps it is getting in the way of their real goals.

Still Zig Zagging: Here comes Randi Rhodes

So just when you thought maybe you understood what AAR was trying to do, here comes Randi Rhodes -- again -- though in a smaller way. After Air America suspended her last winter for referring to Hilary Clinton as a whore, Rhodes, a talk show veteran, terminated her contract and joined Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks, home of conservatives including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the largest syndicator in the country.

But in late June, despite the vitriolic breakup, Air America announced, with a helping of humble pie, that it would be reuniting with Rhodes through a multi-year deal with Premiere to air her show during drive-time on Air America's Washington, D.C., station.

Bringing back Rhodes seems to indicate a confusing crisis of identity. And the vision of what AAR might become remains unclear. "Air America is definitely headed in the wrong direction," says Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks. "The old radio guys believe you can't sell to liberals so they're trying to become moderate or centrist. They're wasting their brand."

The Young Turks represent another program in the Thom Hartman school of multi-platform thinking. The show premiered on the Sirius Satellite Radio network in 2002 and was aired on Air America at six to nine AM from September 2006 to December 2007. The Young Turks currently has a daily internet talk show that can be heard on the America Left station of XM Satellite Radio, streamed live on their website, downloaded as a podcast from I-Tunes and Air America, viewed on The Young Turks' Youtube channel and heard on cell phones through Foneshow. "We always wanted to be independent -- nine out of ten radio guys out there do not know what they're talking about, they don't know their listeners. The last thing I want to do is to be subject to one of these guys."

The Young Turks claim that by utilizing the combined power of online and broadcast technologies, they have built a model that is sustainable for the show's small staff. "Anyone who is not online doesn't understand where this medium is going," says Uygur, who boasted The Young Turks' YouTube channel had logged over 6.5 million views this April (compared to 125,000 daily listeners through XM).

Many argue, however, that The Young Turks' popularity is less characterized by their appeal to progressives and more reflective of that age-old axiom: sex sells. Sifting through the Turks' YouTube channel by hits bear this out: the top most-viewed segments include "Kate Moss Sex Tape and Jennifer Love Hewitt in Playboy" (1,989,786 views) and "Naked Pictures of Vanessa Hudgens Confirmed" (1,829,943 views). Compare this to the hits on segments like "Majority of Americans Believe Marijuana Should Be Legal" (17, 661 views), "Torture Pictures A Lot Worse then Expected" (17,271 views) and it looks like the critics have a point.

Small Is the New Big: Happy Multi -Platforming

Whether or not The Young Turks are using sex to levy ratings, progressive talk radio does face significant challenges in drawing audiences as it moves online. According to Sam Seder, an original Air America host who co-hosted the internet-only Breakroom Live with Marc Maron (until July 7th when Maron tendered his resignation on the program), "The challenge will be to establish brands that are not about selling to program directors, but to aggregators of online portals. The same notion that XM and Sirius were competing will happen with aggregator X or Y. The radio element won't disappear, but it will be a less determinate factor -- in an industry that's slowly dying, you have to establish a brand with a loyal following. As information becomes more niche, you learn to monetize in different ways."

In that vein, Thom Hartmann is looking forward to rolling out an I-phone application in the near future and within the next five years foresees an internet-powered drive-time "We'll see cars with internet radios built in. Who gets programmed into that car versus the I-phone?" becomes the question. "In the world of conservative talk radio, there are only five or six successful shows -- Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck. There are 20 to 30 B-listers, who are doing okay, but who will go away. The liberals have only an A-team. I think the cream will rise to the top."

"A future in multi-platforming? You bet," concurs Laura Flanders, whose GRITtv is available via satellite through the Dish Network, on cable stations in 35 states and 200 college stations, online as a live feed and as a paid subscription service. "The blockbuster economy is over. From the ‘50s to the ‘90s, one network news show, one newspaper, even one radio program could command a truly national audience. No longer. Now your average late night cable news show attracts around 250,000 viewers. Even the good ones are only between 500,000 and 800,000. That's not unattainable for those of us with multiple platforms: online, on satellite, on cable."

"The death of the mass audience hits worst those who actually had one" continues Flanders. "The rest of us have always had to be nimble, piece together new strategies, collaborate, combine resources, team up. The money men had top-down power; ours was always lateral. GRITtv is built on leveraging lateral resources: peer content providers, peer producers and peer distributors, not to mention peer funders. Now it's the strategy even the big guys are looking to." As business guru Seth Godin says, ‘Small is the New Big.'"

Back at Air America, the revelation in late June that the network had let go of Amy Winslow, director of programming operations and its longest serving staffer led to speculation that it's in for more tumultuous times. "The bar for crazy decision making at AAR is set pretty high, but this one cleared it by quite a distance," says Flanders. "Does it mean the network's phasing out its terrestrial radio operations? Who knows? Wrongly or rightly it will inevitably send that message to affiliate stations."

Rumors continue to bubble that AAR model is floundering and money problems persist, perhaps in a fundamental way. But AAR leadership has a stiff upper lip when it comes to talking about finances, the number of listeners, online traffic, where their shows are syndicated and the reach of their affiliate stations, as does their PR firm, Trylon SMR.

Despite the turmoil that might be taking place behind the scenes, when I asked Montel Williams what kind of future he foresees for progressive talk radio, he was optimistic. "I think progressive radio, independent radio, has a huge future in America. The future of radio is going to be here, it's no longer going to be the Rush Limbaughs. The $30 million Rush Limbaugh contract is getting ready to go away. And maybe they'll turn it into a $30 million Montel contract!"

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