Thursday, October 25, 2007

That's entertainment

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.

11 comments:

Lynda said...

You comment that Al Franken "fell by the wayside". Are you aware that he left AA to run for senate? He was funny and entertaining AND was spot on with his message.

I am a dedicated Air American listener as are my progressive friends. I can safely say that not a one of us is a "small and fickle audience" although I am sure there are those of them out there.

In short, it sounds like you are selling us short.

ltr said...

Often, when I write about liberal radio, or any topic for that matter, I like to take a step outside the issue, and look at it from other angles. Often I imagine what the average person thinks about it, or how a radio station owner or account executive would think. I'd like to think that this is what helps set LTR apart from the rest.

Over the past three years since I started this thing, I have been a big supporter of progressive radio. Still am. Not a popular position to take, but I staked my turf and still feel no regrets.

For a long time, I felt Air America, etc. was making a mistake by being too narrowly focused. I realize that they do have a devoted following. The problem is, that following is not big enough. In order to succeed in the 'old media' (i.e. terrestrial radio), they have to bring it more into the mainstream. To do that, they need to do something different than a left-leaning version of hardcore conservative blowhard radio. Some are carving their own niche. Thom Hartmann takes an educational and friendly approach. Stephanie Miller does comedy. Ed Schultz aims toward a blue collar middle America that also likes fishing and football. Rachel Maddow is friendly, personable and often humorous.

This is the main gist behind this entry. That, and to stimulate a much-needed dialogue about it. Air America has been way too stagnant in their approach, and while losing affiliates is something that happens to every radio network, they haven't added enough replacements to counteract that. Ratings have been mostly flat at stations carrying their shows. Is this due to listener fatigue?

An easy trap to fall in would be to make the content too gloomy. That's what I hear when I tune in to Hannity. He's a robot barking out whatever marching orders the RNC sends him while exhibiting little emotion (besides hostility) or humor. Why he's successful, I have no idea. But he's been on the air for a long time, so I guess this helps. People listen out of habit.

I posted a link to this over at Digg and Buzzflash.net, just to see what kind of reaction this would get, and to see what others thought. I'm also seeking out other reactions from around the web. I knew this would be controversial. I'm sure quite a few think I'm off my meds and that AAR is merely telling us what we all should know. I understand that, but that brings up the old saying about leading the horse to water. What good is the messenger if it is only effective at delivering the message to the people who already know it? After all, AAR's target market are heavy consumers of news. They also heavily read the blogs.

I'm sure there's a vast pool of radio listeners out there who are sick of the talking points, sick of the yelling and screaming, and sick of the activist in-crowd. They don't want castor oil, they just want something entertaining that may teach them something. And that's what I'm trying to say. They want interaction, not a dressing-down.

After all, isn't widespread acceptance of liberal talk radio what we all want? The devoted listeners they do have are sizable, but they need to get bigger. Without growth, they will falter.

As for Franken, I have often criticized his coyness about moving on from radio and entering politics. I still felt his indifferent attitude toward radio was wrong. In order to build trust, radio hosts need to show a level of commitment, and his hemming and hawing probably helped set Air America back a bit. Granted, if I still lived in Minnesota, he'd get my vote for Senator. I think he'd be good at it. Then again, I'd vote for a block of wood over that scumbag Norm Coleman.

hashfanatic said...

"They don't want castor oil, they just want something entertaining that may teach them something. And that's what I'm trying to say. They want interaction, not a dressing-down."

Exactly how was replacing Seder for Franken going to accomplish that, unless you're inferring your typical left-of-center radio talk listener WANTS a so-called critical thinker who speaks in circles, farts on air, and accepts junkets from Michael Harrison so he can be programmed to yammer on Mideast issues in a "sensitive" manner?

Your comments about this issue are absolutely astonishing to me, almost reminiscent of the gatekeeper commenter "nylefty" who claims to represent strong progressive values and positions,
but whose covert positions reveal themselves at moments like these.

I'm absolutely blown away. This cannot possibly be our future.

Dermot said...

I agree 100%. I have been a listener since the beginning, and the vitriol wore on me after awhile. I eventually started podcasting, and picking whatever show I was in the mood for (Maron, Hartmann, Maddow, Young Turks). Actually, my favorite podcast is Bill Maher - very funny and a great dialogue amongst the guests. AA would do well to avoid the ranters - Jeneane, Malloy, and Randi. These types appeal to a narrow fringe, but only that small devoted group listens to them regularly.

rbrown0501 said...

From this article I kept looking for the date it was written and wondering did you ever bothered to listen to Air America before writing the article. 1st of all A.M. Radio is a niche crowd and never been mainstream. Just as BMW doesn't aim to sell cars to the ford escort crowd. putting fake liberals on, isn't selling to the people who pay premium subscriptions to AAR or the "mainstream". Secondly you offer no empirical evidence that the lionel move improved AAR standing. The vast majority of its premium listeners I know, turn off the radio because hes just wasting oxygen and time. Lionel has nothing to say, he's lame on the comedy side and insignificant on the political side.
Thirdly your own poll indicates an overwhelming preference for Sam Seder and Mike Malloy over any of the people you claim are the supposed more marketable saviors for liberal talk radio.
As for Randi Rhodes her audience is dropping cause it appears shes sold out to the DLC. And like in the movie "Willard" the rats quickly turn on their betrayer.
I noticed lately people often try to take their own ideas and try to pass them off as middle americas views. Middle america in 2006 voted against everything Hannity and limbaugh and oreily advocated. Their numbers are larger only because they've been around a lot longer and they're doing their corporate sponsors bidding, thus their on more radio stations. Thirdly, since mainstream media has largely ingnored, supported or cheerleaded most of the law breaking activities of the current administration. It stands to reason, since AAR was the only so called "extremist" broadcasting the misdeads of the republicans. Apparently middle america more identified with views of the extremist on AAR than the administrations mainsteam media facilitators

R Sixx
Texas

ltr said...

Well, I'm glad to see such a spirited debate. And I welcome more opinions on this.

If you have to ask whether I've ever listened to Air America, perhaps you should go back and take a look at the previous 600 entries on this blog spanning the past three years.

Now, it's not a matter of whether I like or don't like it (I like most of it), it's a matter of how to make it grow. As I pointed out, their ratings have been flat, and if their goal is to promote political ideology, they have to attract more listeners. Working against them is the vast number of affiliates that are rather small players in their respective markets. That's the hand they've been dealt, since most of the big signalled stations are doing well and have little incentive to shake up their schedules. AM is not a niche band. Although many listeners have retreated to FM, there are many stations that are at the top or near it in many markets. AM used to be the only game in town, before FM arrived.

As for the poll, I know that there is heavy politicking at Seder's and Malloy's sites. I expected that. It is not a scientific poll. It's for entertainment purposes only.

Back in the spring, there was heavy debate about the hiring of Lionel. Hey, I like Sam Seder, but the truth was that very few stations were picking up his show. Lionel was proven, and helped them get clearances on some stations. It was a business decision. It hasn't paid off heavily yet, and I know AAR is not happy about that. But the show is slowly expanding. It's a long-term proposition.

Everyone has their own opinions and most are steadfast in them. And that's what makes this country great. If we all agreed on everything, this country would be pretty damn boring.

The main point in this article is that in order to grow, AAR needs to find ways to expand. Right now, they're preaching to the choir, telling us mostly what we already know. And if AAR was started as a promotional/politicking tool, wouldn't it make sense to go after the largest possible audience? Niche webcasters such as Head-On, Radiopower and many others have the luxury of going super-niche. And they do a good job of it. But AAR chose to play with the old media crowd. And the old media is as mainstream as one gets.

This isn't necessarily about my opinion of AAR's programming. It's mostly about making it work as a business. I posed the question of whether their current approach is hurting their business, and do they need to make changes to attract new listeners. Because if they don't grow, there won't be an Air America.

To Dermot: Bill Maher's "Real Time" podcast kicks ass! I download it every week off iTunes (along with the other short segments offered). Granted, we miss the visual stuff (like last week's encounter with the 9/11 folks), but it's still entertaining to listen to.

Jill said...

Nice try in putting lipstick on this pig, but it's still a pig. Lionel isn't gaining traction because his show sucks.

As for "entertaining", go over and listen to PJ Sauter's Seditionist Radio stream and see what AAR had that it threw away -- this was funny, entertaining, comedy radio with political leanings, good interviews with figures from politics AND the entertainment industry.

The more I listen to old Morning Sedition shows, the more I realize just what a jewel the AAR suits threw away. That show was precisely what Bernstein claims to be talking about -- and yet he's made no efforts to try to bring Marc Maron back into the fold.

He's just another radio hack, and he wants to turn AAR into radio pablum.

I say it's cold cream of wheat and I say the hell with it.

raccoonradio said...

Hannity isn't necessarily a robot barking out RNC marching orders.
He's disagreed with Bush on several issues and has also proclaimed himself a conservative first and
Republican second. Other talk hosts like Laura Ingraham, Michael
Savage, and Howie Carr (Boston)
also take the prez and the GOP
to task when they don't agree.

paul said...

"Quite frankly, I'd like to listen to a funny and enjoyable liberal talk network. Let's hope Air America becomes that."
Spot on! You have to have radio pros to make a lasting network. Then they can be as liberal as they want, and it will work. Thank god for Lionel!

Minister of Propaganda said...

Lionel
a once talented host, who now resorts to insulting callers and playing cricket sound effects when a caller is a dull communicator. I have heard some bright callers be totally ignored by the high and mighty Lionel, simply because the caller was monotone of using too many words to make the point. All he has to do is say "speed it up" or "get to the point", no need to ignore and play crickets.

Kind of what Repukes do, attack the messenger.

The other poster was right Morning Sedition was a perfect blend of comedy and politics, funny I know at least 20 people who were finished with AAR when that show was cancelled.

hashfanatic said...

"Lionel
a once talented host, who now resorts to insulting callers and playing cricket sound effects when a caller is a dull communicator."

Don't forget farting! He farts audibly on the air....

And this is the type of "funny and enjoyable" programming some here believe is exactly what discerning radio listeners want!

The amount of space given to the commercial aspects of political talk radio is unspeakable. I lament that many decent radio professionals and industry "insiders" actually check out what should be legitimate articles of criticism and bloggers concerned with programming and content issues, not to mention, at WWRL at least, poor transmission, reception, and even possible jamming issues...but, no...everything must be couched in a "business" context, after twenty years of having our noses rubbed into the fact that there is no WAY conservative talk radio could possibly succeed without significant and decidedly non-"free market" driven.

"All he has to do is say "speed it up" or "get to the point", no need to ignore and play crickets."

Ah, but you are missing the point. Lionel is an actual PLANT, brought in by the program director, with whom he was good buddies with.

There is no way any rational, intelligent person could consider Lionel's "Losing Labels For Dummies" and first-grade level computer tutorials with good radio, much less Seder's surprisingly incisive, witty, sophisticated pieces...several spots have opened since Sammy's exile to a Sunday night spot, when the signal is so weak, it cannot be heard in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but he will never be handed any slot where he might actually be HEARD by the average New Yorker who'd just as soon tune to Opie and Anthony for toilet humor.

"Kind of what Repukes do, attack the messenger."

Ah, but it was never the Repukes alone that defeated us, or AAR, for the matter....it was the left gatekeepers, the kapos, and those who value money, ratings, and stardom that stuck the shiv in our backs...

Think about it. Franken was a terrible host from day one, Kaplan never really took off, Cenk revealed himself for the little covert he knows himself to be, and Janeane definitely was not made for radio...idealogy aside, the rest of the programming was fairly solid....

The death knell for AAR was a) allowing the neocons in management total reign, and eventually, even ownership by a naive but sympathetic speculator, and b) making sure the truth tellers, the Malloys and Seders and Winnsteads and Marons were disposed of.


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