Monday, April 14, 2008

Air America does the shark hop

Now that the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled somewhat, we can now take a step back and assess the whole Randi Rhodes/Air America/Nova M game of musical chairs that took place this past week, as Rhodes prepares to relaunch her show from West Palm Beach, FL today. We can take a look at the winners and losers in all of this, and perhaps speculate about the future of liberal talk radio.

Here's what happened in a nutshell. On March 22 in San Francisco, Rhodes appeared at a promotional event for her affiliate there, KKGN (Green 960). As is the norm for radio stations these days, staffers posted video of the event on Green 960's website. Along came a reader and contributor to No Quarter, a blog run by ex-CIA agent, former Republican operative and current Hillary Clinton cheerleader Larry Johnson. This person discovered the Green 960 video and extracted a five minute segment where Rhodes lashed out at Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in rather vulgar terms. The segment was then uploaded to YouTube. Johnson and company proudly boasted of the move.

And that's where the fun began. The YouTube clip, where Rhodes referred to both Clinton and Ferraro as 'fucking whores,' became the meme of the day during this ongoing and often hostile presidential primary season. The pro-Clinton blogs became livid, on a scale comparable to the mock outrage quite often found in the right-wing blogosphere. Air America, by now in damage control mode, took a stand quickly, doing what most other media companies do - they suspended her. This is par for the course in the broadcast industry, as ESPN took a similar stand against on-air personality Dana Jacobson a couple months prior after bawdy and offensive remarks made at a private employee roast. The oft-volatile Rhodes, who reportedly had shaky relations with the new management team of her network, was livid, and claimed that the suspension was a violation of her contract.

The suspension was only the tip of the iceberg. Last week, Rhodes' lawyer, Robert Gaulin, claimed Air America management told her that her suspension wouldn't be lifted unless she made contract concessions, and apologized for the raunchy on-stage remarks from a few weeks earlier.

"Their actions caused the contract to terminate. They refused to give her her microphone back and put her on the air," he said. "It was a real shame. She was ready, willing and able to go to work."

What Air America's new management team wanted to do in regard to her current contract was what led Rhodes to bail out. Simply put, Rhodes' old contract was very generous in radio terms, as far as the power she wielded. She could quit and opt out of the agreement at any time for any reason, but she could not be fired. That's one helluva radio contract! The new management, however, wanted to amend it, to reverse the terms and turn the tables on the power relationship, giving them the power to dismiss her at will if they so desired and to exert control over the content of her show. She would also have to fulfill the term of her contract if she chose to quit (likely, a non-compete clause, which is common in almost all big radio contracts). That would mean that if she left, or was fired, she would have to serve out a period of time before signing with a competitor. In other words, the hardball tactics with Rhodes are a pure example of corporate dick swinging, though these guys are not ruthless or cunning enough to be any good at it. Charlie Kireker and Mark Green don't swim with the sharks - they leap over them. Or get eaten by them.

Of course, this new contract idea was not acceptable to Rhodes. No way would she agree to these terms. She had quite a few options open to her. She was still a Clear Channel employee via her West Palm Beach station WJNO. She had close friends and supporters at Nova M Radio,who would no doubt drool over acquiring a marquee talent like Rhodes and her loyal affiliate base. There were also other syndicators, such as Jones Radio Networks, who were also sniffing around. She refused to agree to the revised terms. Management said, in essence, "we own your microphone and you'll never get on air again unless you agree." She called their bluff and quit on the spot. Within twelve hours, she signed a new deal with upstart rival Nova M.

Rhodes discussed her move in two interviews the night of her move. First, she appeared in a brief segment on "Larry King Live." Next, she was on the phone at her new employer, Nova M Radio. Another former Air America host, Marc Maron, was guest hosting for Mike Malloy, and was able to get Rhodes to come on and talk candidly about what happened. She also spoke with Nicole Sandler of her Miami affiliate, WINZ (mp3).

So far, the rollout of the show is going exceptionally well, says Nova M Radio CEO John Manzo, who told Radio & Records, "Many affiliates came in one big block, namely the Clear Channel stations," and "another slew committed after the deal was official." Manzo says the smaller independent stations are still being reached out to, but he "hasn't heard a firm 'no' yet from anyone," adding, "In fact, I can't recall getting so much industry support for a single move ever before." Some stations are holding out, however, with WWRL in New York and WROC in Rochester among those carrying Air America's fill-in programming. WWKB in Buffalo will supposedly bring back Rhodes, and WCPT in Chicago, WXXM in Madison and WVKO in Columbus are still thinking about it. A complete list of updated (shocking!) affiliates can now be found on Nova M's site.

Meanwhile, Air America, after throwing all their eggs in one basket and spending the past year positioning Rhodes as their marquee personality, was left with an embarrassingly large hole in the middle of their broadcast schedule. In addition, Rhodes' departure will possibly take away a huge chunk of Air America's listed affiliates, the ones that aired only Rhodes' offering from the network. Taking a cue from Arthur Fonzarelli, was the Rhodes ordeal the point where Air America, pardon the cliche, 'jumped the shark?'

So, how do they fill the gap? As has become typical for Air America, they will go with a transition period consisting of guest hosts, like they did when they replaced Morning Sedition, Jerry Springer, Sam Seder and The Young Turks in the past. This time though, instead of calling someone like faithful understudy Lee Rayburn, Mark Green opened up the Rolodex and called some of his buddies. Next week, actor/comedian Richard Belzer will hold down the fort from 3-6P. Belzer, a longtime standup comic who currently stars on "Law & Order:Special Victims Unit" is an interesting choice. When it comes to riffs on pop culture, politics or life in general, he minces no words. His hilarious and oft-vulgar standup routine would probably make Rhodes blush. Which is ironic, given that one of Air America's beefs with Rhodes is that they weren't too keen on Rhodes' own standup act in San Francisco. Go figure. Oh, and in keeping with the whole shark jumping thing, did I mention that Belzer's cousin is none other than Henry Winkler, a.k.a. The Fonz?

The choice of Belzer is not permanent. After all, he would have to get his head examined if he were to ditch his role on one of TV's hottest dramas, and the easiest meal ticket on the planet, to do radio for a teetering lower-tier radio operation like Air America. That's crazy talk. Belzer's merely on break from his TV show and is biding his time by doing a week behind the mic.

It appears that Air America president Mark Green is plugging the hole by turning his network into what seems like an exclusive audio clubhouse for fellow Huffington Post bloggers who want to play radio. Following Belzer, names that have been bandied about include Rosie O'Donnell (!), Fran Drescher (!!) and Phil Donahue. Granted, Belzer (who did radio at the old WNBC) and Donahue have talk show chops and the thought of hearing both on the air is somewhat intriguing. But Rosie the narcissistic emotional trainwreck? Fran, the nasally-voiced Nanny? Has Air America gone mad?

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Air America will permanently fill this time slot, one of the most high-profile on radio, with one of their own established voices, rather than explore the meager pickings outside of the network (the current HuffPo-palooza plan is not a viable long term solution). The smart money would be on their latest up-and-coming star, Rachel Maddow, who gets valuable face time and promotion nightly on MSNBC. Moving her show up three hours would make it easier for Maddow to make TV appearances, rather than the current usual method of prerecording her 6-9P ET show. In addition, a move like this would go down easier with a fanbase that has been quickly losing their confidence in the network. Moving Maddow would make quite a bit of sense, though common sense is something seemingly in short supply at Air America.

Switching morning host Lionel to afternoons would also be a no-brainer move. Lionel, brought over a year ago from a WOR show that had a substantial affiliate base, has been a dud for the network, as they've been fighting to sign affiliates to carry him. Most of the affiliates that do air his show delay it as long as 12-15 hours into the evening or late hours. After losing the New York clearance (in Lionel's home market) when WWRL opted for infomercials in the time slot, WWRC in Washington, DC appears to be the only over-the-air station in a major market that airs him live. And the low-powered WWRC is merely a bit player in a market overflowing with talk radio stations. Getting Lionel out of the morning dead zone could justify actually keeping him around. I can't imagine that a talent of that caliber in the industry is happy with the way his show is currently being handled. His former handler, WOR, is a pretty weak network, but Air America makes them look really good in comparison. Putting him in afternoons makes sense from a business perspective (and yes, I do realize that I will get flamed mercilessly by readers for even suggesting this).

A good option would be to move Maddow to afternoons and Lionel to the early evening slot. Lionel works better at night, as he proved at WOR in years past. I don't think Lionel would willingly return to his old late night stomping grounds, certainly not for Air America. But this is close.

As for filling the vacated shift, perhaps they'll try and salvage what core audience they still have and give Sam Seder back his weekday shift. But we know that won't happen. Air America doesn't seem to listen to their core fans. Seder, however, has made it known to management that he is indeed interested in returning to weekdays.

So, how does Air America clean up the mess, and stop the bleeding? At this point, they really need to hold on to their depleting fan base, now seemingly awash with so many options. This core of listeners have been angered by Air America's antics in the past, with Malloy's firing in 2006, Seder's demotion a year ago, the constant revolving door of shows and talent and now the whole Rhodes fiasco, which they bungled by trying to strong-arm their most-promoted talent. If I was in charge at Air America (and at this rate, I may someday be able to acquire it quite cheap), I would move Maddow to replace Rhodes, bump Lionel to the 6-9P ET slot, and give Seder his old morning shift. Hell, I'd offer Seder and the exiled Marc Maron the chance to team up for the still-vacant morning drive slot (6-9A ET) and tell them to do whatever the hell they want, so long as it's funny. Morning drive on the East Coast is an open field, with Bill Press the only syndicated option currently available. They could then find a unique show for 9A-12P ET that could possibly have a chance at competing with Jones Radio Network's Stephanie Miller juggernaut. Unfortunately, that unique show was supposed to be Lionel. Perhaps they could use it to groom an up-and-coming talent, as they did with Jon Elliot in late nights.

But let's face it, who does the management team at Air America listen to anyway? Aside from the voices in their own heads. Certainly not their listeners. And definitely not some pissant blogger like me. Air America all too often seems to be a network run solely on strong egos. And that's why they jumped the shark.

19 comments:

mikelite said...

spot on analysis as always. it really is sad how consistent they've been in messing up AA and screwing over their loyal fan base. This mgmt doesn't seem competent enough to compete with the radio on the right. Too bad I've got no way to listen to NovaM...

ltr said...

While we're on the subject of talk radio musical chairs, the Radio Tranquilizer is passing along some gossip about Sean Hannity. Seems Mr. Stuck on Stupid is fed up with his network, Citadel/ABC, and is looking to take his act elsewhere.

Since Tranq linked to me last week, the least I could do is reciprocate, so here it is. There's also the RSS feed. Maloney's claiming an exclusive. How he knows this is uncertain, but given how much he coddles Hannity, Limbaugh, et al, I would assume pillow talk.

ltr said...

Randi sends her regards and thank-yous via her new Nova M Radio blog (also check out their slick new site):

WE DID IT! On 2008-04-13 22:48:33, randirhodes wrote:

April 14, 2008

MY DEEPEST GRATITUDE TO YOU ALL - THE RANDI RHODES SHOW IS BACK NATIONWIDE TODAY!

Together all of us just saved the national syndication of The Randi Rhodes Show. ALL OF YOU DID IT! Thank you…

To all of you who called and blogged and wrote to your local stations and showed up for our show in MASSIVE NUMBERS.

To the AMAZING Nova M who gave me a new home and all the tools I needed to make this happen in RECORD TIME.

The INCREDIBLY LOYAL Randi Rhodes Show Affiliates who built a fortress around me and said, “We’re with you Randi!”

All of us worked our asses off and MADE A BRAND NEW NATIONAL RANDI RHODES SHOW in 4 days (Thank you Manzo, Duffy, Dave and Scott for working ALL WEEKEND!). Thank you to all of you who haven’t slept, eaten or WASHED in 4 days!!! We’re not pretty but we are TOUGH muthas.

THIS HAS NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE and without everyone giving it EVERYTHING THEY HAD, it would not have happened.

Be very sure that I couldn’t have done it without the unbelievably smart John Manzo who rolled up his sleeves and lent me his brain when mine just wanted to shut down.

The MOST PROFESSIONAL STAFF IN RADIO are the Engineers and Operations Managers at 1290 WJNO/West Palm Beach, my REAL HOME FOR THE PAST 9 YEARS. My old WJNO studio is now my flagship studio for the national show.

Thank you to Ken Charles, Dave Denver and John Hunt in South Florida and ONE OF THE TRUEST BELIEVERS, Mr. Gabe Hobbs. Gabe sent Mr. Manzo to West Palm 6 years ago to take the show National. And that’s exactly what Mr. Manzo did. These two incredible men are the two who STOOD WITH ME EVERY STEP OF THE WAY. THEY ARE TALK RADIO and without them, I would never have been able to take this show national and never would have been able to KEEP IT NATIONALLY SYNDICATED today. If you ever want to know what I have that no one else does, it’s Hobbs and Manzo. They are THE RADIO ELITE who opened the door and held it open when some tried to slam it in my face.

Thank you to the General Managers and Programmers at all of our affiliate stations who said YES before I ASKED. . Almost ALL of THE RANDI RHODES SHOW affiliates will be carrying the show.

And most of all, I am so grateful to ALL OF YOU who did everything you could think of while we were doing everything we could think of to make this happen.

IT’S IS HAPPENING.

TODAY, AT OUR USUAL TIME, THE RANDI RHODES SHOW IS ON THE AIR!

You are the MOST powerful force in Radio THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN. No one has ever seen anything LIKE US!

AMAZING JOB EVERYONE. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU AND I WILL NEVER EVER FORGET THIS EXPERIENCE.

ONWARD AND UPWARD!

Love ALLways,

Randi

aL said...

A+++++++ entry. You couldn't be more right on the money. Promote Maddow to 3-6PM ET (and MSNBC needs to give her Dan Abrams' time slot for her own TV show), get someone up-and-coming to practice their chops at 9AM-12PM when everyone (including me) is listening to Stephanie Miller, get a decent 6-9AM show (god I hated the Young Turks), and do something...anything...else with Lionel.

Air America has totally screwed itself over. I remember a day when there was someone great on anytime between 6AM and 9PM. Mark Maron, Janeane Garofalo, Sam Seder, AL FRANKEN, Chuck D...now the only ones worth listening to are Ms. Maddow and Thom Hartmann - and Thom Hartmann is trounced by Ed Schultz.

Thanks Air America for bringing liberal talk back to the masses, but hello Jones and Nova M for the future of liberal talk!

Barbara said...

Whatever Air America does, perhaps it should get rid of Richard Green's 'Clout.' As irritating as Lionel is, Lionel sometimes says significant and funny things. Richard Green plays "Every Breath You Take" 50 billion times a week, drops celebrity names incessantly, and features 9/11 Truthers and psychics on his show. He needs to go!

FSL said...

A very insightful summary. Far better than anything the newspapers and wire services have been offering.

A couple of nits:
Are listeners fans of Air America or of specific hosts? Do they care (or even know) if a program comes from Air America (or Nova M or Jones)? Air America has allowed its brand to become a generic name for liberal talk (like Kleenex or Aspirin). Most people think everything on a lib talk station is Air America.

I'd say the depleted base they need to worry about are stations (unless they want to reinvent themselves as a "new media" company via satellite and Internet radio - which might not be a bad idea).

You're right: Lionel is an evening show. Put him back there. They might even pick up some non-lib talk stations (he did OK with them before). And Maddow could do radio 3-6pm and then the MSNBC simulcast.

Interesting that WWRL opted for infomercials rather than Stephanie Miller. Maybe they will come to their senses and realize the loss in audience build isn't worth whatever cash they get for the infomercials. Putting on the Rev Al is interesting idea. He might do well on lib talk stations (not specially targeting the urban audience). Dyson might, too. Air America should keep an eye on how Sharpton does on WWRL and maybe start talking to Radio One.

jenn said...

Thank you for the information. I just recently found this site and it has been extremely helpful. As for Air America, I must say that my heart is broken. I really did believe in its promise and never really recovered from the canceling of Morning Sedition. I'm probably the only one still listening to the old bits on Sedition Radio. Then there was the Mike Malloy thing and the Sam Sedar thing ... it all became just to much for this little liberal to bear. So now I stream Nova M and catch Rachel Maddow a little on AA and that's it. This site helped me figure out all this stuff so I'm eternally grateful.

Thanks again!

mmrules said...

AAR Management is More Than Stupid !

Mark Green is a Egotistical Diva !

Weak and Pathetic !
Kinda like our Democratic Leadership !
Sad..

pjs said...

Funny, I seem to recall a whole lot of radio 'experts' lauding the genius of bumping Sam Seder for Lionel, and his guaranteed following. It was all about the clearances, I remember hearing.

The experts continue to talk about AAR making 'business decisions,' but every move they've made since Danny Goldberg began killing the network has only made things worse.

I only hope NovaM can someday become everything that AAR seemed to have the potential for back on April 1, 2004. Seder may be lobbying for a five-day gig, but I don't think Maron would ever go back. He's learned his lesson. I hope Sam finds his way out, too.

FSL said...

Hi,

I came back to check out the new comments and "Shark" metaphor in the story hit me.

If Air America is "jumping the shark," then maybe Ted McGinley should be one of the guest hosts.

I bet AA is really surprised at how quickly Randi got back on the air and on "most of these same stations." They probably figured she'd just go away like Liz Winstead, and the others AA has dumped, or at least take months to get a new gig like Imus.

Everybody in radio who has ever been fired (which is almost everybody in radio), has to be cheering for Randi(including some right wing hosts).

Hayduke said...

As long as Thom Hartmann is with AAR I will tune my work radio to the local AAR affiliate in the morning. He is easily the most informative and interesting voice in radio today.

Brady Bonk said...

Once upon a time, I was one of AAR's most ardent supporters and defenders. Once, they asked us for money directly, and I whipped out my debit card without hesitation...yes, I was an Air America Associate, as I'm sure many of us were. No more. Screw them. May they go tits up before the corporate mold and goo stuck in their underarms has a chance to dry and stick forever.

Jackie said...

Seder has a large loyal following that wants him back on the air permanently, if not AAR, somewhere that he can be heard. Listeners are emailing AAR in support of that. There are several petitions out there as well. Email pcollins@airamerica.com to say your piece, and sign the petition. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/sam-seder-show He and Maron continue to do their video show online at www.samsedershow.com

John M. Lally said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jolly Roger said...

Contrast how Jones has treated their big guns (Eddie and Stephanie) with how Air America has treated damn near everyone in their lineup. I don't think it's an accident that Eddie and Stephanie are the predominant left talk personalities now, even though Randi Rhodes has an audience that is fanatical in its devotion to her.

She was AAR's brass ring, and she, herself, went way out of her way to make AAR work. They way they treated her is inexcusable. If Jones had been handling her she'd be on a par with the Oxy-Moron by now in terms of markets and listeners.

Holly said...

I would like to say thanks a lot, Mark Green.

Eugenian said...

Both Lionel and Richard Green are unlistenable. Move Maddow to the Rhodes slot, bring back Seder (and Maron or ?) for a renewed Morning Sedition, and bring in the vastly under-appreciated Lee Rayburn to replace the vastly-annoying Whiney Lionel.

Eugenian said...

The Donahue idea sounds pretty good! But Fran Drescher?!?! That would be the kiss of death. She'd almost be more annoying than Lionel, if that's possible. I'd rather listen to the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard scene from Jaws looping for three hours every day than have to listen to The Nanny's voice. A Fran Drescher show would, however, provide new material for the spooks to play at Gitmo. No prisoner could withstand that; they'd break within the first hour.

Eric said...

Perhaps I am too late to post anything relevant.. I will miss the old AAR, I enjoyed it VERY much. AND I like LIONEL! I believe he holds the station together with perspective which are very refreshing: LOVE THOM and RACHAEL...We all have our favorites.. I know that it is a very hard industry to make a stake in... All I know is there was really something which resonates with RANDI and the way she spoke. especially within the aformentioned group. I thought everyone got along... silly me!
How naive of me to think AAR was a homogenous group of like minded progresives who all saw things from a similar perspective. We are similar to the ongoing battle between clinton and obama...We are forgetting how powerful we are as a united front, when we are caring and sensitive to each weakness, trying to be supportive to the efforts to speak for justice and truth against the knowlege we are all human. Very human! ARE WE always domed to self destruct?
We make mistakes, gafs and blunders... usually when we think we are riding high.. I hope someday the egos which may or maynot have played a role in this fiasco will somehow be set aside and a true meeting of the minds could be had.
There are many factors which went in play with Randi, I am thinking she gave her all- and I respect her for how she gave and gave!!!
power is amongst the most distructive of all forces.. It was a great time, yet another disappointment just when it seems we were there..on the brink.
I think we are vunerable when we forget to care for each other.
what are we doing to ourselves??? !


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