Thursday, April 02, 2009

Air America - five down, five to go?

Over the course of the past two days, I opted to observe the marking of Air America Media's fifth birthday, by looking at the past and the present. And now, perhaps its fitting that we look into the future. That is, if Air America has one.

Obviously, Air America is still teething. They're going through some serious growing pains. Much of the front office drama has subsided. And they haven't returned to bankruptcy court, so I guess that's a good thing. However, the on-air lineup is in a state of chaos, with most of their top personalities flying the coop, replaced by a lineup of talented, yet virtually obscure placeholders. The competition is pounding the crap out of them. The current dire state of the economy is making it tough for any media-based entity to expand or even hold on to what they've already got. And with diminished returns due to the sagging advertising market, many affiliates are flipping to safer, more uninspired formats. Doesn't matter if they become the sixth all-sports station in town - there's always a sports bar, strip joint or porn depot willing to advertise on an all-guys station.

So, Air America is in a bit of a pickle. Do they grow a set and get aggressive, or bide their time until the market improves and die the death of a thousand cuts? Do they merely build on what they've already got, or lay the foundation for a glorious future? I certainly don't have all the answers. Then again, they obviously don't either. Perhaps tapping into the braintrust that exists outside their protective Manhattan bubble would suit them well. It certainly couldn't hurt.

That being said, here are a few suggestions from yours truly:

1. Rethink morning drive. Currently, Air America faces the unenviable task of fighting for station affiliates in two 'deathslots'. The first is late mornings (9A-noon ET), which is dominated by Stephanie Miller, who works for the competition. All four shows that Air America has aired here have flopped. Even an established radio guy like Lionel got crushed. A fifth is coming soon in the way of former TV talker Montel Williams, and who knows how that will work out. The noon-3P (ET) slot following is even worse, as it is dominated by two Dial Global offerings - Ed Schultz and guy who used to hold down this shift at Air America, Thom Hartmann. Anything Air America offers up here is essentially cannon fodder (no disrespect to the capable Air America hosts holding down these shifts, of course).

What about morning drive? A previous regime made the foolish mistake of yanking the old "Morning Sedition" just as it was gaining traction. Replacement shows in the slot haven't fared any better, though "The Young Turks" had some success. After the departure of The Turks over a year ago, morning drive remains a blank spot, typically filled with day-old reruns and currently, a four-hour replay of Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show from the night before. Keep in mind, Maddow's show is only an hour long, so it replays on a continuous loop. With morning drive being perhaps the most important shift of the day, it's quite ridiculous that Air America has chosen to surrender it. The only syndicated liberal talk offering at that time is Dial Global's Bill Press, who has virtual run of the table due to being the only option around for stations that opt not to do local then. Why isn't Air America using morning drive to push high-profile, promising and innovative programming? Who cares if their New York affiliate, WWRL, won't carry it?

Granted, morning drive in the east is essentially overnight west of the Rockies, so this would be a morning drive show for half of the country. But it's still an open field as far as getting back in affiliates' good graces. And what should Air America do here, specifically? Well, it seems that ex-Morning Seditionist Marc Maron is still lingering around the building, doing an online-only show with another jilted lover, Sam Seder. Take the two of them, lock them in the studio from 6-9A, and see what happens. Gotta be more compelling than last night's leftovers. And they're already on the payroll.

As for Maddow, the 'radio' version of her show is essentially meant to be fed to affiliates in morning drive, with stations being encouraged to drop it into one of their open hours during the day (hey, it's cheaper than "Democracy Now", right?). Feed it once at 5A and tell stations to set the record timer.

2. Build around your strengths. Okay, middays are going to be a bit tough to compete in. But there is the rest of the day, and radio stations have to air something, right? So far, their best bet is one of their newest hires, Ron Reagan, an immensely experienced and likable personality who has hosted TV and radio talk shows and worked as a journalist for over two decades. He does have that famous name too. Some affiliates have easily worked him in as Maddow's replacement in the late afternoon/early evening hours. And none of the competing networks have come up with anything similar in that slot.

3. Kiss and make up. It was a messy divorce. Air America management played hardball with the new contract they offered her, taking away much of her professional freedom (i.e. inserting a non-compete clause). She picked up and left, and created a public relations nightmare. Since then, the network has been plodding along with Ron Kuby, an experienced and talented host that has failed thus far to catch on with affiliates and listeners, even with the current advantage of Rhodes being in limbo once again. When more stations have opted to replace her with the new and shaky Nancy Skinner offering, well, you know there's a problem.

Perhaps, even with all of Rhodes' drama and idiosyncrasies, the two parties are actually made for each other. Granted, Rhodes and her antics can often be a distracting sideshow, a lightning rod for very ugly publicity that neither her nor her handlers know how to deal with. But she still has legions of rabid fans and radio station affiliates willing to give her another chance. And, wouldn't you know it? She's still looking for a new syndicator, since Nova M Radio went belly-up. If Air America and Rhodes were to kiss-and-make-up (and stranger things have happened in radio), they would have to have some sort of agreement. Rhodes would have to lighten her baggage, and Air America would have to employ a go-between to mollify her and keep the internal drama out of the press. Perhaps they could lure her back by giving her the same contract she enjoyed from the beginning (which is what she allegedly wanted in the first place) and to create a positive, encouraging work environment. Let her stay in Florida, where she's happier anyway. If Air America (and Rhodes too) want to avoid falling into obscurity, perhaps some sort of partnership would be in the best interests of both.

With that, they could move Kuby into the vacant shift preceding hers, and work to develop it. Though affiliates haven't been biting on him so far, there is potential there.

And while we're talking about renewing old friendships, how about extending a warm hand toward the long-exiled Mike Malloy? Currently, he's self-syndicating his show, following the demise of Nova M. Perhaps enough time (and enough meddling management personnel) has passed since his abrupt dismissal a few years back. Bringing back Malloy could go far in returning a bit of lost luster to the network.

Question is, do any of the involved parties want anything to do with each other anymore?

4. Improve the web presence. They've gotten better. The Air America website, for many years, was just plain awful. Now, they've beefed it up a little bit, and have even added multimedia content. Not sure if they could become another Huffington Post, which seems to be a model for web communities these days (even FOX News has gotten into the act with their new FOX Nation). But they need to assemble all of the brightest web geeks they can find in a room, with lots of coffee, donuts, veggie trays, hallucinogenic drugs or whatever else, and figure out how to create a viable web destination.

5. Escape from New York. Now, I'm not saying they should pack up everything and move to Peoria (that's in Illinois, folks), but Air America (and many other media outlets for that matter) have long had a problem with being too Gotham-centric. Most media outlets have fallen into the trap of being too myopic, viewing this country as something akin to Australia, where the only pockets of civilization are the ones that exist along the coastlines. The famous cover of the New Yorker magazine, which shows a massive Manhattan surrounded by tiny little cities like Chicago off in the distance, comes to mind. Ed Schultz found quite a bit of initial success by being far removed from the closed-minded circles of New York and Washington. Fargo is about as far away as one can get. Air America did have a good thing going with their onetime biggest talent, Thom Hartmann, who was born in Michigan, lived and worked in Vermont and now does his show from Oregon, but he's gone. Hey, our current president's from the midwest, after all. If it's good enough for Barack Obama, well...

One wonders whether Air America chief Mark Green has ever stepped outside the Gotham vacuum, since many of the talents he's brought on board have come from the East Coast echo chamber. I say its high time to take a close look at the rest of this great nation, and program a network not for East Coast media wonks, cocktail party lounge lizards and a New York radio station flagship who could care less, but for the American Outback as well.

6. Bring in some bigger guns, and step outside the progressive talk bubble. First of all, there are quite a few capable talk talents currently warming the bench. Why has Air America virtually ignored the very experienced and very talented Peter B. Collins all these years, in favor of less-inspiring options? After all, he seems like a pretty nice guy who knows his stuff. And he has effectively done some fill-ins for them, particularly on Thom Hartmann's show. Offer this guy a gig, fer cryin' out loud! Put him in afternoon drive, which could help them obtain some West Coast clearances? Or, if they can't swing Malloy, how about giving Collins the 9-midnight shift following Reagan? There are affiliates out there who would like an lower-key alternative to the oft-abrasive Malloy (due to their own personal preferences). So far, many of them are opting for the talented but milquetoast Alan Colmes. Or they could return Lionel to the nighttime hours, where he succeeded for WOR for so many years and where Air America should have put him from the get-go. Prior to Air America, Lionel was on many conservative-leaning stations that were looking for funkier late-night offerings. Perhaps this would be a nice carrot to dangle in front of these stations, and a way to get their foot in that door.

Restarting the syndication division and bringing in Newsweek for a weekend show was a step in the right direction, This show is obviously being targeted to all talk stations, rather than the left-leaning ones. Perhaps this will extend some goodwill toward potential affiliates that would never have even dared to consider anything from Air America. Maybe this is their entry, a Trojan horse if you will, into stations that have, up to this point, avoided them like the plague.

There are other talkers out there too. Some snickered at the addition of Montel Williams, but he could work in that late-morning shift. Stephanie Miller shuts him out of many liberal talk outlets, but perhaps Air America could use him to reach outside the liberal talk bubble, and offer him to the many African-American-oriented talk stations dotting the landscape, who typically have limited syndicated options to choose from. They should be thinking outside the progressive talk box. There is only so much of that pie that they can slice up. Why not start on a new pie?

These are just some crazy suggestions. Realistically, due to their tightened budget and the grim economic state of the radio industry, their hands are probably tied, with fewer resources to play with. Now, I'm no radio genius (far from it), and I certainly don't have all the answers (I don't think any one person does), But these are merely a few nuggets of advice that they could perhaps utilize, play with or even refine, as steps toward keeping aloft for another five years or more.


NYLefty said...

Mark Green is no longer Air America's "chief!" He said on the air a few weeks ago that he's now only an "advisor." He's running for his old job as Public Advocate in New York City. Air America's Chairman for the past year is Charlie Kireker. Air America's CEO for the past year is Bennett Zier. And Air America's programming VP for the past year is Bill Hess.

And "The Greens" no longer have a controlling interest in AAM. Stephen Green sold his controlling interest to Charlie Kireker more than a year ago.

FSL said...

AAR reached its 5th birthday because somebody keeps pumping money into it. The operation is on permanent life support, the Terry Schiavo of broadcasting.

Tinkering with the program line-up won't change anything. The line-up of progressive talk stations keeps shrinking (as the blog keeps showing). Even if management finds bigger trees and can make them fall, the forest remains empty.

As a recent LA Times article pointed out, all political talk radio is withering (yes, even Rush and company). So, do we need progressive talk radio at this end stage of radio's life. Progressive political opinion is thriving in the new media. And MSNBC has a greater reach than a few Class D AM stations could possibly command.

Why has radio management been so reluctant to embrace the progressive talk format? Several reasons, many of them pointed out here already. But a big factor, AAR's stumblebum history, especially early, made the idea of progressive talk radio a laughing stock and destroyed any credibility it might have had with broadcast execs.

AAR was a failed experiment, doomed by a series of inept managers and the flawed network business model. Let's also remember the 5th anniversary of the experiment that worked: Democracy Radio. Had the Drobnys and others present at the beginning stuck with the DR model, progressive talk might be a lot healthier today.

richard said...

You're 100% right about everything, except I think Kuby should stay at 3 pm eastern he's doing very well here in NYC. Maybe Randi could pickup affiliates at noon? especially if ed stopps doing radio now that he's going to MSNBC

Bukko_in_Australia said...

Many good suggestions, especially about losing the NYC-East Coast focus. I thought Randi's show got better when she returned to Florida, because she was mixing with downscale people, folks who were closer to the life that most Americans lead. She had more focus on economics because of that and less on the inside-baseball Washington political horse race crapola.

However, I scoff at the notion of Malloy and Rhodes returning to Air America. Have you listened to them talk about the network? (even if it is under new management again.) There's some serious animus there. I would hope that left-wing talkers would be consistent with the positions they have stated, unlike the lying liars on the right, who will shill for anything as long as their palms are crossed. Consistency should include refusing to suck back to AA-whatever-it-is-this-week.

(I know one thing Air America is this week -- a bunch of bloody thieves. We got another credit card charge from them for $69.95, even though we clawed back last year's subscription fee when they sacked Randi, and most certainly did not give them permission to charge us this year. We've written them nicely asking them to reverse this year's charge, and failing that we'll dispute it with the credit card company. But damn! Their hand is as hard to get out of our wallet as AOL's used to be.)

Corie said...

I just dont get why people think Marc Maron is funny. I have tried and tried to like him. Can't do it. Can't figure out what makes him "funny"..or maybe its just an East coast thing???

ltr said...

A few things...

Lefty -

Ahh, I forgot about Mark Green's return to local politics. And I do know that they have Zier and Hess (the guys who used to run WWRC).

Bukko -

Sure, Malloy and Rhodes have not been shy about expressing their opinion of Air America. But I have seen weirder things happen in the business.

If they went back there (and likely, they wouldn't), I almost wouldn't be surprised.


Yeah sure, still tooting the same ol' horn. Blah blah blah...

Since you insist on sounding like such a broken record, perhaps I'll do the same by asking the same questions (that interestingly enough, you shy away from answering). If you hate the blasted format so much, and you obviously detest me, why do you keep reading my blog? Am I the only radio-oriented blog/message board that still allows you to post?

And second, I'm very curious as to your past experience in broadcasting. Or is it just the SAT scores that seem to make you think you're smart. I ask that once again because typically, when I do, you seem to vanish for several days, hoping I'll forget. If you can't answer it, then it appears obvious that you're just blowing smoke.

Brady Bonk said...

"Why isn't Air America using morning drive to push high-profile, promising and innovative programming? Who cares if their New York affiliate, WWRL, won't carry it?"

I've been saying this for YEARS. AAR continues to insist on 1A1M* programming for every slot. It's absurd. You can't win mornings with 1A1M* programming, especially not if your whole entire day is the same. You've got to shake up your programming and get behind at least one good ensemble program like "Sedition."

*1 A-Hole, 1 Microphone

Brady Bonk said...

"Now, I'm not saying they should pack up everything and move to Peoria (that's in Illinois, folks), but Air America (and many other media outlets for that matter) have long had a problem with being too Gotham-centric."

I've also been saying THIS for years. How on Earth do you claim to be an entire radio network converged specifically to discuss public policy and politics without any sort of serious presence in Washington, D.C.? How? How do you do that? AAR should have started early on with a presence of some kind inside the beltway and should have invested in at least some bare-bones news bureau here. They've done nothing to build credibility inside of Washington and so even their most vaunted gabbers lack K-Street Cred.

Good posting as usual, LTR. Thank you.

FSL said...

Dear LT/FI:

Apparently I need to "repeat myself" since you don't get it. I also note that you often repeat yourself.

If you disagree with the points I make, please rebut them. So far, you haven't done that.

You want my broadcasting resume but you haven't provided yours. Further you attack people whose broadcasting experience is both known to you and extensive.

I don't hate the format. I blame AAR for discrediting the format.

You say AAR is/was too New York centric but praise the late Morning Sedition, the most New York centric show they ran.

Urban Talk stations have been dropping even faster than Progressive Talk stations. Not a promising market for Montel.

ltr said...

Apparently I need to "repeat myself" since you don't get it. I also note that you often repeat yourself.

What don't I get? And what the hell is your point anyway? And what is your aim? Are you some kind of self-appointed messiah? And why the hell are you using my blog to do it? I don't get it.

If you disagree with the points I make, please rebut them. So far, you haven't done that.

Looks like someone isn't paying attention. Seems to be you.

You want my broadcasting resume but you haven't provided yours. Further you attack people whose broadcasting experience is both known to you and extensive.

Hey, you're the one who acts like Mr. Know-It-All. I have constantly admitted that I certainly don't have all the answers. I'm just offering up my two cents. And since you trot yourself out as "King Shit", well, I'm curious to know what your level of expertise is.

BTW: I did seven years in radio. Mostly behind-the-mic (music formats). Did show prep for a time too.

I don't hate the format. I blame AAR for discrediting the format.

Fess up. You hate everything.

You say AAR is/was too New York centric but praise the late Morning Sedition, the most New York centric show they ran.

You resort to way too many generalizations. Since MS was done in NY, and I have complained about AAR being too New Yawky, therefore...

You need to stop painting people and entities with broad brushes into tiny little boxes.

Answering questions with more questions? Come on. Quit being such a wuss. No wonder why the boards detest you.

FSL said...

I hate everything? Now who isn't paying attention?

For the record, I admire...
Stephanie Miller
Thom Hartmann
Michael Jackson
The Democracy Radio concept
Morning Edition/All Things Considered
CBC Radio's As It Happens
New Jersey 101.5

There are others but that's a start. I think I've mentioned all of these at one time or another.

Since you keep asking, I have a total of 10 years in radio, mostly news and talk. Three years teaching at the college level. Plus about 20 years as a consultant. However, I prefer to interact with ideas and viewpoints, not resumes. IMHO radio might not be in the mess (you and I do agree on this) it is in if it listened to its listeners, rather than to consultants and people with experience. Radio programming is a crap-shoot, and past experience (meaning getting lucky before) is of limited value.

You open your blog up for comments but apparently the only comment you want to hear is "mega-dittos."

PS: I also admire Rush, one of the last two real radio personalities (the other is Don Imus). He's not as good as he was but he's still better than anybody else. If he'd opted to do liberal talk, he'd still be Rush and he'd still draw an audience.

ltr said...

If I'm not accepting of conflicting comments on my blog, then why the blue blazes do I allow them here?

Since you are such an avid reader of this blog, obviously you've read many comments posted by people that I don't necessarily agree with. Unlike you, I don't subscribe to the hive mentality mindset.

Quit being so thin-skinned. If you're confrontational enough to dish out the insults (and I know you don't shy away from that at all, judging from some of your nastier attack - many of which have been quite personal and sleazy), then don't be such a crybaby when someone disagrees with you.

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