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.