Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Air America - five years later (Part II)

When Al Franken opened up the microphone just after noon eastern time on Wednesday March 31, 2004, the upstart Air America Radio network was officially born. And, at that very moment, the vultures and cynics officially began speculating on their demise.

Right-wingers, supposedly the champions of free enterprise and the Capraesque American dream of entrepreneurial achievement, were rooting for their quick death. Executives in the oft-cutthroat fraternity of the radio industry were understandably pessimistic. Even many of the new network's target listeners on the left were a bit skeptical - most of them didn't even like talk radio. Yet five years, numerous radio station affiliates, four or five ownership groups (for those keeping count), one bankruptcy and countless departed hosts later, Air America has defied the odds, and are still around to celebrate their fifth anniversary on March 31, 2009. Imagine that.

Looking back, who in 2004 would have predicted that in 2009, a popular Democrat of mixed-race origin named Barack Hussein Obama would be in the White House, or that his party would control both houses of Congress? Or that his much-derided predecessor, George W. Bush, would leave office in disgrace (okay, we already predicted that)? Who would have expected our once-robust economy to be teetering on virtual collapse? Or that people would still be buying Britney Spears albums? We easily could have guessed that the radio industry would be in absolute turmoil, a victim of its own short-sightedness. But could we have guessed that the newspaper industry would be suffering so brutally, with even legendary entities like the San Francisco Chronicle threatening to shut down its presses? Most certainly, very few probably predicted that the media entity that is currently known as Air America Media would be around to celebrate their fifth birthday. You certainly wouldn't be faulted for thinking so.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure if they would get this far. Radio is a strange, funny and unpredictable industry. The big fish swallow the little fish. The system worked against Air America from the very beginning. They did have a few things in their favor, though. First, the programming, though a bit intimidating to the many stubborn and unadventurous radio programmers polluting the industry, was a unique departure from the sea of Rush clones on the marketplace. They had the advantage of becoming big fish in small ponds, rather than being just another small fish in the vast conservative radio ocean. Plus, there were many struggling or obscure AM radio stations dotting the landscape, desperate to do anything to get noticed. Certainly liberal talk content providers could find affiliates somewhere? And the promise of technology, satellite radio and wireless broadband internet networks would allow them to bypass the much more restricted radio dial altogether. So, Air America at least had some things going for it.

But it was a tough climb. If anything, I assumed that the investors' egos would keep Air America afloat for a few years, before the company got swallowed up by a bigger radio entity like Westwood One or Jones MediaAmerica. Or they could have just put the whole thing to sleep and taken the tax writeoff. That's usually the way things work.

So, how did they get to this point? How did they even make it? How did a tiny independent radio network, seeming built on hopes, dreams, egos and a whole lot of drama, chaos and disorder, survive this long? And do they even stand a chance of reaching their tenth birthday?

In late 2002, when a group of left-leaning investors laid the groundwork to launch what was initially going to be called Central Air, many were excited. The beginning of the Iraq War in March 2003 effectively shut out dissenting radio opinions critical of the Bush Administration. Insecure right-wing demagogues named Limbaugh and Hannity, along with their many various clones, even branded those who would not go along with their short-sighted agenda as 'traitors' or worse. Clear Channel and other similar radio ownership groups, in the interest of 'patriotic correctness,' excised many left-leaning ideas from the airwaves of their talk and music-oriented stations, going so far as to even issue a 'ban list' of 'questionable' songs for their FM stations (which included such anti-war tracks as John Lennon's "Imagine"). The radio airwaves got pretty ugly, and no doubt the inevitable backlash would hit. An opportunity existed for an opposing voice.

Sure, Air America wasn't the first foray into liberal talk. Even before Ed Schultz launched his syndicated show three months prior, liberal voices did exist on the airwaves, just as rock n' roll was around even before The Beatles and Bob Dylan. But the existence of a somewhat viable full-service liberal talk programming service certainly made it easier for radio programmers to build stations around, rather than suffer the many complaints of their myopic conservative-leaning talk radio listeners for having the audacity to air some 'subversive lefty socialist traitor' like Schultz immediately after Limbaugh. Air America, like 'em or not, did help kick in the door. Due in large part to Schultz and Air America, progressive talk exploded like wildfire in mid-2004. Soon, Stephanie Miller and Bill Press launched successful syndicated ventures.

The path traveled by Air America certainly wasn't easy. Their aim in the beginning sounded like radio suicide. The new network's initial investors seemed more focused on forwarding political agendas and winning elections than building successful shows. At least the people behind Limbaugh's show realized in the beginning that ideology was merely icing on the cake.

Add to that the turmoil that goes with any new media venture. Lots of investors and their egos clashing with each other. Many of them seemingly felt that status on the Washington and New York cocktail party circuits took priority over establishing a viable business model. There was a tendency to overspend on ridiculous stuff as opposed to building on a sensible budget. And there was too much emphasis put on the oft-quoted line from "Field Of Dreams" - if you build it, they will come. It's never that easy.

And Air America did stumble, and quite gloriously. They frequently appeared to be a radio version of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. They took in a few shady investors (hello, Evan Montvel Cohen) that did more harm than good. They blew through enough money to make AIG look like skinflints, while remaining investors were hesitant to foot the bill. They refused to heed the advice of experienced radio people, convinced that they were trying to change radio from the inside out. For a media company built on the 21st Century web-based model, they certainly couldn't maintain a decent website or reliable webstream (which led indirectly to the creation of this very blog). And they suffered one public relations blunder after another, certainly not helped by ravenous right-wing pundits desperate to rip the flesh from their bones over even the littlest things. And the powers-that-be seemed more concerned about what they wanted, rather than what their listeners wanted.

Air America also had to contend with a very picky, demanding audience that often could never be placated. Even canceling an unpopular show like "Unfiltered" created an uproar, which subsided when the show's least-known personality, an obscure New England talk show host named Rachel Maddow, became a bona fide success. Certainly, the ugly departures of popular hosts like Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes created public relations nightmares with the very group of people they were courting.

In addition, by initially building shows around non-radio personalities from other entertainment backgrounds, who were often tempted by more lucrative opportunities, Air America seemed to be asking for trouble. When Franken hit the air, few thought he would make a career of it. Sure enough, he was gone in three years.

It was certainly no surprise that Air America finally wound up in bankruptcy court two and a half years after their debut. Some wondered what took so long. To their credit, they survived, and finally woke up and realized that changes had to be made. This was a major turning point for them, and showed that perhaps there was some hope for the fledgling operation.

Sure, the two succeeding ownership groups haven't had complete success. They did streamline the ship, but still made many of the same mistakes as previous owners. The controversial move of hiring syndicated radio veteran Lionel was a disaster for both parties, as they were unsuccessful at using him to build their affiliate base. Subsequently, he is being replaced by Montel Williams next month. A clash of egos led to the departure of Rhodes, their most popular host, last year. Her replacement, New York radio veteran Ron Kuby, hasn't come close to filling the void. Maddow's success was a double-edged sword, as she virtually departed for a television gig. More recently, Thom Hartmann, by now their biggest talent, saw the writing on the wall and took his show to the competition.

Many still wonder if talk radio is really the way to go about moving an agenda. A few weks ago, comedian Bill Maher joked that despondent Republicans were seeking an innovative new technological platform on which to push their agenda, and they discovered AM radio. He's probably not far off the mark. Is radio really even the answer anymore? Since Air America launched, web-based media has exploded. The left-leaning news and blog site Huffington Post, which debuted a year later, currently has a reach and influence Air America could only dream of. Barack Obama's presidential campaign successfully tapped into a web-based model for fundraising and communication, giving power to a grassroots army. Air America's current management has wisely realized that online is where it's at, with an increased emphasis on web content and even a name change that substitutes "Media" for the previous "Radio" in their name. But is it too little, too late?

As Air America reaches its fifth birthday, they seem to be starting from scratch, like a sports team in rebuilding mode, after seeing their top players leave the game or get better deals in free agency. Dial Global, with Schultz, Miller, Press and now Hartmann, is currently the big player in progressive talk. The dire state of the economy, currently wreaking havoc on the radio industry as a whole, has definitely hurt the fledgling progressive talk genre. Upstart rival Nova M Radio is now history, and longtime syndicated host Peter B. Collins recently ended his show, citing the high cost of syndication.

As for the network itself, they still need to fill the critical daytime shift vacated by Hartmann - a glaring gap in the schedule. They have to wonder if four one-hour replays of Maddow's MSNBC show from the night before is really the answer in morning drive. And they have to build on their current strengths, whatever they may be. Recent hire Ron Reagan is seeing some growth, and seems to be going over well with the network's fan base. The hiring of Montel Williams has generated some industry buzz, with even their L.A. affiliate thinking of picking up the show. And some venerable weekend shows, such as "Ring Of Fire", are still popular with their dedicated listeners.

In the past year, the current management of Air America seems to have been a bit more focused. Current owner Charlie Kirecker hired two established radio executives for their front office. They've been working at building up their web presence, trying to position themselves as a Huffington Post with audio and video content. Again, is it too little, too late? Is there a spot for Air America in the rough economic radio climate in 2009 and beyond? Or will they become like former Pittsburgh Steeler Kordell Stewart, a guy who could play multiple positions but couldn't excel at a single one? Most importantly, can they even stand toe-to-toe with their rivals, rather than turn into a Triple-A ball club that exists mostly to feed the major leagues?

For the past five years, naysayers have been writing the network's obituary. How many right-wing blog entries and articles, or even mainstream news sources have been calling Air America a failure during this time? Yet, five years later, here they are.

So, happy birthday to Air America Media, and here's hoping there will be more. And forget the cynics. They obviously don't believe in the American Dream.


Corie said...

Brian Maloney is just jealous that he couldnt make it as a radio host in Seattle. So now he uses his blog as a means of hitting back at supposed slights from the big leagues.

NYLefty said...

LTR: Nice summary! Should be required reading for all those who don't understand that AAM has undergone many changes in ownership and management and still think that "the Greens" are responsible for Rhodes leaving, etc., etc. (even though Stephen Green had sold his controlling interest in AAM before Rhodes pissed off current owner Charlie Kireker).

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