Monday, March 30, 2009

Five years later: Air America and the mainstreaming of progressive talk

Come noon Tuesday, Air America, the little radio network that could (or couldn't), reaches a notable milestone. After five years, through all the chaos and turmoil, they're still miraculously standing. As is the progressive talk radio format they helped to inspire.

Wait a minute! Air America's still around? I thought they were dead. To believe the hoards of crazy right-wing bloggers, one would think this little ragtag radio outfit was a dismal failure. They're kaput. Dead. Nobody's listening. Obviously, they're lying. Because, believe it or not, this much-derided privately-owned radio network managed the seemingly impossible, in that they've given the middle finger to the naysayers and managed to stay alive for five whole years. And yes, that's quite an accomplishment. Especially if you're Air America.

To salute this rather unlikely success story, I felt it appropriate to take a look into the past, the present and the future, via several blog entries posted over the next few days, and pay tribute to this controversial radio startup, often a lightning rod for friends and foes alike. You may like them, or you may scowl at the very mention of their name. But in terms of what this blog is all about, minimizing their significance is quite short-sighted. Sure, Air America didn't invent liberal talk radio. Then again, the Beatles didn't invent rock n' roll either.

Obviously, there was left-leaning talk before Air America. Perhaps we should go back in history to explain why and how Air America came into being. In the late 1940s, long before something like Air America was even imaginable, a non-profit organization, Pacifica, was founded with a somewhat similar aim in mind, albeit in a more cultural, less soapbox-like kind of way. In the late 1960s, free-form rock stations emerged on the then-obscure FM dial, complete with left-leaning disc jockeys free to express their views on politics and the emerging counterculture in between long music sets featuring artists like Bob Dylan and The Doors expressing views on the the same issues via their songs. Talk radio was then a novelty on AM, compared to today. Most AM stations still played music. But the talk stations that did exist were locally-oriented and featured a variety of views and opinions.

The 1980s saw a seismic shift in the radio environment. By now, music fans abandoned the AM dial for the sonically-superior sound of the now-dominant FM. Free-form rock stations had also adopted Top 40-style presentations, with liner cards and tight playlists replacing long-winded soapbox rants and spontaneous music sets. Popular Denver liberal talker Alan Berg was gunned down by right-wing extremists. The Reagan Administration phased out the Fairness Doctrine and ushered in the deregulation of the industry, turning radio stations away from public service and into corporate commodities. And with contemporary music moving to FM, the most obvious format left for AM was talk. But maintaining full rosters of local talk show hosts and nurturing them was expensive. And there wasn't a whole lot available via syndication. Enter Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's success inspired radio station programmers to do what they do best - imitate. Soon, everyone wanted their own Rush, even if they had to make a half-assed clone. Politics didn't matter too much in this case. If Rush were a liberal and experienced a successful launch, we'd see a ton of lefty talk on the airwaves and conservative whiners would find something new to bitch about.

Liberals did try to copy Rush's success. But radio audiences didn't warm to the half-baked offerings from the likes of Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo that were offered to them. Meanwhile, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and others seemed to attract listeners and affiliations like flies to feces.

In their infinite wisdom, radio programmers equated all of this with people wanting to hear nothing but obnoxious wingnuts ranting about sordid tales involving Monica Lewinsky. By the mid-90s, whatever left-leaning talkers still remained on America's airwaves were slowly phased out or forced to toe the new party line (like WLS' Jay Marvin was forced to do). By September 11, 2001, there were few liberal talk show hosts still left, aside from highly-rated local personalities like Randi Rhodes in West Palm Beach. Whatever liberal talk still remained languished in obscurity, via small radio stations, unreliable ancient webstreams and the rather low-key Detroit-based I.E. America Radio Network, which featured left-leaning talkers like Thom Hartmann, Nancy Skinner and Mike Malloy, and was owned by the United Auto Workers union.

Eventually, the tide turned a bit, as the Bush Administration began to experience a backlash, and with it, the conservative-dominated AM airwaves. Many listeners wondered why they we only hearing one side of the argument. Liberals were especially vocal. Time was right for a change.

The vastly underfunded I.E. America was not going to be the answer, and the UAW was ready to pull the plug on the slow-growing, money-losing venture (which they finally did in early 2004). And that's when a couple groups stepped in.

The first was a group called Democracy Radio, founded by Tom Athans, husband of Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. He reached out to Democratic investors and politicians to find and back a bonafide, mass-appeal liberal voice on the airwaves. They flirted with Randi Rhodes, who was shut out of syndication by her employer, Clear Channel (also owner of Premiere Radio Networks), allegedly due to an anti-liberal syndication mandate from their biggest star, Rush Limbaugh. But they settled on a self-described 'gun-totin', meat-eatin' lefty' from Fargo named Ed Schultz. And they even found an established network, Jones Radio, willing to take a chance on it.

Another group had also formed in late 2002, this one consisting of venture capitalists Sheldon and Anita Drobny and Atlanta radio executive Jon Sinton. Initially, this new endeavor, dubbed AnShell Media, was an effort to help syndicate Mike Malloy's radio show. After hosting a few fundraisers and attracting more investors, they realized that there was a demand for a full-service radio and webcast network, with a different kind of approach.

There weren't a whole lot of liberal radio talkers to choose from, so the fledgling outfit, to be called Central Air, would have to create them. Comedian and writer Al Franken would be the anchor and highest profile host, taking the midday shift. Actress Janeane Garafalo, comedy writers Lizz Winstead and Sam Seder, activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy would also have shows. Actor, comedian and public radio host Harry Shearer turned them down. The only true radio people initially added were Rhodes and an obscure young morning show host from Vermont named Rachel Maddow. So, with this lineup, Air America was going to usher liberal talk onto the nation's commercial airwaves.

By this time, the Drobnys felt they had gone as far as they could with it, so they sold their stake to a pair of the network's investors, Evan Montvel Cohen and Rex Sorenson. AnShell Media became Progress Media, and signed up a flagship station, WLIB in New York.

Soon, they brought other stations into the fold, first by leasing time on small AM outlets in Chicago and Los Angeles owned by Multicultural Broadcasting. An AM station in Minneapolis opted to air local boy Al Franken, a tiny daytime station in Riverside would take a few hours of programming and even Clear Channel got in on the act, as the program director of KPOJ, a struggling AM oldies station in Portland, OR, was willing to do anything to breathe life into the moribund outlet. KPOJ's approach, however, in contrast to Air America's initial demand for full clearance, was to throw Ed Schultz into the mix. So with this modest affiliate lineup (and a semi-dependable webstream), Air America would launch.

When Air America hit the airwaves on March 31, 2004, things were looking good, with clearances in the three biggest media markets, a few smaller ones, and San Francisco and other markets in the works. Then all hell broke loose. After only four weeks, Multicultural Broadcasting pulled the programming off of their Chicago and L.A. stations, claiming nonpayment of bills. CEO Mark Walsh and VP/Programming Dave Logan departed. Cohen and Sorenson were forced out. And embarrassingly, the network's website was listing some rather suspect pending affiliates on their website, likely due to a little too much enthusiasm. Some were legitimate deals that eventually fell through (such as the tiny San Francisco/San Jose duo of stations that couldn't afford a satellite dish). Ridiculously, some frequencies listed didn't even exist (like Santa Cruz and Aspen).

Following the ouster of Cohen and Sorenson, the remaining investors regrouped and purchased the company's assets, renaming the venture Piquant, LLC. To save money and expand, they decided to no longer lease blocks of airtime on individual stations, Rather, they would do what most networks do - allow affiliates to air programming a la carte, rather than run the entire lineup.

Even after the early adversity, there was light at the end of the tunnel. When the first ratings trends were released a month after their debut, things looked good. Franken was very competitive with Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly in New York. And, more importantly, the former poorly-rated oldies station in Portland shot into the top ten. Executives at Clear Channel's offices in San Antonio took notice. Within months, Clear Channel rolled out a similar Air America/Schultz lineup on stations in San Diego, Miami, Denver, Detroit, Madison, San Francisco and other markets. Ironically, the very radio monolith most identified with right-wing radio pollution and the squashing of all left-leaning thought on the airwaves became the progressive talk format's biggest supporter. A few mom-and-pop-owned AM outlets picked up similar formats. And other big companies, such as CBS, Saga and Entercom, came into the picture. Within six months, almost 70 stations, including some in most of the top twenty markets, had progressive talk radio stations. A minor reshuffling welcomed established radio personalities such as Thom Hartmann and Mike Malloy into the Air America fold. And the format's initial success inspired other personalities like Stephanie Miller and Bill Press to jump into the fray, albeit with a rival outfit. All in all, things were looking up for Air America and their contemporaries.

But adversity kept coming. The front office kept shuffling, and one CEO, veteran music industry executive Danny Goldberg, dissolved the network's increasingly popular morning show, 'Morning Sedition' and opted to allow co-host Marc Maron's contract to lapse. Goldberg also created an embarrassing situation when he decided to directly solicit donations from listeners, making the whole operation look like a charity case. And a scary ghost from the past emerged when the remaining investors and the public at large discovered the main source of Cohen and Sorenson's former investment in the network - a loan from a Bronx-based nonprofit Boys and Girls Club. Giving further insight into his character, Cohen himself was arrested for alleged money laundering in a separate incident a few years later.

In addition to Goldberg, who left the network after just over a year, the Air America executive suite has had a revolving door from the get-go. And many left their marks in rather notorious ways. One suit abruptly fired Malloy, over the phone, a move that inspired a massive listener backlash. Another sought to get his voice on the air as much as possible. The current owner let the network's biggest personality, Randi Rhodes, walk after a failed power play. And many of the more qualified people departed with their tails between their legs after various ego clashes. There was seemingly enough drama inside Air America's Manhattan offices to fill an entire season of the old ABC soap "Dynasty" (but without the face-slapping and fancy clothing). Eventually, the dirty laundry got hung across the news media and the internet when Air America wound up in bankruptcy court.

But bankruptcy was not the end. They reorganized, shook off the dirt and found new white knights in the form of the Brothers Green, who scooped up what was left, excised many of the former bickering demons and worked to turn Air America into a real business. Once things returned to normal, the network was sold once again to Charlie Kirecker. Things began to stabilize a little (front office hijinks weren't showing up as much in the media and blogosphere), but the constant upheaval began chasing away some of the network's best known personalities.

It certainly didn't help that expectations for the little radio network that could were set ridiculously high by various snarky observers. If one were to believe the various right-wing pundits who deem themselves to be armchair 'radio experts', for Air America to succeed, they would have to be profitable right out of the gate, immediately land hundreds of affiliates and have top ten ratings showings in every market. Obviously, that's impossible for any radio startup to accomplish. But merely gaining 60-70 affiliates virtually out of the gate, helping to bring a new format to the mainstream and developing a few legitimate radio talk show talents, one who currently has a top-rated prime time show on a cable news channel, and another, Franken, who has a strong chance of becoming a U.S. Senator, are not bad accomplishments for a little radio network with seemingly no chance of succeeding.

So, like 'em or not, five long, challenging years down the line, Air America still miraculously stands. And the ability to actually survive in a brutal market, with all the chaos, all the instability, all the insanity and all of the attacks is, at least on some level, successful, right?

Tomorrow at noon (the very time they launched on March 31, 2004), I'll pay further tribute to this crazy media venture known as Air America, offering an analysis of where they've been and where they are now, and what kind of influence they've wielded. I'll continue on Wednesday, with a look at the next five years. That is, if they can stay airborne that long.


raccoonradio said...

"In five years, we'll be on 600 stations." ---Jon Sinton, then of Air America, in a _2004_ Boston Globe piece by Mark Jurkowitz. A bit off.

will_in_chicago said...

Considering the great amount of media consolidation (what economies of scale require Clear Channel to own 1200 stations) and the problems AAR has faced, I think that the network has done fairly well. Progressive talk has survived and flourished in many areas, despite set backs. Indeed, I seem to recall that Stephanie Miller regularly beats Laura Ingraham when they are up head to head on signals of similar strength. LTR can talk about the ratings for progressive talk beter than I, but I think that progressive talk is not a passing fad.

pureprairie said...

If in 2004 someone had said we'd have taken back Congress in just two years, then elect a black Democrat as president two years after that, I'd have said they were nuts. Looking back I cannot help but think that Air America Radio had a huge role in enabling a change in culture like this, nearly overnight. Say what you want, they win ugly, but they win. AAR provided the platform for the highly successful Jones/Dial Global stable of talent. The Reich wing still owns 91% of talk radio, but progressive radio only needed 9. Congratulations are in order - and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Air America.

jaz said...

Rachel Maddow is from Massachusetts, not Vermont.

Sunshine said...

been a wild five years has'nt it?

i'm glad we survived "W" and his pack of thieves.

the blog communities that came out of the network shows are what i find to be the really significant aspect of AAR that has had some staying power.

good to see you still up and running LTR! thanks for all the good reporting you've done.

ltr said...

raccoonradio said...
"In five years, we'll be on 600 stations." ---Jon Sinton, then of Air America, in a _2004_ Boston Globe piece by Mark Jurkowitz. A bit off.

And what's wrong with aiming high?

I thought you wingnuts were all for personal achievement, the American dream and all that stuff.

Or is that just a facade?

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