I was doing a little Googling yesterday afternoon, and lo and behold, I ran across this little item from CBS' Public Eye blog. The headline ponders whether 'extremist' Air America is toning down. Uhh... "Extremist?"
At first, I was going to chuck it aside, along with all the other useless blog posts slagging the little network that could (or couldn't, depending on which side one's bread is buttered). But it was CBS, so I figured there must be a point to all of this.
CBS Blogger Matthew Felling referenced the St. Petersburg (FL) Times, on an item about a couple local stations that recently added the network's programming. One quote about Air America stood out to Felling:
"I do think the liberal programming that has occurred here has been far too extremist… It's not our job to get a Democrat elected to Congress. We need to be funny, we need to be enjoyable, and I don't think that existed at this company three years ago."
The source of the quote? Would you believe Air America VP of Programming David Bernstein? He was referring to the new direction the network is heading in, as they formulate plans to get Air America programming onto more stations. The goal is to bring it to the masses. We saw the first step back in April when he hired Lionel.
Nonetheless, a comment such as this from one of the guys running the network is sure to raise eyebrows. It also runs the risk of raising the ire of the network's loyal listeners.
Felling sought out Talkers Magazine's Michael Harrison (as most media people do in these instances) for his take on Bernstein's comments. “I think Bernstein was smart to say it," Harrison said. "...These other people buy it at a bargain price and realize that it has negative brand identification. Saying Air America Radio doesn’t get you anywhere – it actually hurts you. So it’s smart of Bernstein to say what he’s saying, that they’re going to run an entertaining and progressive programming schedule that fits in more with the mainstream audience."
Harrison added, “It was far too politically motivated and not motivated to gather an audience and generate revenue. It just wasn’t a good business plan. They ran it like a campaign, rather than a broadcasting company.”
“It’s about entertainment. It’s about being a compelling speaker and attracting people to listen. Some political content, sure. And some story telling. Along with charisma. It’s an elusive mix of traits that makes for good radio.”
“The biggest problem that the original Air America had was that it was trying to knock off conservative talk show hosts, when they should have presented their own vision of America. That would be like watching HBO’s “Inside the NFL” and seeing them talked about what’s wrong with baseball, or why you shouldn’t watch baseball.”
Felling himself felt the network was catering too much to 'engaged activist liberals.' By targeting this audience, he claims, Air America ended up turning off other liberals searching for not only good left-oriented content, but also entertaining material, not the gloomy stuff they got with the old regime. Felling says that the 'strident stuff' should be kept to blogs, and that the average folk tuning into stations in the car want something a bit less vitriolic.
What do I think of all this? Believe it or not, I think they're all spot on.
Bernstein is a longtime radio guy, the type of person Air America should have hired long ago. Politics means little to him. In a business as cutthroat and vicious as radio, an upstart syndicator like Air America needs people like this. Stepping in to run a business in an unfamiliar industry is not as simple as it may seem, no matter how much money they have to burn.
Let's face it, as an agitprop tool, talk radio is not all that effective. One look at Radio Martí, a U.S. government-supported $1 billion per year propaganda sinkhole that succeeds solely in being jammed in their target market of Cuba, shows this. And many right-wingers overstate the current importance of Limbaugh, Hannity, et. al. to their side. They're really not that big a factor. If one were to add up the ratings shares of all the conservative talk stations in America, they'd see that at most, only about 4-5% of the American population really listens to it. That means 95% or so could care less about what they have to say. Of course, the numbers are drastically lower for left-leaning radio. In short, political radio on both sides is really just about preaching to their own choirs, so if they're trying to brainwash the public, they're all doing a pretty lousy job of it.
So, what is the purpose of progressive talk radio anyway? And why the hell do I have this silly little blog? Well, as I've said many times, Air America took the wrong approach when they started up in 2004. The network's founders reportedly had an initial goal of trying to get their people elected to office. Well, that only goes so far in syndicated radio.
In the run-up to their debut, I cringed when I heard what Air America's mission was. They obviously didn't understand what talk radio was all about. They did it all wrong. Doing bully-pulpit talk radio, while working little to gain the listeners' trust, is just plain foolish. At least Ed Schultz had the right idea when he created a left-leaning show that was geared more toward the mainstream. Sure, the activist core probably doesn't like him much, but he appeals to Joe Sixpack in middle America, and quite frankly, that's much more effective. Why preach to the converted?
To their credit, Air America at least sought out entertainers, comedians and writers, to bring a little comedy element to the programming. They also signed a few radio veterans, such as Randi Rhodes, who had a very popular show in Florida, and Rachel Maddow, who was an up-and-comer in Vermont. But radio is a tough venue for people that don't possess the skills required. Sure, Marc Maron and Sam Seder became good at it. But Janeane Garafalo, Marty Kaplan and Lizz Winstead fell by the wayside. And so did Al Franken.
The network as a whole eventually became more about the message than the medium. The funny people became either bitter or boring, and many of the laughs went bye-bye. Some Air America personalities, such as Maddow and Thom Hartmann, were experienced enough in the medium to forge ahead and create their own brand of compelling radio. But other shows seemed to cater more to activists and bloggers than to people who listen to the AM band. The network's sponsors were usually drawn from the ranks of politically-oriented organizations, rather than Fortune 500 companies, and ads often included rather scathing political messages. As a whole, Air America became more about activism than radio. And even some affiliates, such as ones owned by Clear Channel, played this up in their promotions, on-air presentation and imaging in a rather cynical and condescending way.
Meanwhile, Schultz and the entertainment-oriented Stephanie Miller were pulling in blue chip advertisers, with the help of a syndicator that was more interested in radio than politics. Both personalities have arguably become bigger successes than Air America. Why is that? Well, they focused on being entertaining in their own right. They target the mainstream, and in return, their shows have experienced widespread distribution by stations that wouldn't dare touch anything related to Air America. This is understandable. Radio station owners are in the business of making money, not donating bully pulpits. That's the nature of the business.
In addition, much of Air America's desired market is likely listening to public radio, which does an amazing job of presenting in-depth news, culture and features without the shouting and demagoguery. Unlike the other side of the political spectrum that heavily consumes AM talk radio, we don't need to be preached to, but we like to be informed, educated and entertained by something unique.
In order to keep the listeners coming back, or to attract desired younger listeners, the programming has to be compelling. To just appeal to a very small base of passionate politically-active people is not commercially viable. Besides, these passionate people will be the first to turn on them, as they did when Sam Seder was replaced by Lionel. This is a tough crowd to satisfy. Meanwhile, the average radio listener often could care less.
And if the goal of Air America is to influence people, they should aim more for the mainstream, rather than rely on a small, devoted base. Salem Communications makes this mistake with their conservotalk outlets, and the result is a bunch of stations with crappy ratings and weak revenue.
Talk radio, as I've said time and time again, is something we listen to for entertainment and information. It used to be more informative, back in the days when we relied on it to learn about what was happening in the world around us. It also used to be entertaining, before all the pathetic attention grabs and shock jock cliches. Talk radio is ripe for something compelling, something that truly breaks the mold. In order to thrive in this kind of environment, one has to understand that. Running a radio network as a campaign tool was a foolhardy notion. Air America needed to be something completely different.
In the three and a half years since Air America has taken to the air, it has been beaten up, ripped apart, laughed at, ridiculed, derided and generally ignored. A lot of that is right-wing bloviating, but there is some truth to the accusations. But while I have often been critical of Air America's approaches, I do admire that they're still kicking. They could have easily dropped off the grid by now, but they kept coming back. In helping to establish an entirely new format, it's easy to become radio roadkill, like CBS' fizzled "Free FM" concept did. Keep in mind that Free FM had big FM signals in large markets and deep pockets at their disposal. Air America, and the progressive talk format in general, is forced to slug it out mostly on tiny 1,000 and 5,000 watt AM peashooters that haven't showed up in the ratings since the pre-FM days of the 60s and 70s when they had actual deejays spinnin' stacks o' wax. In short, stations that a large percentage of their target market has either forgotten about or never heard of. No matter what airs on these signals, that's a tough task. The fact that they were even able to pull one shares on many of these signals is nothing short of astonishing.
Yes, Air America Radio still exists. And they seem to be growing, slowly but surely. But they still have a long way to go. Much of their programming is top-heavy with serious issue-oriented shows that few care about. But they at least have been seeking out actual radio people to assist in the road to eventual success. Air America should first and foremost be a radio company, as this is the medium they are targeting. They should stop bending over backward to please a small and fickle target market. Leave that to Pacifica, Democracy Now and the netcasters. The target of a mainstream radio network should indeed be the mainstream. Let the political stuff take care of itself.
Quite frankly, I'd like to listen to a funny and enjoyable liberal talk network. Let's hope Air America becomes that.