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

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.

Instead, most of today's progressives spent the last year talking to themselves while conservatives convinced millions of people that global warming is a hoax, that torture is required to keep America safe, that non-millionaires in Canada and Europe have worse health care than their American counterparts. The right wing could never have convinced 45 percent of Americans that the Democrats wanted "death panels" if their outreach was limited to Sarah Palin's Facebook page and the three million people a night who watch Fox's highest-rated shows.

Perhaps the major liberal donors are confused because they became accustomed to focus groups and polling, which are useful tools in predicting short-term public reaction to political messages. They can tell you if a particular TV spot will turn off swing voters two weeks before an election. But long-term political ideas have a more complex and uncertain creative path. Conservatives understand the need to focus on both long- and short-term political communication. Or maybe media advisers and consultants who advise labor unions and an assortment of progressive groups on media strategy are culturally uncomfortable with the crude language of AM talk radio and other mass culture, or are nervous about losing control of their "message."

Whatever the reasons, the theory of leaving political media to the marketplace has enabled a status quo in which one-third of the American public are never exposed to progressive ideas or even to facts that are incompatible with the right-wing narrative.

To be fair -- the radio business has an idiosyncratic culture that is hard for outsiders to grasp. In 1987 when the Reagan administration ended the Fairness Doctrine the cultural landscape was such that many conservatives felt under-served by the mainstream media of the time. Rush Limbaugh was able to use his considerable broadcasting skills to attract millions of them as an audience and revive the economic fortunes of AM radio stations around the country. At the same time, as Viguerie describes in his book, conservatives focused on small market stations for religious and political purposes and helped create an infrastructure that continues to serve them well. Traditional radio stations attract audiences based on "formats" that group together demographic cohorts. Thus music radio is either R&B, pop, rock, country or various versions or hybrids of those genres. A listener to a country station would not want to hear a Metallica song sandwiched in between Toby Keith and Sugarland. While liberals ignored AM radio, viewing it as a passe medium for troglodytes, conservatives honed their skill at talk radio and by the '90s, most liberal moderate talk hosts had been taken off the air because they did not fit into what was now the "conservative talk" format.

Many of the radio executives who programmed the right-wing radio stations and produced the shows did not agree with their politics, but like most business people, they gravitated to the easiest path to make the most money the quickest. These radio people understandably were not going to be motivated by an ideological agenda, even one they agreed with. But activists and public interest groups are supposed to be motivated by ideology.

When Air America and Democracy Radio launched in 2003 they faced not only a lack of liberal talent with the broadcasting chops to entertain radio listeners, but also a lack of stations on which to place programs, even featuring someone with the celebrity of Al Franken. One of the main reasons a sizable investment was needed (though nothing like the scale of the investment made by Murdoch and Moon in money-losing right-wing newspapers) was the need to create enough programming to fill up station time 24/7 so as to justify a "progressive talk" formatted station. Conservative talk had a 17-year head start, and there just weren't enough experienced broadcasters with progressive politics to create a format.

Identifying, developing and marketing talent takes a lot of experimentation with a predictable amount of failures in order to establish successes. This is part of the reason it took even an ultimately successful company like Fox News years to turn a profit. Another need for investment was to market a brand-new format with lots of personalities new to radio and to give incentives for radio station owners in smaller markets to give the new format a chance.

There are some who claim that liberals are just no good at talk radio. Right-wingers accuse liberal talkers of being elitists who don't understand radio entertainment. Some on the left feel the talk radio audience demands a simplistic, angry, polarizing tone that is incompatible with progressive values. Both theories are nonsense.

I am an unabashed Al Franken fan, but even if one disliked his style or politics, the fact is that his show attracted several million listeners a week on AM talk radio stations and because of the under-development of the liberal talk format, it could only be heard, at its peak, by around half of America's radio listeners. Ed Schultz has reached a comparable number and he too has not been able to get broadcast in markets where conservative talk is the only game in town. The apex of Air America's penetration was in 2005-2006 and it not only helped broaden the audience for progressive bloggers who were regular guests, but gave activists like Cindy Sheehan access to Americans who do not listen to the Amy Goodman show or read the Nation. Just as conservative investment in the intellectual world eventually produced legitimate conservative academics and writers, so would liberal investment in the populist media result in more Rachel Maddows.

In Viguerie's final chapter he writes that Air America "was the most ambitious effort by liberals so far to compete with conservatives in the alternative media marketplace." He nervously acknowledges Air America for "turning to articulate entertainers with liberal political convictions." But he was confident it would not succeed because of what he called liberals' "fear of long-term commitment," adding, "Conservatives didn't build their alternate media empire overnight. It was the result of decades of hard work."

Viguerie presciently observed that Air America had "inadequate capitalization. Starting a network with clout will cost a lot more than the $20-30 million they claim to have raised. And to start to expect to make a profit in just four years in unrealistic. Ask Rupert Murdoch."

Although the earliest and wackiest group of Air America owners overspent on a few items like studios and initial salaries, within months the primary characteristic of Air America was a lack of cash for marketing, affiliate growth and talent development. The pressure from wealthy liberals was not to create a long-term strategy as conservatives had done, but to show a business model that would turn a profit in a year or two.

Thus, several ill-fated iterations of Air America were driven by delusional projections of traditional business viability. Consequently they misled themselves and staff regarding what resources would be available and then inflicted onerous cuts on a business that was already underfunded. During my brief tenure I received thousands of hate mails from fans of comedian Marc Maron whose morning drive time show (the time when most commuters listen) was canceled in order to move Rachel Maddow from the obscure 5am time slot into the morning drive. Given her talent and discipline it is likely that Rachel Maddow's success was preordained, but there is no question that the audience she developed in drive time was one of the assets she brought to MSNBC. However, if there hadn't been such a cash crunch, there would have been a way of developing Maddow, keeping Maron and also giving more talent a real chance.

By 2004, the radio business, after years of robust growth that made it a darling of investment bankers, was beginning to feel the erosion of its business model experienced by all "old media." The idea that conventional investors would find a liberal talk syndication company a sexy investment was laughable. Contrary to published reports, there were and are numerous radio people involved in running various versions of progressive radio but they all found it was not a particularly good business based on pure economics. That doesn't mean it wasn't and isn't a good political investment for progressives whose agenda is to battle conservative ideology.

Thom Hartmann, Bill Press, Randy Rhodes, Stephanie Miller, Ron Reagan and many other liberal radio survivors deserve all the credit in the world for their resourcefulness and their commitment. But the broader progressive community should not be leaving them to a Darwinian world while the likes of James Dobson continue to raise ideological money to further broaden the hold of right-wing mythology on the minds of 48 million commuters who happen to like talk radio's rhythms.


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