It’s a funny thing. Just ten years ago our country was wasting so much time and resources pursing the impeachment
of a Democratic President for lying about a clownish series of sexual liaisons with an intern. And the righteous hordes of right-wing talk hosts were having a field day barking at the President’s heels for his dishonesty and depravity. And how history repeats itself. Finally, the tables have turned!
These days, our country is wasting unimaginable amounts of time and resources attempting to impose "democracy" on other countries. And we have a Republican in the White House who’s a lying clown. Thankfully there are righteous hordes of left-wing talk hosts dogging the administration for all its dishonesty and depravity… Okay, not hordes. But there are some. And (for some reason) there’s no pending impeachment either. The bottom line is that this president probably hasn’t lied about anything quite as lurid as adultery or sexual hanky panky. All in all, it was just a matter of misspeaking here or there, some miscommunication or misunderstanding that stumbled our country headlong into an illegal war that cranks out thousands of dead bodies and stuff. Nothing like oral sex, and it’s more profitable. I guess I misspoke. History didn’t repeat itself after all. And sadly, the tables have yet to turn.
But there really are a cadre of liberal talkers across the land today, which really didn’t exist in the 1990’s. While the far right wing and the neocons are way ahead of the game (with many more hosts, affiliates, and listeners ), and all the syndicated warmongers
are sitting pretty on stations with the best AM signals in almost every market, more and more there are competing voices out there separating facts from fictions and directly challenging the mouthpieces of the powerful
all across the dial.
The truth is, commercial left-wing talk radio is an unlikely American invention– a relatively new creation born of necessity. And contrary to what you might read from conservative clowns and stooges around the web, it isn’t going away anytime soon. But it is a work in progress. Some of it is sloppy, some great, some is just satisfying as a prescription for your outrage burden. And sometimes it’s just good to actually hear it, because affiliates do come and go. And often the liberal talk stations have ended up with some of the shabbiest signals in their market. Even with some success with certain shows in some markets, Progressive Talk remains a series of politically powered radio experiments looking for a stable business model.
In this demented and urgent media environment, the “progressive talk” radio format became a reality as a reaction to (and a bulwark against) this expansive and oppressive dominance of right-wing talk radio on the AM dial. Actually, it’s been almost eight years since the UAW’s i.e. America first toyed with the idea, and roughly four years since Air America and Clear Channel made it real. And there’s been new energy and enmity crackling through the broadcasts, that’s to the protracted and convoluted race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. And the question remains, whether a radio format that combines activism and entertainment from a left wing perspective (which is often explicitly anti-corporate) can thrive in the marketplace.
As the struggle between Obama and Clinton became a nightmarish pissing contest in March after Edwards dropped out, most of the progressive talk hosts I heard avoided taking sides (although that’s less true every day). However, the callers and guests on the various progressive talk programs have been freely arguing and opining on behalf of their favorite candidate over the last couple months and it’s brought contention and controversy to a format that had previously been full of solidarity and goodwill. Of course, the left (and Democrats in general) always have been made up of a broader coalition than the conservative side of things. It’s one of the reasons that right-wing talk radio was on better footing out of the box twenty years ago. With little nuance and a steady focus on the enemy (Democrats) conservative talk has a simple appeal that works well, especially when the political agenda espoused has broad corporate support.
It’s no mystery that some conflict sweetens the plot, and there’s been plenty of narrative rich drama on display within the progressive talk format this year. And it’s changed the way I listen to non-RNC talk radio. I’ll just be honest here and admit that since Mrs. Clinton voted to give Bush a permission slip to attack Iraq (and gave a horrible equivocating speech on the Senate floor) it was enough (along with joining a "prayer cell" with some scary and powerful Republican women…) to make her less than appealing as a candidate to me. Then there’s the creepy factor– crowing that she should be the nominee because she has the “hard working” white vote, and that we need her in the race just in case Obama is assassinated. I guess I find her about as inspirational as a ripe catbox.
Then again, I understand Mrs. Clinton has her fans. I just don’t really know any personally. In fact, when the race between her and Obama started to turn weird, I was kind of fascinated with the emotional and angry Hillary supporters who would call in. I found myself listening to progressive talk for one of the same reasons I’d listen to Hannity or something, to hear people call up and defend the indefensible and express their admiration for politicians that are patently dishonest and frightening. Call it curiosity, but sometimes the confused humanity that calls into talk radio makes me shake my head in awe and wonder (and sadness…) And listening to the streams of opinion and thought from the variety of Democratic voters who call in and spout off is much more compelling to me than those cloying and prepackaged focus groups that NPR gathers together to talk about issues, elections and candidates. Maybe it’s not scientific, but I feel that I get a better sense of political opinion in the wild from call-in shows than housewives and trade workers hunted down by public radio microphones.
And for me, when your country is “preemptively” attacking and occupying sovereign nations with the help of the lowest form of humanity
, war profiteers
, sometimes public radio just doesn’t cut it. I don’t hear much attitude
on “All Things Considered” or "Fresh Air." The news is important, but in desperate times a little outrage
and a few laughs
are in order. These needs are what led me to seek out streaming broadcasts of Mike Malloy
and Randi Rhodes
online six years ago, and sample all of Air America’s programming when they debuted here in New York four years ago.
And here’s where irony really enters the picture. At a time when I need (or perhaps) crave a diet of liberal talk radio more than before (to keep me informed, activated and hopefully able to chuckle in the face of the swine), my radio isn’t much help. You’d think that the fact that I live in New York City, the “home” of Air America, would give me a ringside seat to all the radio action. Well it did, until the day before April Fool’s Day. That’s when WWRL Program Director Rennie Bishop dumped eight hours of Air America programming from the station’s daily schedule. They used to call WWRL Air America’s “flagship” station. That’s hardly the case now.
In fact, when Air America launched on WWRL they had already given up six or seven hours of their daily schedule to the station’s programmer, Rennie Bishop. While putting Alan Colmes in for Air America’s weakest talk show (This is America with Jon Elliot) wasn’t such a bad idea, leading the schedule with his already failing and ill-conceived morning show seemed a little selfish. And while he’s already been through two or three incarnations of that mess of a morning show in the last year, during the month of April the combination of Bishop’s butchering of the original schedule and a bit of unrelated happenstance left only two hours of Air America on WWRL untouched and as it was. All that’s left of the Air America programming you would have heard just last March (Monday through Friday) on WWRL is the first two hours of the Rachel Maddow. And the third hour of her show is gone with the rest of it.
But that “unrelated happenstance” was the big news nationwide– In April, Randi Rhodes was suddenly suspended from Air America Radio, which led to a quick and public split between the host and her network. Within hours of her decision to leave, Randi jumped ship to the fledgling Nova M Radio Network. The official story is that she didn’t yield to Air America’s demand that she officially apologize for saying something untoward about Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton during a comedy routine in California. But as this whole episode has played out in mid-March it now seems that this unexpected split-up was more of a sloppy and quick divorce between a highly paid and troublesome media personality and her cash-poor employers (who didn’t hire her in the first place).
If you don’t know the details on Rhodes split with AAR, you can read about it here
, and see her talk about it with Larry King of CNN with this
link. The funny thing is that after Rhodes’ “stand-up routine” in San Francisco (see it here
) she continued her program on Air America until the network decided to be offended by her appearance in California. Have a listen to Rhodes’ triumphant return from San Francisco, where she even bragged
about using the “F
Then, a number of days later Air America had Sam Seder announce that Rhodes was “indefinitely” suspended for using a particular word that begins with “F” at her big comedy outing in California. Seder sounds a little confused by the whole thing, and was operating under the working assumption is that she’d be back in a few days.
Seder was filling in for Rhodes during this week long disengagement between Air America and their most popular talk host. By April 10, it was over. And Seder again was given the official duty of announcing that Rhodes would never again appear on Air America. (Just imagine those smokin’ board meetings at Air America…) He took calls. It’s actually very rare to hear a radio station (let alone a radio network) allow their talent (or worse, former talent) to get on the air and openly trash the station. But like I said, progressive talk is unlikely and experimental. What you’ll hear in this clip is some messy and somewhat intriguing radio, including a phone-in walk-on from Seder’s former co-host, Janeane Garofalo. And while he used to defer to her wacky outbursts when they were a team, after Garofalo has put all her complaints against Air America on the table Seder quickly motions her call toward the exit.
Now Rhodes has since moved on to Nova M
, a fledgling progressive talk network started by the Sheldon Drobney, who was one of the original founders of Air America. Nova M really only has two significant talk show hosts, Rhodes
and Mike Malloy
. Interestingly, both of them were more or less cast off by Air America for controversial behavior. Right-wing talk hosts really never have this problem. (Unless you consider Don Imus right-wing. But he’s really more of a libertarian old grump…) And although Malloy and Rhodes tend to mouth off, they were actually the two Air America hosts who actually were radio veterans. The fact is, these two Nova M talk hosts probably have more collected years of experience behind the microphone than all the rest of Air America’s talent roster. Not only that, but they seem to have full control of their “flagship” station in Phoenix. So far, with a network
run on a shoestring, Nova M has proven to be a more agile and thoughtful operation than the bloated and overwrought Air America.
Have a listen to Mike Malloy on the day Rhodes Air America suspension was announced. Not only does he express his anger at his former employers for screwing Ms. Rhodes, but he also recounts the strange day he was let go by Air America,.And what I find most enlightening of all in this screed is how Al Franken (the vastly overpaid AAR poster-boy who never figured out talk radio) insisted that no Malloy promos run during his program (which would make him both boring and gutless).
One thing for sure, Malloy invests more raw id into his broadcasts than any liberal talk host you’ll hear. Once he begins to unload you can feel the burden lift and perhaps experience a chuckle escaping from under the load. Here’s an inspired Malloy roasting of Hillary Clinton that certainly warmed my heart.
What you get in investing your time into Malloy’s show is to feel that warm glow of having your outrage voiced. Although Malloy can occasionally get a little hysterical for me, in general I find Malloy’s nightly rages medicinal, and look upon his complete and total disrespect for the "Bush Crime Family" as the most legitimate and clear-headed treatment of this administration than I hear just about anywhere.
And did you notice how Malloy passionately plugged Nova M’s “Founder’s Fund
?” Nova M charges a little more than most radio operations for its podcasts, selling the fee as more of a contribution to the cause. And the podcasts and occasional online videos are just gravy. In fact the CEO of Nova M, young Clear Channel/Jacor vet John Manzo, has made this public-radio style “listener support” part of his business model to help his upstart syndication outfit afford experienced radio hosts like Rhodes and Malloy.
Meanwhile, Seder was left to hold down the Rhodes’ slot while the dispute between talk network and talk host carried on. Sam Seder has been the good soldier in the many battles between Air America and their disgruntled hosts, somehow staying loyal to the company and their former air personalities. After Malloy was fired, Seder actually had him come in as a guest on his program. And after Marc Maron and AAR parted ways, Seder continued to have him as a phone-in guest and still has a regular video webcast (on his website, not affiliated with AAR) with Maron. Not only that, but he’s been the only Air America employee to do fill-in slots (for Malloy) on the competing Nova M network.
When Air America launched, their big innovation (and often their downfall) was to take on a lot of talent from cable television comedy. Although this proved to be a big budget drain on the fledgling network (and SOME TV talent never translated well to radio), the successful transformation of comedian Marc Maron
into a new breed of talk host was a real success story. He’s spontaneous and twisted and honest, and really funny. When “Morning Sedition
” (the AAR show he co-founded) was kind of drowned in the bathtub in late 2005 by former AAR CEO Danny Goldberg
. The show had a hardcore following, and a fan website
remains where you can find a continuous stream of comedy bits and interviews from the defunct show. I’ve written plenty about the demise of this wonderful radio program, which you can read here
The huge outcry against putting down Morning Sedition led Air America to let Maron put together an evening program out in California (where he had relocated) which they promised to syndicate once it got off the ground. Although he put out some great shows over several months in 2006, it remained a local operation and the network syndication never happened. Eventually after a few fill-ins for other hosts, Maron publically cut ties with Air America and concentrated on his comedy career. Let’s turn on the way back machine and have a listen…
Thankfully Marc Maron has gotten the radio bug once again, and in April he filled in for Malloy on Nova M. And his fill-in coincided with Rhodes impending arrival at the network, and she called in while he was doing Malloy’s show.I expected a harsh tag-team trashing of Air America. But that’s not exactly what happened.
While Maron is pointedly curious about Randi’s allegations of Air America bad behavior, if you listen carefully you realize that he never really jumps in with Rhodes to twist the knife. Why not? Well, this isn’t the same Maron (or reality) in 2008. They’ve been through a few management configurations since then, and Maron’s going through a divorce and trolling for a radio gig. And while he sympathizes with Rhodes, and is certainly curious about her what happened between her and the
network, he doesn’t pile on. In fact, a less then a month after this conversation on Nova M, Maron did a three-day tryout for Rhodes’ old afternoon slot on Air America. More on that in a minute.
The real meat in this last clip is Randi’s description of a “lawyered-up meeting” she had with the new Air America brain trust that led to her suspension and subsequent move to Nova M. My guess is that you can take her at her word– that they claimed “buyer’s remorse” when they purchased AAR and inherited a very highly paid Randi Rhodes with an iron-clad contract, and that they bullied her to amend it. You gotta wonder why? Or at least what the catalyst might have been.
Whether you like Randi’s radio style or not (and I’ve been on both sides of that issue), if you listened much you’d have to admit that her show is charged with the very essence of her personality disorders and insecurity issues (and then there’s the drama). It’s kind of her appeal. I can also tell you that some AAR underlings I’ve spoken with in the past have hinted that Randi can be a rather unpleasant force of nature in the workplace. So, there’s that. But then again, that’s just part of doing business in talk radio. Talk hosts are a bizarre bunch by nature. But you gotta wonder whether it was just Rhodes’ hefty contract (in the high six figures per year I’ve heard) or whether she said or did something extraordinary to piss off the AAR chieftains. While Rhodes may have had the highest ratings in progressive talk, apparently it wasn’t worth the price (or the headaches) for the new owners.
In just a few days, Rhodes was back on the air broadcasting around the country from her old roost at WJNO in West Palm Beach. She still has her own home down there, and plenty of friends and family. And while she doesn’t have quite the affiliate reach she did with Air America, she already does have a majority of her old stations back in her camp. While it’s difficult to know how this will play out, right now Air America has lost a number of affiliates in the all-important afternoon drive slot (on the east coast), and some of their mojo along the way.
If you have the stomach for it, here’s a half hour of Rhodes’ victory celebration on her first day on the air at Nova M
. There’s a big crowd in the studio, and the funny thing is this is sort of typical down there in Florida. Before she came to Air America, Randi always had sort of a “peanut gallery
” with her on the air, adding little chuckles and affirmations and grunts to fill the quiet parts and accent her personality. It’s kinda weird, but she seems to like doing radio that way. And I guess in Florida it’s easy to find people to come around and hang around.
And what’s Air America going to do without Rhodes? Not mourn, that’s for sure. Here’s Air America’s kooky and cosmic host of “Clout,” Richard Green. It’s a couple days after Rhodes and Air America have parted ways and he’s turned his show into “Healing Friday” for the evening and he’s taking calls from listeners so they can vent and share their feelings about Randi Rhodes departure. And this first caller is rather entertaining, she’s a middle-aged Hillary fan full of wine who’s quite upset about how Randi (and MSNBC and the media in general) aren’t giving the Clintons the respect they deserve.
I’ve never been sure if I like “Clout” or not, but it’s not like any other show I’ve ever heard (but the Police bumper music is so
tiresome). While I’ve never heard of Richard Green before he started doing a program on Air America, he seems artful at keeping close relationships with radio management types. In fact, he came in when the Green brothers took over Air America. And after I heard a show for a few days I assumed he was in the same family. Green often offers inside information on what’s going on at the network. And he says in this clip that he’s a loyal team player
. And when Rennie Bishop moved Al Sharpton into the “Clout” time slot Green was quite good
natured about in on the air. But more importantly, he was able to somehow make a deal with Bishop to remain on the air in the city by having his show time-shifted into a late night slot. Which is a better deal than Thom Hartmann got.
And you also hear Green announcing the stopgap solution to fill the Randi Rhodes slot– celebrity hosts! Oh oh… They’ve been through a number of them so far, and it’s been a mixed bag. Richard Belzer was bearable, but flat. Joy Behar? Rosanne Barr? Let’s just say they don’t seem to grasp the magic of radio. Lately it’s gotten better, as Air America has started giving a trial run to people who actually have some radio chops, including Ron Kuby and Ron Reagan. Not bad. Reagan’s a little too warm and cozy for my taste, but Kuby is a consummate radio professional and certainly deserves to find another gig since WABC gave him the boot. And somewhere in there they gave Sam Seder a tryout as well, even though he’s been on the network since the beginning. But his contract hasn’t been renewed, so his fate at AAR remains unknown at this writing.
However, my pick (by far) is Marc Maron. Somehow he buried the hatchet with AAR, and they had the divine wisdom to give him another shot. His tryout amounted to three buzzing afternoons of neurotic energy and wide-ranging monologues. I have to say that I like almost everything about Marc Maron as a talk host. Hearimg him back on the radio recently I realized how much I actually miss his voice, and his quirky all-over-the-map style never seems to leave me behind. I’m not completely sure why that’s true. But it is.
Here’s an opening monologue from his second afternoon back on Air America. It’s got just about everything I like about Maron– self-effacing humor, raw candid truth, nervous energy and just the right amount of anger and ego. If there was a twisted and scripted comedy bit in this clip you’d have just about all the attributes that make Marc Maron the most unique and funny progressive talk host out there. And he is out there.
And the good news is that Maron was invited back this week for another run, this time for four days from AAR’s New York studios. On Tuesday he happened to mention that he’s thinking about moving to Portland, Oregon. Considering that’s where Hartmann’s show originates, perhaps a new Maron show may set up shop there as well. We’ll see…
Probably the hardest hit by Bishop’s purge is “The Lionel Show.” When Mark Green took the reigns of AAR last year and declared the launch of Air America 2.0 with a new website and a number of scheduling changes, it seemed like good news when the network announced they were bringing over talk radio veteran Lionel to take the late morning slot. At the time, Lionel was on the upswing after a few syndication deals had come and gone. But by the mid-2000’s, he was making real headway in the late night slot on the WOR network with perhaps over a hundred affiliates. More libertarian than liberal and more contrarian than ideologue, Lionel kind of evolved into the mode of the oncoming “progressive talk” trend, just by having a common sense antiwar attitude. And because it was late at night and Lionel is funny and he never used to be political, his talk show was syndicated on more right-wing talk stations than liberal outlets. And coming up in the rough and tumble Florida school of talk radio and his attorney instincts, Lionel was adroit at trapping, teasing and tormenting clueless conservative callers. And on a good night it was great fun. (And you can read what I’ve written about that incarnation of Lionel’s show here.)
On Air America, Lionel is at a disadvantage for a number of reasons. First, he’s on in the morning. And while his bacchanalia stories and bawdy sense of humor suit me fine, it’s not what many Air America listeners are used to, especially before noon. Late at night, and on stations that might not be so front-loaded with activist-oriented listeners, Lionel’s quirks made more sense. Listen to this clip from a Friday in late April. Mind you, this is the very beginning of the show. Nine in the morning. And in just over a minute he has a guest on the line to discuss flushing the sexual juices off your nether parts as a method of contraception.
Put yourself in the mindset of a PD at a progressive talk station in a minor city out in the heartland. Does this sound like something you’d like to run in your morning schedule? And after the contraceptive tomfoolery, there’s “Drunk Dialing,” a regular feature on the Lionel show these days. Listeners are invited to call in and talk to an answering machine (preferably after tipping a few tumblers) and say silly things. And then his producers edit it into a burlesque series of dopey people acting foolish. To me, this always seemed like a parlor trick attempting to capture the atmosphere of a late night talk program when drunks and mentally incapacitated folks call up in real time and liven up a show. Not only does it sound forced doing it this way, but it’s another symptom of why the kind of show Lionel does (left to his own devices) doesn’t really belong in the middle of the day on a left-wing political talk network.
The important thing to remember is that progressive talk stations (or station who just carry some Air America programming) are free to pick through the AAR line up and choose the syndicated programming they like ala carte style, as WWRL just did. But most station programmers have more grace than Bishop, and don’t whore out thier prime hours to infomercial crap. There are other choices. Like Stephanie Miller for example, who is syndicated on far more progressive talk stations.
To be fair, Lionel’s show on Air America is more serious and political than he’s been in the past, and he’s had great guests and there are insightful moments and funny bits that aren’t naughty bits. But as far as Lionel on Air America, the writing’s already on the wall. And the fact that he wasn’t pegged to tryout for the afternoon drive hours seems to confirm it. It was already tragic when WWRL pulled the plug and Lionel lost his audience in New York, where he’s had his greatest successes, and unless he moves to another time and perhaps retools his show, it’s only a matter of time before Air America tries something new from nine to noon (eastern time). If I was consulting Air America, I would tell them to move him to an evening slot, or even late night where he was before. Then Lionel might have a chance to regain the affiliates (many beyond Air America) where he thrived while he was with the WOR Network.
While I think almost everything Bishop did to overhaul the WWRL schedule was misguided, moving Ed Schultz (with his respectable ratings track record) into the noon to three daypart has an undeniable logic you can probably understand, even if you don’t agree with the idea. But for me as a listener, taking Thom Hartmann completely off WWRL was the most painful change of all. It’s not that Schultz is horrible (though not my cup of tea), it’s that Hartmann’s show can be such a daily gift. While there’s not as much "edge" as I might like in Hartmann’s style, his daily show is arguably more nutritious than any call-in radio show on commercial radio.
It was long suspected that Hartmann was on deck to replace Al Franken on Air America, once he got serious about running for the Senate. That finally happened last year, and what a relief it was. Franken’s slow and sloppy ego party had become the most smarmy and careless three-hours in radio. And it was costing the network a fortune. When Hartmann took his place it immediately made more sense. A writer and a thinker with a long list of respected books to his credit, Hartmann has a national conversation five days a week that is remarkably intelligent and without malice. He has many guests in small digestible segments, and always takes plenty of calls. And between smart screening, setting a respectful tones and good pacing, Hartmann’s show is bracing and thoughtful. And conversationally he’s as apt to run with the news cycle as he is against it, depending on his mood and what he wants to talk about that day. Hartmann’s grasp of history and trends is impressive and topics and issues are often approached new ways with new ideas.
To offer a flavor of Hartmann’s program, here’s a recent "Brunch with Bernie" segment, which is a weekly Friday feature on the program. Almost every week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders talks with Thom about what’s happening in the legislature and other issues of the day and takes calls from listeners. As an independent and socialist who’s served the better part of twenty years on Capitol Hill, Sanders is the ultimate Washington insider and outsider with a unique take on American politics and social issues. A former Vermont resident and a declared independent as well, Hartmann is more political than partisan and his weekly hours with Sanders is always packed with insight and information beyond the headlines.
And then the question becomes – can a brainy and thoughtful talk show host take on Rush Limbaugh in his time slot and beat him at his own game? He does in Portland, where his show is based, as well as Seattle. But WWRL’s signal in New York is mediocre at best (just listen to the WWRL clips on this post…), and it will be interesting to see if Ed Schultz makes any headway here in that same slot.
But while Schultz is basically a liberal makeover of the standard conservative talk host, Hartmann delivers something much higher grade. He’s full of passion and armed with facts and history and context, as well as ideas for change. Hartmann regularly debates with right-wingers on his show in short enlightening segments, without yelling or getting into the mud. As Hartmann says, he’s fair and not-quite balanced. Fine with me. While his show may be driven the daily diet of political news and topics like any other talk show, on other days he comes to the microphone armed with larger questions and perspectives to mull over with his audience. And almost without exception, the callers on the Thom Hartmann show are a curious and informed bunch.
I still think it was actually a good idea to dump the weak Air America late show (“This is America” with Jon Elliot) in favor of the quirky Alan Colmes show (marketed by Fox), but the fact that Rennie Bishop insisted on keeping his sad and clunky (and pre-existing) WWRL morning show as the daily lead-in to Air America’s programming on their “flagship” was kind of like a fart in your face every morning. And now the way things stand, turning on WWRL any random time of the day is more likely than not to be spew more radio flatulence than I can handle.
Thankfully WWRL’s “Sammy & Army Show” (yes, they really called it that) is history now. The roaring intellect of Republican shill Armstrong Williams and his sidekick– lefty sad sack Sam Greenfield have gone their separate ways by now. Mr. Williams is typical of many Republican operatives– an anti-gay activist who also seems to also have a big closet problem. While he may still deny that particular secret, the fact that he received a quarter million bucks from the Bush Regime to do a little dirty work (like sell the “No Child Left Behind Act” program to the African American community) has been public knowledge for quite a while. He apologized, but kept the money. And it made my stomach turn when WWRL incessantly ran their weekday schedule promo mentioning Armstrong Williams as part of the “best progressive line-up in America.”
Speaking of WWRL promos, the production in general on WWRL leaves much to be desired. And the writing for the in-house ads and promos is unfortunately not bad enough to actually be entertaining. But it’s close. Here you can enjoy one of the versions of the promo that’s been used on WWRL since the major programming overhaul.
It’s set to the catchy mechanical disco of “Funkytown” with intermittent Nextel chirps. In fact, the Nextel chirps are heard throughout WWRL’s promotional spots and drop-ins. I guess digital blips are the latest thing in radio production. I hear all sorts of cell phone noises in radio spots these days. And NPR’s latest bid for the youth demographic, "The Takeaway" proudly inserts bleepy sounds between segments. I guess these little noises must do well in focus groups or something.
And did you notice how the morning infomercials are described as “a health and wellness presentation?” And that Al Sharpton’s program offers a daily dose of “unfiltered truth?” Euphemisms abound. And as many times as I’ve heard this promo, I still have no idea what the announcer is saying about the Alan Colmes show. And if you don’t live in New York, try to imagine what it’s like to hear this promo hour after hour and day after day for months. It’s not easy.
Like Air America’s first local station in New York (WLIB), WWRL was a black radio station with evolving formats in search of an audience when Air America came along. And WWRL’s Rennie Bishop has a vision of establishing a black & white talk radio teams who can "disagree without being disagreeable." Which doesn’t seem like a patently bad idea, but it’s been less than a compelling formula so far as WWRL has been through four biracial pairings without hitting pay dirt or finding a compelling talent duo. Currently Cos Carson (the black side of the last morning team after Richard Bey quit) is holding down the WWRL morning slot. Rather hyper and workman-like, Carson’s really the caliber of host you’d expect (or hope for) in high profile slot in a major market like New York. And Bishop’s inter-racial talk radio vision seemed to have a lot to do with the changes he made to schedule, anchoring it down with a couple of oversize talk hosts, one black, one white– Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.
Plainly, Al Sharpton does not have the verbal skills or versatility to host a daily talk radio program. Nonetheless, when Syndication One was putting together an African-American talk network they thought they could cash in on Sharpton’s celebrity as an activist by giving him a talk show, and perhaps thought he might be a natural. Well, they made a mistake.
Frankly, only the most loyal disciple of the “reverend” could find much to love Sharpton’s ham-handed talk radio vibe. Hardly a fount of information or insight, Sharpton offers nothing more and nothing less than the particular social issues he is pursuing on that day, period. It’s not progressive talk. It’s Sharpton talk. Instead of rising to the occasion, as a talk host Sharpton sinks to the bottom of the punch bowl every day. How long will it go on? Maybe another year or two, depending on how deep the pockets are over at Syndication One.
Strangely, Sharpton’s program is preceded by a disclaimer that the station isn’t responsible for anything Sharpton says, just like ones that run before the vapid infomercial blocks
the WWRL schedule. I don’t think I’ve ever
heard a disclaimer before a political talk show. I suppose this means that either the WWRL management really doesn’t want to be responsible for anything he says, or if Sharpton is actually paying for his air time, just like an infomercial.
While polluting the daily line-up with Sharpton’s show might not make much sense (that is, unless he pays for his time there), it’s not hard to see how Ed Schultz landed in the noon to three slot. Many stations who carry Air America’s lineup also shoehorn Schultz into their roster. After all, before Randi joined forces with Nova M Schultz was the most popular left-wing talk host outside of the Air America tent. And if you just came across his radio show you might think– “Why does he sound so much like Rush Limbaugh?” Well, he used to sound more like him. Years ago, Ed followed Rush’s lead in making fun of homeless people, and even considered running for office as a Republican. A few years ago he made the biggest career move of his life by simply transforming into liberal. I suppose that in the scheme of things there was a niche available for a blustery gun totin’, meat eatin’ left-wing talk host. It’s the "aw shucks" common man approach, which Air America has yet to appeal to in any real way.
From the time Randy Michaels attempted to move into WLIB in 2006 when Air America was breaking up with the radio station, there has been a movement to get the relatively popular Ed Shultz Show into New York City. And they’re awful happy to be here. Take a listen to the beginning of his show of Monday where Ed can’t stop celebrating his arrival here. As a comedic extra, you actually will hear the station start the Thom Hartmann show as it always had before, then silence, then someone shouts Ed’s name right before the engineer finds the right button on the board. And during the extended silence you can clearly hear how Radio Disney chomps on WWRL’s signal here in the city.
I’m not so happy, but it’s a big victory for Ed Schultz. If I’m not a fan of Schultz, I must admit that I find his show much less of an irritation than Rhodes’ program. And as you hear in this clip, he does gets A-list guests– past and present presidential candidates and lots of big name Democrats and pundits. As this is Ed’s New York City debut, he actually introduces himself to the market. You get the flavor his personality and presentation. No fireworks. Big Ed’s radio schtick generally chugs along at an even pace with few surprises.
Despite our bad luck here in New York, I guess I’m optimistic about the progressive talk format in general. Perhaps because I’m pessimistic about the immediate political and cultural future. But Air America? It may be the biggest name in progressive talk, but the company’s been in financial trouble one way or another since the beginning. Let’s hope the folks who recently assumed power over there (but left Mark Green intact as CEO) have better luck than everybody else who’s tried to get Air America off the ground (and into the black). The network has never quite recovered from the dirty work of a couple of Guam-based Republican operatives who illicitly moved a bunch of money from a charitable operation into Air America’s coffers, and ultimately left AAR and left town leaving the network to pay back the ill-gotten cash while they were scrambling to find enough money to continue operations. As a bit of good news, the original AAR CEO Evan Montvel Cohen (the ass behind the whole scam) was actually arrested in Guam just the other day and charged with theft, forgery and other crimes, and remains under house arrest. Nice.
Then if you consider the big splashy over-staffed debut and all the financial treachery at the founding, you start to get an idea why the network has seen such rough times. And although it remains the biggest brand name in the progressive radio business, with Rhodes gone the only significant daypart where Air America stands above their competitors (Jones Radio & Nova M) is Rachel Maddow’s slot from 6 to 9pm EDT. A lot rides on whether they will be able to find the right host and create a compelling afternoon drive package. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to get the network out of trouble.
Perhaps the greatest and most consistent flaw I hear in the overall sound of Air America’s programming is getting by on the cheap by using off-air staffers as co-hosts. While integrating subservient underlings and creative backstage types into a show can occasionally be fun and interesting, non-talent types rarely provide the chemistry and/or ego-balance that a real air-talent or partner can provide. Some hosts are better flying solo. Others benefit from having a sounding board, or just a partner on the air. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s better to find a worthy co-talent and pay them accordingly, instead of letting the host try to milk some situation comedy out of banter with his or her producer.
Given their track record in taking on (and apparently succeeding with) Air America’s cast off talent, I’d bet that if either Marc Maron and/or Sam Seder are not integrated into Air America’s schedule sometime soon that they will end up over at Nova M. Possibly together. They’ve been working together on their own, and both have their own fan base in the progressive talk web-sphere. And while I’m offering suggestions (I had a pretty good scorecard the last time I tried this…) I’ll just repeat what I said about Lionel, that he might stand a fighting chance in a night slot. In the last slot he thrived, Lionel ran concurrently with Malloy, who certainly would attract a different kind of audience. And I’d bet quite a few of his old late night affiliates might be willing to take his show on again. Otherwise, when Lionel’s contract runs out he’ll probably be back on the block looking for yet another syndication deal.
But locally, it’s hard to be optimistic about WWRL. Once a radio station gets the strong stench of infomercial, rigor mortis is probably on the way. And WWRL’s schedule is loaded with snake oil. While cynical fake talk shows certainly bring in cash, they attract a demographic that is death during normal programming– the infirm and the aged. And beyond that, if Mr. Bishop really thinks the same people are going to listen to Shultz, Maddow and Sharpton, and perhaps enjoy endless hours of discussions on fish oil and the digestive track, he’s not thinking clearly. While Bishop does seem to have a vision, it seems as doomed and misguided as the "Sammy & Army Show."
And I don’t know where Air America might find opportunity on the AM dial in New York. Certainly the strongest underutilized frequency on the dial is the 50,000 watts of WQEW, the current home of Radio Disney. I mean, how many kids listen to AM radio? The New York Times sold this powerful NYC frequency to Disney a couple years ago. If the Times was actually as liberal as the right wing insists, it seems like they might have made Air America a reasonable offer. Instead, it’s a non-stop infomercial for Disney’s products and theme parks, which also happens to reach all the way to Canada and the Midwest after dark.
To summarize, as a WWRL listener I feel like we’ve been seriously jerked around. And I don’t think I’m going to feel better about it anytime soon. Before Air America debuted here in 2004, I had to rely on the internet for the few liberal talk shows that were available. Now four years later, Bishop has finally created his masterwork– the worst progressive line-up in America. And personally I’m back to square one, and relying on the internet for my input of liberal talk all over again. In fact, I’ve ended converting an old computer with a wireless connection into a kitchen radio. WWRL used to be my main media source when I’m cooking, cleaning and hanging out at the dining room table. No longer.
I suppose that in the scheme of things, this is a bump in the road. How long can it be before we can stream internet streams in our cars? Or anywhere? But I’m a radio guy, and this is a radio blog. I mean, the public airwaves and all that. I prefer the convenience, the sound of amplitude modulation, and the fact that anybody within range of a transmitter can tune in for free. And where’s the piece of the broadcast band that’s supposed to be our birthright? Or just peace in general? How many radio stations are supporting that? I suppose that kind of summarizes where I’m coming from.
It seems like it was a long time ago (but it wasn’t) when I was fairly satiated through getting my radio news and information from NPR, or the BBC, or CBC, or any of the various sources on the shortwave band. And I would also glean a few shavings of fact and opinion from what I might hear on talk radio, which was increasingly of a right wing flavor (but not yet totally so). That media diet doesn’t work for me these days. Of course, getting news from international sources remains important, but public radio here at home has been shameful in the age of Bush. At least PBS has Bill Moyers speaking truth to power on the public TV airwaves. But I can’t think of anybody in all of NPR’s national talent roster who has begun to express the outrage and shame we should all feel as Americans (Daniel Schoor, is the only one there who seems to have balls in this regard.)
For example, there’s this sick angry feeling I get sometimes when I hear another news actuality of George W. Bush saying something incredibly stupid. It’s not just that his grammar and word choices are usually a mess, but that what he’s saying is patently a calculated lie he’s been spoon-fed by someone a little more intelligent. But he’s never challenged. And if he is, he makes up some non-response and there’s no follow-up to put him on the spot. And the NPR newscaster or show host will further reference the quote or talk about the responses to the quote, whatever.. But the simple facts are never noted– that the man speaks poorly at a third-grade level, or that what he just said was an obvious lie. No, they can’t say that. But Mike Malloy will. And just for fun, he’ll refer to Bush with nicknames like "chuckle nuts," bunny pants," and my favorite– "the giggling murderer." Call me crazy, but it’s something I crave now and then. I mean, if the congress can’t impeach him it seems our only recourse is to make fun of the rat bastard.
And if I didn’t make it clear, within progressive talk radio Malloy is the extreme. Other hosts are more diplomatic and less angry, but even a Hartmann, Rhodes, or Maddow are still likely to call a liar a liar, and a criminal a criminal, or point out any outstanding bit of hypocrisy without mincing words. And with the documented unpopularity of Bush, his policies and his ongoing wars, you don’t have to be a radical lefty or even a Democrat to have your anger verified, and to learn what is being hidden and obscured from us by compliant network TV news, newspaper chains and NPR. The need is there for a growing number of us. At least for now. And I’m not such a partisan. It’s just that I find living in a country directly responsible for so much indiscriminate death, torture , and widespread despair profoundly depressing. And Then there’s the loss of our rights, the signing statements, the sinking economy and tragically bungling the disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. The list of Bush Administration crimes and errors is much longer of course, and the side-effects of their policies– the spread of religious ignorance and intolerance and shameless xenophobia.
And so ends the blog post that couldn’t stop… I apologize for letting this burst of thought carrying on at such a length. But I’ve been typing this thing in circles for weeks, while election news and progressive talk itself has been going through a number of changes. I had originally planned on all this content becoming a series of posts here. Instead I decided just to boil down all the better parts into a full overview, and get it out before something else happens. And I’ll leave it that. I have other things I want to write about here besides all this pessimism and talk of Presidential politics. Although I’m sure I’ll return to these subjects again some time.
If you wanna check out (or keep up with) progressive American talk radio, but live in New York City or some other market where you’re poorly served or ignored by the liberal talk radio industry (such as it is), then you may have to either spend a little money and/or do a little research to listen. If you want to hear the shows broadcast live, and especially if you’re interested in participating in the programs that take calls, there’s two ways you can go. For many the most simple (and computer free) way to hear progressive talk shows is to subscribe to one of the two satellite radio services. Both XM and Sirius have liberal talk "stations" that feature the major hosts from Air America, Nova M and Jones Radio. Sirius also has a couple of their own shows with radio vets Alex Bennett and Lynn Samuels. Then again, the free digital solution is just to stream the shows live via the web. LTR (Liberal Talk Radio) is a good place to get started, with links to streams for just about every progressive talk show on the air, and information on when to listen. The site also has a blog ("The Latest Buzz") featuring the latest news and gossip surrounding left-wing talk.
However, for people with MP3 enabled lives the most convenient way to listen to these programs is to download podcasts. If you don’t know what podcasting is, you can look here or here, but suffice to say it’s a way you set up an online computer to automatically download radio programs after they’re broadcast. Then you can listen to them at your leisure on your computer or with your MP3 player. While you do have to pay for most of these podcasts, if you do they’re almost always commercial free
As I mentioned, Nova M has a "Founder’s Fund" which ostensibly supports the network financially and allows your podcasting software to download both Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy for that one price. Air America has an "On Demand" service that gives you podcasts of just about all their programs. If you want Ed Schultz or Stephanie Miller, you have to pay for their podcasts individually. All that said, if you’re cheap and net savvy (or just want to sample some shows) there is software out there that will record the streams via scheduling like a VCR. Yes, it is possible to make your own podcasts.
However, two of my personal favorite programs are available as free podcasts– A daily podcast (with all the commercials) of Thom Hartman can be found here, and the best interview show in progressive talk, Air America’s "Ring of Fire" (with Mike Papantonio and Robert Kennedy Jr.) can be found here, and NO advertising! Lately, it’s the one show I never miss.
Although a lot can happen between now and November, at this writing we seem to stand a good chance of electing a decent human being to steer this country toward some semblance of sanity, but the chances of some high-profile war crime trials or a truth and reconciliation committee hearings or two seem pretty unlikely. And the right wing noise machine isn’t shutting down anytime soon. Yes, progressive talk will continue because we live in stupid times, in a country full of dumb people. But at least they’re hard working.
Speaking of that, it looks like Hillary’s long and tenacious campaign for the Democratic nomination has just about played out. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’ll admit it when it happens. But one can hope. And her bizarre campaign has certainly livened up the progressive talk radio scene, and made the call-in shows more dynamic than usual. However, once former first lady and the former first man have their big celebration of themselves at the party convention in Denver, it sure would be nice if they would dance their way off the world stage for a while. And maybe get a room or something. And you know, do not disturb…me.