Archive for the 'Progressive Talk' Category

New York, New York, New Year (2010)

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

I know. I KNOW. And I’m sorry.

It’s been a number of weeks since I’ve posted anything here. Perhaps the longest time I’ve been away since I started this blog. The truth is I’ve taken on a project or two that’s been taking up more of my free time over the couple months and I haven’t been able to dedicate myself to the Radio Kitchen as much as I would like. And I really am sorry.

I’m not giving up this blog. At least not yet. But I’m not a good blogger in the traditional sense. I’m not so good at firing off quick and succinct entries, and my posts generally take some time. And there’s usually audio involved and research and rumination and it’s rarely a quick process for me. However, if there was actually some money in it, you can be sure I’d be packin’ this thing with content almost every week.

But I was inspired the other night. New Year’s Eve. And I didn’t have a gig. I didn’t have a party to go to either, and the girls here at the house were fast asleep. So instead of ducking into some local dive bar for some holiday misbehavior, I stayed home– like Jack Horner. In the corner. Just me and my radio. (And a recorder.)

And the result is this bandscan– an hour and twenty-minute crawl up the AM band recorded in my Brooklyn apartment as the year 2010 was sweeping over America. Right before midnight, I turned on my G5 and started crawling down from the top of the AM dial. A powerful Radio Disney outlet at 1560kHz is very close to my house, and that nearby fifty-thousand watt signal wrecks havoc at this end of the dial. So I opted to start this bandscan where their signal pollution yields to clarity– with a holiday greeting from the lovely and talented Alan Colmes on progressive talker WWRL.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 1
(download)

And then, Radio Disney itself. Their transmitter (broadcasting at 1560kHz) is so close to me that I’ve heard their signal in on every possible band at some point, as well is in my home stereo and even on a pay phone down the street. On some of my radios, every frequency from 1530 to 1600kHz suffers from some form of Radio Disney intrusion.

Next up 1520, WWKB in Buffalo blasting in strong with a sleazy “get out of debt” commercial. Then a little “Auld Lang Syne” and a promo from “Federal News Radio” (WTOP 1500kHz in Washington D.C.). However, the magical odometer click itself is served Cantonese style at 1480kHz, WZRC. It’s quite exciting. Probably more so if you happen to be Chinese.

While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that this was probably a simulcast of the New Years festivities on the American Chinese-language TV network– SINO Television. While simulcasting obviously saves a lot of money, if you’re a serious radio listener you can usually tell the difference. There’s a lack of microphone intimacy, and the assumptions of visual cues make audio-only TV less interesting than real radio.

And then there’s a couple more ethnic notches on the NY AM dial– some pumping macho reverb from WNSW at 1430kHz and some kooky jubilance care of WKDM at 1380kHz. Whooooh!

And so ends all the “live” sounds of celebration captured in this bandscan.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 2
(download)

“Thank you for inviting me into your prison cells.”

At first, I thought there was going to be a punch line. Or that there was something metaphoric going on I might have missed. But no, it was all real, just like prison. It’s some regularly scheduled religious inspiration for the incarcerated (with your host– a real "retired correction captain”). Although I typically I hear religious stuff at 1330kHz (WWRV) all the time, it’s usually a Spanish language scenario.

We pass by 1300kHz for a quick ID. I think it’s the ESPN Radio station in New Haven. And how about this Spanish language drama at 1280kHz? Wow. Give that guy a hankie. Man. Then a brief interlude with Smokey Robinson & The Miracles on WMTR, at 1250kHz in Morristown, New Jersey.

From 1250 we slide down to 1210– the Big Talker WPHT in Philadelphia, where they were replaying a Michael Smerconish program. He’s an odd bird, and the only right wing talk show host to support Obama in the last election. At least that’s what I’ve read on the internets. I don’t watch much of the talking head pundit shows on TV, but I gather he makes his appearances on a few of them too. And he has a shiny head.

Then on to some urban contemporary gospel from WLIB at 1190kHz. When Air America left the station to settle over at WWRL at 1600 they gave up a great signal for a pretty crappy one. That’s followed by some messy and overlapping signals. And then this clown…

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 3
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As if there wasn’t already enough meanspirited blather emanating from this Clear Channel owned Fox News affiliate (WWVA at 1170 kHz in West Virginia), they also see fit to let this hateful son of a bitch run at the mouth on a transmitter that might reach a third of the U.S.

It seems that all the major religions (especially the powerful monotheistic ones that dominate our world) have a dark beating heart of intolerance and malevolence somewhere at their core that leads some twisted "believers" to spew forth the kind of filth that tumbles out of the mouth of this old geezer, rambling incoherently about “judgment” and “vengeance” and “punishments.”

The particular brand of stupidity at play here is uniquely American and Protestant flavored, which seems to the most popular type of religious mental illness you hear on the radio. If you’re interested in getting some good hate on for Obama (and all the Catholics and Muslims and almost everybody else), then you’ll probably find something to celebrate in this fulmination. Happy new year!

I let that guy carry on way too long before shuffling down dial to Bloomberg’s “business” station at 1130kHz. It’s a panel of experts on the human brain. Wow. The trouble is (again) that we’re obviously hearing some TV simulcast. And we’re supposed to be looking at some incredible computer generated images of the computing machinery of the brain. You see anything?

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 4
(download)

Then, the bewitching baritone of Art Bell from WTAM, 1100kHz in Cleveland. Since he’s retired (four times!) you don’t hear him host his old “Coast to Coast” show much these days. But he does often show up a few times a year– especially for his annual “Ghost to Ghost” program (with call-in ghost stories) around Halloween and then for his annual prediction (for the next year) show. And being a bit of a legend these days and rarely on the air, you can hear some real affection and fan awe from the callers who are able to get through to talk to Bell.

I used to be entertained by Bell’s late night sideshow many years ago. His love of everything radio has always been kind of inspiring to me. But I gotta say, he does sound uncharacteristically low-key in the samples in this bandscan. I guess he’s been though plenty of changes over this last decade. But you do hear a lot of people calling in predictions that are pretty dire and cataclysmic. And that, is typical.

Then we slide down into the lap of snarling neocon Laura Ingraham, care of WBAL (at 1090 AM in Baltimore). Then it’s 1050kHz here in the city, a frequency with a colorful history that’s been the home for a number of call letters over the years. These days it’s just WEPN– another syndicated ESPN yawner on the AM dial. Sad. And then 1010 WINS, one of the oldest all-news stations in the country (and they continue the teletype sound effects in the background to drive the point home). And here you get one of the joys of MW DXing for some, the local traffic and weather forecast. The crowds are dissipating in Times Square. And in the sky, a wintry mix. Meanwhile there’s been a few fire fatalities over the holidays. And through some unexplained turn of events New York City “apparently” has found some extra money laying around. A surplus.

And in a broader sense, I suppose that’s one of the things that make New York so appealing. Somehow, somewhere, there’s some extra money laying round. In a place like Detroit, not so much.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 5
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Mike Gallagher (AKAThe Smellster”) is one of the least evolved human beings I’ve come across in the national media. A man who does not seem to actually think, but just react to things (in a predictable and ham-handed partisan manner). And when he’s not scripted well, his program can really go off the rails. Yet he kind of sounds like Rush (which may account for his radio career), and his show is powered by the same kind of boomy and barely educated bluster Rush practically invented. Also like Limbaugh, Gallagher seems to get his greatest insights and inspiration from watching professional football on television. I suppose it’s almost like going to college. The fact that this guy’s show has risen into the low end of the talk radio top ten (at #8!) says a lot about the audience for this format today.

And while I’m all in favor of heartfelt apologies, this tear-soaked confessional from some a highly-paid prima-donna athlete is just so much difficult listening. However, to Gallagher all these sniffy regrets amount to a “life changing moment.” Usually all I get from the Smellster are “station changing moments.”

Then I move up to a man speaking in a language I don’t understand on another local “ethnic” (and brokered) radio station– WPAT at 930kHz. And then at 900kHz it’s the “old time radio” programming I’ve been hearing late at night on CHML for years (They’re in Hamilton, Ontario). It sounds like we missed the setup for the joke here.

Then into the nasty IBOC sound (in-band-on-channel) sound that surrounds WCBS at 880kHz. It’s an envelope of nasty digital noise that bookends the analog signal of AM stations carrying “HD” programming. And it’s also why you don’t hear WLS in Chigago at 890kHz anywhere near the city. And not a chance of getting WWL at 870kHz in New Orleans (which reaches well into Canada for some). 1010 WINS and WOR do the same thing. DXers hate it. And in many major cities you hear it across the dial.

On WCBS you hear about the eminent retirement of Robert Morgenthau. At 90 years old, Morgenthau had been the District Attorney of Manhattan since 1975. Amazing.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 6
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I really don’t know a lot about the CJBC, except that it’s a CBC powerhouse that broadcasts in French at 860kHz. And it’s the only significant CBC station broadcasting to the U.S. It wasn’t always that way. Years ago, their English service reached a large swath of North America from 740kHz. But there was a move to consolidate all thier broadcasting to FM, and the far reaching AM frequency was abandoned by the CBC. CHWO (better known as "AM740") is a unique musical presence on the AM dial in these parts, but the loss of a major CBC on the AM band is still a damn shame. That said, I think I’ve been hearing interesting music late at night at 860 AM since I was a kid. And the music varies so much that I couldn’t even qualify what kind of music I’ve heard the most on that station. I don’t know what kind of pop music is at play in this sample. It’s old. A show tune?

Art Bell again. From WHAS Louisville this time (at 840kHz). Another kooky caller. I wonder if Bell ever succeeded in giving up the smokes. His voice has that same nicotine gravitas as Larry King (and a bunch of guys who ain’t around any more). At 820kHz we find the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I’m not a fan, although he occasionally has good guests. It’s local. It’s NPR. Then the inevitable Art Bell once again, on 810kHz, WGY upstate in Schenectady.

CKLW (800kHz in Windsor) is a funny kind of talk station that you don’t hear really hear in the states. Or certainly not on a big transmitter like this. I’ve never heard a "political" show on CKLW (but lots of centigrade weather!) And listen to the promo for the nightly astrology show. “Life might feel like a struggle…” Lots of self-help and health shows in general on this station. In America, AM talk radio is about personalities agitating listeners with propaganda all day long. And while there is certainly political talk on Canadian radio, they seem to still be able to have radio stations and call-in shows that aren’t agenda driven or enslaved by the news cycle.

That said, I really can’t listen to “call the doctor” talk radio for very long. All those symptoms make my stomach hurt.

Nothing really comes in until I hit WABC here in the city at 770kHz. John Bachelor, who recently moved into a nightly slot on WABC since crazy blabbermouth Curtis Sliwa took his little red beret down to WABC’s relatively new competitor, 970 “The Apple,” where he’s their new morning-drive entertainer.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 7
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Now we’re at 760kHz. Detroit. (No IBOC from WABC, so the signal is still audible here.) There’s still a little crosstalk from WABC next door. It’s an ad for a drug rehab joint in the Detroit suburbs. The announcer says they can help “teens, college students, business people, CEOs, lawyers and health professionals” with their addictions.

I guess if you want to get a handle on the marketing of drug treatment services you could probably learn a little by decoding this list of less than socioeconomically diverse list of prospective "clients. Seems like they left the majority of common folk off this at list. Every style of addict mentioned here probably can afford their services, and some might have a willing (or desperate) parent who can come up with the dough.

Then it’s the ABC News. The world’s biggest pseudo-event of the season totally obscured any other feasible healdine that night. news focus for a few hours. Their reporter spends so much time “poetically” describing the panorama of litter and debris in the street in Times Square that it’s just a little weird. And sad for a major news outlet to lend so much weight and instant nostalgia to a run-of-the-mill clean-up scene at the end of a big party.

Then there’s three more quick headlines in ABC’s top of the hour news. And they’re all sports related. The last one is regarding the contract stalemate between Times-Warner and Fox, which was resolved a few days later. And the ABC take on this little media turf war was that if the se companies wouldn’t come to a peaceful resolution agreement don’t come to some agreement that a number of “Fox” football games might not air on Times-Warner cable the next weekend. Right before WJR cuts to local weather the football story is capped off with a sound bite from some media analyst. Although it wasn’t the intention, I think his words may capture some of the spirit and passion of our great nation as we enter 2010:

“There is no hue and cry louder and angrier than if you deprive the American viewer of football.”

I’ll bet that’s true. And ABC only has two minutes to encapsulate current affairs at the top of the hour, and this is what you get. No international issues. No war updates. And certainly no investigative reporting. There is no breaking news. Perhaps because the news is already broken. Tiger Woods? Still in trouble as far as I know.

At 750kHz you can hear WSB in Atlanta. But it’s not pleasant. Some nights this station comes in pretty clearly up here. But then again, often I come across a Neil Boortz rebroadcast on this station. This noise is more pleasant.

AM740 is a big bunch of noise as well, which is unusual. In 2008 this station changed hands, and changed call letters. No longer CHWO, it’s now CFZM. I don’t hear much beyond the overnight programming, and at that timeit’s still a MOR/nostalgia mix, only with more classic rock. But it’s still the only full-time music format blasting out a full (“clear channel”) fifty-thousand watt signal in this part of North America (WSB at 650 in Nashville is the only other one you’re likely to hear in this area). AM740 has actually been coming better than I’ve ever heard it this month. Like a local. But on New Year’s Eve the reception wasn’t so hot…

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 8
(download)        

Let’s listen to the radio horrors of wading through that IBOC racket once again as I approach the “analog” version of New York’s WOR at 710. (Which denies us the chance to hear both CKAC in Montreal at 730kHz and WGN at 720 in Chicago.)

The local news is still underway on WOR with Pat Wallace. The news is a little more substantial than the trivial world synopsis offered by ABC. The Joey Reynolds show reconvenes after the news. As an intro (instead of playing one of his many “theme songs”) Joey plays some old comedy bit he recorded during his top-40 heyday in the 1960’s. Let’s just say some types of humor have a longer shelf life than others.

As I’ve written before, the Joey Reynolds show is kind of an anarchic affair. While there are some focused interviews, more often than not Joey gets a few folks behind the microphone and lets it rip without much of a game plan. When it’s not good it’s pretty bad. And in this particular clip it’s not so good for Joey as an unidentified guest (a local restaurateur who apparently knows Reynolds and his thrifty nature rather well) gets the better of the old "shock-talker."

However, the real roasting occurs when Reynolds makes a few cracks about Dick Clark’s brief appearances during his “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” spectacular. As you probably know, Clark suffered a massive stroke a few years back and the once glib "eternal teenager" now speaks in a somewhat slurring and halting fashion these days. While trying to avoid sounding cruel, Reynolds makes a few lame jokes about Clark’s performance that night and then wishes that he just wouldn’t appear on TV at all. As you can hear, the guest (sporting a hardcore NYC accent) directly takes old Joey to task and doesn’t let up. You don’t often hear a radio host let a guest chew him up like this on the air. Instead of standing his ground, or taking on the animosity directly, Reynolds keeps running away, trying to change the subject. Odd.

If it wasn’t for the IBOC digital garbage on each side of WOR’s signal, powerhouse WLW in Cincinatti would almost certainly have been audible here. But not anymore. The first credible AM signal I came across is a messy read of a Bob Seger song at 690kHz. I don’t know what station this might be. Typically I get French talk radio from Montreal here. There’s an oldies station in West Virginia at this frequency, but I see they’re running at all of fourteen watts at night, And then at 620kHz– WSNR, kind of a sad brokered station hanging out there in the breeze. Here they’re broadcasting something in a language I do not know. Hebrew perhaps?

Nearing the very top we find the once mighty WMCA at 570kHz. Once a top 40 giant, then a pioneering talk radio station in New York, WMCA is now it’s a lowly Christian outlet with a lot of brokered hours up for grabs. This is some kind of religious self-help talk show, featuring a woman complaining about her sister making the rest of her family miserable in the name of Jesus.

    “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?”

The answer of course is “yes.” Her sister reminds me a little of a certain scary relative my family tries to avoid. And it seems like a good place to close as well– because more significantly, there was something wrong with 2009 too, wasn’t there?. After that one night a year ago, when it was new, it wasn’t much of a "happy year.” And it seems stupid has become the new smart. At least we have football. And Jesus.

But I think things are going to get better. I really do. But I’m not counting on 2010. At least not yet. It certainly didn’t start out so well.  Maybe by 2012 will bring some good luck for us. And from what I understand, a lot of people are looking forward to that year anyway.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to you soon. And to get another post up where before so much time goes by next time.

I suspect if you’ve gotten this far, that you might just have more than a passing interest in radio. (And if you got this far by skimming over this post, maybe might wanna read this. Or at least look it over…) And in closing, there’s two things I’d like to mention. For one, the Winter SWL Fest is coming up soon in Kulpsville, PA (March 5 & 6), which is a completely unique and entertaining way to spend a weekend. I certainly recommend it. I had a lotta fun there last year.

Also, if your DXing habit fell by the wayside during the interminable solar minimum over the last couple years you might wanna dust off your old receiver and try scanning around again some time. The sunspots are back! And although I haven’t been able to do much serious monitoring lately, I have noticed my portables seem rather lively lately when I’ve taken the time to sample HF the bands, with improved reception across the board.

Meanwhile, thanks a bunch for listening. And good DX to you!

What’s Left On The Radio?

Friday, May 30th, 2008
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, xenophobes and anti-environmentalists 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 and malevolent 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 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 word” there.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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 and 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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 that glut 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.

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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.

The Strange Radio World Of Alan Colmes

Saturday, November 10th, 2007
There’s something about the dark of night that changes talk radio. Once the schoolmarms and businessmen have turned to the tube or hit the hay, the freaks are free to play.

While the audience is markedly smaller, the listeners and callers are typically more relaxed and open after the sun sets. Their guard is down. And let’s be honest, more people are intoxicated at the end of their day. For a playful and creative talk host, the evening audience is full of entertainment opportunity. But that doesn’t mean talk radio at night is necessarily good. Nighttime talk radio can also be a backwater where second-rate hosts hold their own, where has-been hosts are put out to graze, and where some weirdo talkers thrive.

There’s one talk host I’ve been listening to lately that practically fits every genre of nighttime talk radio I’ve just described– Alan Colmes. Better known as Sean Hannity’s half-hearted liberal foil over at Fox News TV, Colmes has actually had quite a talk radio career around New York City and nationally. But as far as being on the air in New York, Colmes has had an intermittent presence here, jumping from station to station with gaps in between. Colmes is best known in New York talk radio history for putting two stations to bed– doing the very last farewell program on both WNBC (in 1988) and WEVD (in 2001).

Since WEVD went dark, Colmes eventually reappeared here (in his latest radio incarnation as a Fox News Radio national talk host) on WWRL and then disappeared again when the station became the Air America flagship. Then in the overhaul of both the Air America network schedule and the WWRL line-up, Colmes reestablished his presence in the nation's biggest radio market once again. (And in eclipsing the Jon Elliot show that Air America runs on the network during that time, Colmes saves the city from a giant nightly yawning spell.) So, for the first time I've found myself actually paying attention to The Alan Colmes Show. And much to my surprise, I almost like it. Or at least I keep listening.

Back when hosts I liked much more (Lionel and Mike Malloy) had that after 10pm slot, I didn’t pay much attention to Colmes or his program. I don’t remember many radio fireworks in my brief interludes with his show over the years, and maybe it’s been revamped, but the Alan Colmes show I’m hearing lately is often a fast paced circus of a talk show with unexpected bursts of strangeness. And the source of the weirdness isn't so much Colmes himself, but the people who take the time to call in to his show.

It’s Colmes’ unique position in the broadening left/right schism in political media that generates a bizarre caller base for the show. Although he's carried on some "progressive talk" stations like WWRL, his program also can be found on the schedule of a number of  stations that carry the run-of-the-mill right-wing talkers as well. So Colmes automatically gets more pro-Bush hate calls than any official Air America program, much like Lionel's show did when he was on at night on WOR’s network. But unlike Lionel, who’s prankster spirit and lawyer skills would make for some compelling cat and mouse conversation when right-wingers would get on his case (and Lionel was never the mouse), Colmes simply argues calmly and logically with the morons until they either give up or the call ends in some twisted (or childish) draw.

And more than any talk show I’ve heard since Bob Lassiter, Colmes attracts a lot of raw hate from the phone lines. A lot of it comes from his roll as the liberal punching bag on “Hannity and Colmes” every night. As the radio show follows his TV program, Hannity fans and other psychopaths who get all worked up watching Alan espouse non-Republican ideas on Fox News can pick up the phone and let him have it when his show comes on an hour later. In fact, his show has been structured to infuse the raw energy from all that animosity out there right into the show from the first few seconds it comes on the air.

He calls it “First Word.” With a burst of generic rock guitar, Colmes welcomes you to the show and starts punching up callers that have been waiting for him to get on the air. It moves pretty fast. If the call doesn't quickly offer some friction or entertainment value Colmes quickly moves to the next one in line. It’s a weird way to start a show, and more often than not the adrenalin is really flowing by the time he hits his first commercial break. And what’s kind of amazing, if not a little strange, is how unflappable Alan Colmes can be in the face of overt hostility. Sure, he’ll argue point for point and even raise his voice a bit, but he never seems to get truly angered or shaken. A bit scolding or indignant sometimes. Yes, he’s much tougher on callers than he ever his with Sean Hannity on TV, but never resorts to epithets and he rarely goes for the jugular.

Here’s a couple of hostile calls from October 18th. (And I apologize for the bleed-over from Radio Disney that you hear beneath these calls. It's the way most of the radios in my house receive WWRL.) This first fella sounds like he’s at least four or five beers into his evening. It’s Dan in Chicago. Sometimes, ignorance can go so deep that it becomes profound.

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What’s really sad to me about this call is its heartbreaking authenticity. I’d so much rather think that sloth-like thinking and mindless animosity like this was really just a put-on or a prank. But no. It’s a real person. A real American. And the next one’s worse.

Jimmy in North Carolina is more direct. The call is a threat. Nothing more. It’s one of the most unfriendly calls I’ve ever heard on talk radio. It’s funny how some wacky right wingers wish or hope “the terrorists” will dutifully attack their people and groups they don’t happen to like. Here Jimmy openly wishes “the terrorists” would attack the “Emmy” or “Grammy” ceremonies, to kill a large number of those “liberal socialist Hollywood” types, who are bringing this nation to its knees.

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It’s just sad by the end. While Colmes knows how to attract and unfold bizarre telephone scenarios, he rarely finishes them off with an appreciable payoff. Instead of destroying lame callers, or poetically dumping them at the right moment, Colmes can keep arguing when there's no point, or get into a conversational slap fight that goes nowhere. He rarely goes in for the kill. And there never seems to be a punch line.

Here’s a more cryptic (but not substantially more intelligent) hate call to Alan. It’s James from upstate New York on November 7th. Like Jimmy, James also expresses his personal preferences as far as what misdeeds “the terrorists” should put on their agenda. “I regret that George Bush has been 100% successfully in saving the lives of people like you,” he tells Colmes. Such curious patriotism. Colmes actually kind of comes out on top at the end of this call.

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Here’s a harebrained caller from Massachusetts– “Tonto.” He kicks off the interchange declaring his simultaneous respect and dislike for Colmes. And he doesn’t care for his “character” on TV either. Apparently he thinks Colmes is a bit player in some drama, like Fred Thompson or something.

Tonto is a classic type of caller you hear on talk radio these days. Everything that’s in his head that passes for a worldview has been spoon-fed into his head by right wing talk radio and Fox News. When a guy like this calls up Rush or Sean, every thing goes pretty smoothly. But even the minor rebuttal you get from an easy going moderate host like Colmes shuts down every argument or theory the guy can come up with. All he's really able to do is get worked up and bandy cliches. But he has no follow-up. His political thoughts are like false fronts of buildings on a movie set or something.

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The other side of Colmes legacy– as the liberal TV pundit cable conservatives love to hate, is that he’s also the most prominent (or only) left-leaning talking head some folks come across in their media diet. So, not only does Colmes phone lines attract ripe republican hate, but he also draws in lost progressives and disconnected Democrats looking for common ground, or just a shoulder to cry on.

Listen to poor Ken in Indianapolis. He’s kind of just woken up to how across-the-board wicked the Bush administration really is, and he desperately wants to do SOMETHING to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s so paranoid he thinks that just by making the call to Colmes show may have tipped off the some evil Bush goons to come cart him away in dark of the night. (And it probably doesn't help that he lives in Indianapolis…)

No, Ken hasn’t thought through all his desperation and anxiety. He's all over the map during this call. But his fears are actually based on grim present realities– not bizarre schizophrenic fantasies. In other times and under other circumstances, I'd consider Ken's plight to be rather laughable. Or at least pathetic. But here and now, I find someone climbing on a soapbox and hopelessly rambling this way to be profoundly sad. And the sadness isn’t just for him, but for all the people like him, and Americans in general.

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And what’s weird to me about this call isn’t the martyrdom on display, or the or despair you hear in Ken’s voice. It’s Colmes approach to the call. Instead of agreeing with, or challenging, Ken’s paranoia, Alan plays psychotherapist with the guy, asking him to fully express his feelings instead of addressing the issues at hand.

In the end, I can’t decide if Colmes is actually missing some brain matter or is just a profoundly forgiving guy. He’s the polar opposite of a talk radio hothead like Mike Malloy. Somehow his outrage over the sad state of current events never turns personal, and he never seems to get angry. It’s a temperament that has served him well on Fox News. But the other night when I heard him chatting cordially on the radio with Lynne Cheney, I just had to turn it off (shudder). Somewhere along the line my outrage does become personal, and I confess that I don’t really understand what makes a guy like Alan Colmes tick.

While Colmes is sharp, articulate, and even-handed to a fault, he’s certainly not my favorite talk host out there. But one of the reasons I listen to political talk radio (left, right or center) is to hear the callers. And sometimes it’s not the point the caller wants to make, or even the interaction with the host, it’s the spirit of the calls themselves, and what it reveals about the American Zeitgeist. And from the flavor of common thought I hear coming out of the Alan Colmes show is often disturbing.

No, it’s not scientific to come to any conclusions about our culture by sorting through moments in talk radio, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone paying attention that we live in a country filled with ignorant and angry and desperate people. And more than any time I remember, people of almost any political persuasion harbor a desire to commit some act, or join some cause, to make a some change in the world. And for better or worse, some of the really intense and despairing folks out in the heartland choose calling Alan Colmes as their way to challenge the madness of our times. Why? I'm not sure. But it makes for some radio that is often as tragic as it is compelling.

Progressive Talk vs. Fast Food, Gasoline and Box Stores

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Chuck_d Very soon, the Air America radio network will either be sold or "so long." The word on the street is that if somebody doesn’t come forward and bail out the network by December the bankruptcy proceedings will move into Chapter 7. Liquidation. The end. And if that does happen, it will be sad to see a brave media experiment crash and burn so quickly, but it won’t be tragedy. However, if after the votes are counted the opposition party long championed by Air America doesn’t take at least the House, if not the Senate, THAT would be tragic. If some folks from the other side of the aisle can’t put some reigns on all these ongoing runaway disasters the Republicans have brought on, then we got trouble. Big trouble.

And please, if you disagree with me politically on this, just leave me alone. To say I’m tired of getting embroiled in such online debates would be an understatement. This is a post about radio, not the start of an argument I’m willing to engage in, or will host.

As before, I’m admittedly repeating a few unsubstantiated rumors as I have in earlier Air America commentaries. And what I’ve heard is that Air America does indeed have some solid leads on finding a buyer, and the brain trust is making plans for 2007. HartmannThen again, I’m not going to underestimate Air America’s potential for making mistakes (or worse). There’s very little time, and the possibility that Air America Radio may soon be a memory is still very real.

 However, if it they do survive the year I”m happy to pass along that one of the supposed decisions that should soon follow the anticipated sale of the network is the departure of Al Franken from Air America. While I’d hate to dismiss all of Franken’s activism, authorship, and (for lack of a better word) comedy over the years, it’s increasingly obvious by the day that Franken is out of his element, and chronically tedious on the radio (beyond brief and tightly formatted guest appearances). Whether you liked Franken’s show or not, you ought to be glad to see it go as well. Not only is his yawn inducing program a high profile disaster, but the huge drain on the now bankrupt corporation is intolerable. It makes no sense. Thom Hartmann would make a fine replacement.

Speaking of has been TV celebrities hosting AAR programming, Jerry Springer’s demotion from the regular lineup into syndication was almost enough to make a few of us think that Air America’s management might be on the right track again. But perhaps the TV ringmaster has been getting his revenge by lending his program out to a couple of Air America’s disgruntled former hosts. While Springer was "Dancing With The Stars" (or something else) he turned his show over to Mike Malloy a couple of days, and to Marc Maron (with his partner Jim Earls) twice as well. You can download archives of Maron and Earls filling in for Jerry Springer here if you have a BitTorrent client installed. Or you can hear a clip here. And now Malloy is actually back on the air nightly with a new network. And if a deal can be worked out, The Marc Maron Show may join the lineup too.

Novamlogo_1 Two of Air America founders, Anita and Sheldon Drobny, have partnered with Arizona entrepreneur Dr. Mike Newcomb to form “Nova M,” a new liberal talk radio syndication startup. After offering a failed bid to purchase Air America, the trio decided to go into business for themselves. And for now, Malloy provides the star power. You can stream his live from nine to midnight from the Nova M site. You can podcast his program (for free) from Nova M as well, and as always The White Rose Society offers full shows as well. (However, the Nova M downloads and podcasts have the commercials removed.) No news yet on whether Maron will actually join up as well. So far, their programming is only reaching a handful of lesser market stations, but taking on one or two rejected Air America programs with built-in grassroots support isn’t a bad start. And several west coast stations in larger markets have already signed on to adding Malloy’s show to their roster in short order.

It seems to me that in the scheme of things it would make sense for Air America to scale back their operations (within a realistic budget) and become more of a provider of sydicated progressive programming, along with companies like Nova M and P1, instead of attempting to provide a round the clock network. In general, real competition helps engender better programming.

Oreillymalkin Of course, the neocon nutbags and their online goons are rubbing their calloused knuckles together over the possibility that Air America may go down in a ball of flames. And if that does happen, you can be sure that clowns like O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin will spin around in circles, spittle flying, howling that liberal talk radio is dead! (And perhaps that it should be made illegal.) Just like Kerry’s botched Bush joke was superficially covered as some monumental exposure of Democratic Party disdain for America troops, the supposed demise of progressive talk will certainly reverberate within the rightist media machine if Air America bites the dust. And not surprisingly, it will be picked up by what’s left of the mainstream media as well, and well meaning talking heads will repeat it as if it were a foregone conclusion. And that’s why progressive talk will live on, and why it was created in the first place.

As far as Air America’s fate, it’s important to remember this. When the network was assembled in early in 2004, there were no "progressive talk" radio stations. And if AAR does go under, progressive talk is NOT going to go away. Although Air America didn’t exactly invent the left-wing talk show format (one might say i.e. America did that), they were the first to introduce shamelessly liberal commercial talk stations into major cities. Probably the primary reason AAR made the risky decision to create a seventeen (and ultimately eighteen) hour clock of weekday syndicated programming out of the box was that there was this overwhelming opinion that liberal talk shows couldn’t work and wouldn’t fit on all the established talk stations then in operation. Talk radio that dared to oppose the Republican Party in any real way just didn’t fit on mainstream talk radio by 2004. According one of Air America’s founders (and he’s still there!), Jon Sinton: "Just as you wouldn’t tune in to a country station to hear jazz, so you wouldn’t turn to a conservative talk station to get a liberal show." Air America was slowly adding affiliates through the spring of 2004, coaxing stations into airing all, or most, of their programming, and then to the surprise of many, radio giant Clear Channel decided to help out, even if just for business reasons.

Schultz Shortly after Air America went on the air, Clear Channel revamped a losing oldies outlet in Portand, Oregon by incorporating and up and coming new lefty host Ed Schultz with AAR programming, and it was almost an instant success. With that victory, the station’s positioning statement- "progressive talk" became a format beyond the name of any network or host. While Air America programming has generally been a part of all these Clear Channel liberal talk outlets, each is programmed individually, with other local and (left-leaning) syndicated hosts mixed with other content. So in reality, although there are a number of stations which do carry exclusively just Air America (and perhaps local) programming, that’s the minority. The loss of Air America would hardly mean losing the foundation of the format itself. Although I don’t see it ever becoming more popular than conservative talk radio, progressive talk isn’t going away. At least not until things get a little more… normal.

Not long ago, blogger Michael J. West wrote a post entitled: “Rush Limbaugh And Company, Air America Radio, And The Folly Of All Of Them.” In his piece, West quoted the late talk host Bob Lassiter giving his opinion of the talk radio format: "This is not a battle between the forces of good and evil," Lassiter had said. "It’s entertainment. Period." And in the piece West puts forth the idea that conservative and liberal talk radio merely preach to their respective faithful, and that they have no real political influence. And in a Lassiter inspired closing West intones: "Let the babies have their bottles."

The problem with West’s dialectic isn’t the logic itself, but that he only discovered Lasstier and his inherent talk radio wisdom on the other side of a paradigm shift that has changed all the rules. The clip he quoted was from something I recorded and used in the Lassiter profile I wrote a decade ago. And back in 1996, that provocative evaluation of talk radio made sense, or at least explained the self-serving zeitgiest within right wing talk radio that made it immediately distasteful at the time. But, in the scheme of things 1996 seems like a thousand years ago. And it would be folly to ignore or deny what has happened to AM talk radio since then.

I’ve always felt there was something fishy about the rampant breakout of conservative talk radio that’s gone down since Lassiter uttered those words. And now an uglyexhibit a” has emerged that increases my suspicion. Although it was barely covered in the major media, a talk show listener made an in-house ABC radio memo public last week, and it included a list of over eighty heavy-hitter radio sponsors who have an ongoing request that “NONE of their commercials air within Air America programming.” On the list– Microsoft, GE, Sony, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Exxon Mobil, the US Navy… and so many more. Jeez. No wonder I hear half a dozen Geico ads per hour on Air America. (Download the memo here.)

Texas_gerrymander Just like how Tom Delay and his friends gerrymandered Texas to assure Republican dominance of the state’s representatives in the U.S. Congress, these huge corporations have gerrymandered talk radio itself to assure their money flows specifically to the Republican talk show hosts who support their corporate/political interests. And need I remind you that ABC initially launched Limbaugh’s national program, and since have spawned rightist smearmerchants like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin into syndication as well.

And speaking of 1996, at that time ABC stations like WABC had notably non-conservative hosts like Lionel and Lynn Samuels on the air. And Mike Malloy had just started his successful four year run on their Chicago affiliate, WLS. Over the years, almost all the on-air voices of dissent against the Bush administration have disappeared from the official ABC affiliates as well. (However, as the memo says ABC syndicated programming appears on many other stations, including those that broadcast AAR content.)

1090 By 2004, talk radio had not only become incredibly political, but feverishly right wing across the board. And worse than that, every talk station in the country had become a defacto public relations outlet for the Republican party. And if the US was really really overwhelming Republican, maybe that might be… okay. But however you feel, be real. That’s never been true, and never will be. Who would want that? It’s bad enough they play "The Twist" and "Runaround Sue" everyday on oldies stations, but do you want Bush talking points to become the sole topic of conversation on commercial syndicated talk radio? I mean, even if you agree with that crap you must have limits. The fact that the right wing media commandeered the commercial talk format created a grassroots demand for a counterpart– a corresponding “pole” to balance an extremely polarized media landscape. Something never really needed or desired before, progressive talk radio, is an artificial construct setup to resist and oppose the near monopoly of syndicated Republican spew across the AM dial.

Today we find ourselves immersed in a talk radio cold war. Unless you’re doing a specialty show on pets, nutrition or investment, it’s almost impossible for a talk program to ignore what’s been going on in Iraq and within our government itself. In the previous environment, liberal, moderate and conservative political sentiments arose occasionally in commercial talk radio, as well as on NPR. Just like in real life. And left-wing thought always had a home on many community and college stations (and of course the Pacifica network). Conservative talk, which was already on the rise, became ever more powerful over the course of the Clinton Impeachment and the 2000 Election disaster. But once the 2001 terrorist attacks launched millions of Americans into a fear-based jingoistic frenzy, the talk radio industry purged nearly every host who might question the Bush regime, or any of the questionable actions they have initiated since that lethal day.

Npr And NPR? In the ensuing years National Public Radio has been busy pleasing the empowered right wing critics in the government who are trying to eliminate federal funding from anything they deem as “liberal media.” NPR is now so balanced that their programming seems to counter every bit of common sense with a right wing commentary giving the Republican counter-spin. While there are exceptions, more than ever NPR has evolved into of a "lifestyle" network focusing on apolitical cultural fluff. And the community and alternative stations do their reporting as bravely or ineptly as one might hope, but their reach is so small in the scheme of things. And sure, the internet and podcasting makes it easier to find alternative news sources, but the "turning on the faucet" aspect of local traditional radio still overwhelmingly trumps new media by the numbers. And if the original talk radio faucet was bought and paid for by the Republican party, radio types opposing the Bush talking points had only one choice– build a new progressive talk radio faucet.

Frankly, I’m not convinced that progressive talk radio can influence the electorate, or sway national opinion. In general, political radio is as Lassiter claimed– "support group radio." And while it seemed like a pointless idea in the middle of Clinton’s two terms, in this scary new America there’s a lot of listeners in need of some support. And when you realize the AM dial is bursting with lies and smears and narratives skewed beyond belief, there is comfort in knowing that there are “entertainers” on the same band who are actually telling the truth, and making fun of the villains and propagandists. It’s kind of sad, but we really do need progressive talk now. Not because it’s the best radio concept ever imagined, but it’s the reality we’re left with– communing with broadcasters who are willing to counter the Republican media loudspeaker, and hosts who can figure out how to make us laugh when there’s not much funny to go around.

The_cheney_1Optomistically, perhaps progressive talk radio will actually win over a few heartland listener’s from the clutches of the Republican spin machine. But that’s not why it’s so important. Outside of a few interesting non-commercial radio stations, music radio is dying. Dead, perhaps. For many of us the only radio format that consistently offers personality and humanity is talk radio. And if in these incredibly political times one side has been practically eliminated from the debate, we need to support the underdog, even if you don’t agree. And for those of us angered and frustrated from being shut out of the dialogue, it’s heartening to gather around these new progressive radio troughs and have our meetings and exchange information. In the rampant madness of our times, it’s so important for us to try to hold on to our sanity.Let’s face it. Two plus two must continue to equal four, no matter what. And when so many talk hosts are shouting "five,"with great emotion and rightousness it helps to hear from more thoughtful voices and be reminded that the equation still yields "four," no matter what they say, and to celebrate the glory and importance of that small fact.

Whether you like it or not, progressive radio is here to stay. Get used to it. Whether Air America continues is really beside the point. However, if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (and a number of others) find themselves on trial for war crimes one day, and our government embarks on a path of trying to heal all the grief and hatred it has engendered all over the world. And if some of these high roller war profiteers are actually rounded up and tried… And if all those talk radio entertainers who cheered our nation into a needless bloody war of aggression are publicly shamed, then maybe once again the idea of "support group radio" for dissenters will be just as absurd as it seemed a decade ago. And then perhaps talk radio can once again be as mischievous and truly experimental (or even pointless) as it was in the days of Bob Lassiter. Maybe.

Meanwhile, all we’re left with now is satire and bad news. In fact, I suspect more bad news is on the way. Get ready. Hey progressive talk hosts? Bring the funny. And bring the facts.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

The Last of Lassiter

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Lassiter_smile The Mad Dog has been silenced. After six years of rapidly declining health, talk radio giant Bob Lassiter passed away Friday morning October 13, 2006. His died in his bed, unconscious and without pain. And while Lassiter didn’t choose to suffer as he did over the last few years, he did manage to die as he had wished (considering the circumstances). And an integral part of that process was discussing his impending death with his fans, or anybody who cared to read about it. For over a year he blogged his slow demise.

Lassiter had turned 61 just days ago. Although the official cause was kidney failure brought on by diabetes, Lassiter was also a heavy smoker, a junk food enthusiast, and somebody who carried around a lot of bottled up frustration and anger. All life-shortening habits. Up until the end, Lassiter did what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it. Sometimes being headstrong can be fatal.

Younger than most of the 1960’s rock stars still working the oldies circuit, Lassiter died of old age. If there is some mercy in all of this, it’s that Bob’s radio career was marked by an impatience and disdain for old feeble callers, and he became elderly rather quickly and in private. And thanks to the blog he kept right up until the end, it was plain to see that he never lost his edge.

It seems a bit pointless to recap all I’ve written about Lassiter while he was alive (you can read those here, here, and here). In his own strange way, he was a talk radio giant who continues to have a huge effect on those who recall his program, as well as those who continue to hear his work via the growing archive available on the web. And when Lassiter’s blog occasionally opened for comments from readers (as it has now at its closing) the onslaught of listener accounts of changed lives and his influence were astounding. Having such power always seemed to baffle Lassiter, who once said: "It makes no difference if I change anyone’s mind, or influence anyone to do something. It’s not the point of my show."

Lassiter delighted in making listeners look at issues and ideas from a different angle, to break open clichés and tired narratives to re-examine the contents. For me personally, I know that after listening to Lassiter’s show for a while I’ve never heard (or thought about) talk radio the same way. 

Through almost pure happenstance (basically by being in the right places at the right time) I found myself in the strange position of becoming a torchbearer of Lassiter’s legacy over the last few years. However, that torch has since been passed into the hands of others who have provided online places where people can hear, discuss and learn about "The Bob Lassiter Show." While it only aired in three radio markets over the course of roughly twelve years, Lassiter’s program was one of the most powerful in the history of talk radio. And although he never reached the national syndication status many felt he deserved, Lassiter in all his show biz complexity is now international and forever. Aspiring talk hosts would be wise to study his work.

Before I ever heard Bob Lassiter on the radio, I had heard of him. Almost by accident (it’s a long story…) I ended up moving to Tampa in early 1991. While it took me a while to adjust to Florida life, I was immediately impressed with the local talk station, WFLA. I’d never heard anything like it. The presentation was cocky and irreverent (Lionel was doing afternoon drive at the time) and more importantly, it was unpredictable. And except for the warm and breezy morning show (and the daily syndicated Limbaugh garbage) WFLA’s hosts would insult and spew and hang up on stupid callers and talk about things I never heard discussed on the radio before. Little did I know that I was witnessing the heyday of Florida entertainment talk radio. But at that time, Bob Lassiter had already come and gone.

I used to occasionally chat with one of my neighbors over the fence behind my subtropical apartment, and often he’d hear me out on my little patio listening to WFLA. He would always talk about how WFLA wasn’t the same since this Lassiter guy had left town. He’d recount Lassiter’s antics in great detail and talk about how popular he was. I imagined Lassiter as some dark prince of talk radio, a strange force of nature I had sadly missed out on. It was still a few years away from the time when you could discover a distant (or dead) talk host through the web.

Then a year and a half later, Lassiter reappeared on the Tampa radio scene. This time at a new talk station, WSUN. It was billed as “Entertaining Talk Radio For the 90’s,” and they set out to out-attitude the fearless Jacor talk leader in the market (and Lassiter’s former employer), WFLA. (For some reason, I was mailed a promotional cassette promoting WSUN at the time, and you can download a copy of from the Bob Lassiter Airchecks website.)

It’s hard to imagine today, but WSUN was not only apolitical in its approach to talk radio. It was also rabidly un-topical. Topics they said, were “poison.” The format jumped into the Tampa market with a bunch of high-end radio talent (specifically Neil Rogers) by shipping in most of the programming from Cox Broadcasting sister station WIOD in Miami. Lassiter was cooling his heels in Iowa after his tumultuous gig at WLS in Chicago when Rogers lobbied for Cox bring him back to do morning drive at WSUN, followed by the WIOD line-up.

While I’m not a morning guy, I went as far as setting up a timer and tape deck to occasionally listen to this show. Although Lassiter was impressive and funny, it wasn’t the wild radio ass extravaganza I’d been led to expect. In retrospect, at a station where shows weren’t supposed to be topical Lassiter’s trademark incendiary monologues and convoluted set-ups were rarely heard. Most of the time Bob was left to try to do what Neil does so well– to riff and bitch and cause trouble for hours on end.

When Lassiter moved to afternoons at WSUN, now following Rogers show, I listened to both of them all the time. And when Lassiter and his mentor began their famous on-air feud, their back to back programs took a nasty turn. Neil incessantly provoked Lassiter into a frothing rabid dog every afternoon, and Lassiter responded in kind, countering Rogers point for point and it got meaner every day. And just as getting stuck at station where a loose shock-talk approach prevailed put Lassiter at a disadvantage, the on-air slap fight between talk monsters was just something Rogers was much better at as well. While Rogers seemed to enjoy getting Lassiter’s goat more every day, Lassiter seethed and sniped and became moody and dark as he found himself becoming the public enemy of his radio mentor. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard Lassiter lose a fight. For those of us who witnessed the carnage it was nice to hear them made amends last year when Bob made his last radio appearance on Roger’s show.

And then after WSUN disbanded, Lassiter was under a contractual non-compete clause and couldn’t work in Tampa area radio for a number of months. But as soon as he became available, WFLA started sniffing around and brought Lassiter back into the fold one more time. And thus began his last hurrah.

Suddenly, I was hearing the Bob Lassiter I’d only heard my neighbor talk about. Lassiter was truly the Mad Dog once again. For me, Lassiter’s new nightly show on WFLA was immediately addictive in a way I can only compare to how people get locked into television programs. It was like a soap opera you couldn’t miss, or the way a geek might crave a Star Trek or Twilight Zone fix. I found myself spending my daylight hours recalling Lassiter’s antics from the night before with my friends, and then coming home in prickly anticipation over what kind of crazy shit Lassiter might do that night. It was a constant parade of unpredictable drama and wit and thought, and countless strange radio conversations. 

I was doing a lot of freelance journalism at the time, and I got a green light from one of my editors to put together a cover story feature on the Mad Dog. Suddenly something I just enjoyed for entertainment became an intellectual pursuit, and so much more (and less).

Now instead of just listening, I began recording every Lassiter show to study for the article. Of course, I had no idea at the time that airchecks of Lassiter would be something I would collect or cherish years later. As the tapes piled up, I would edit significant monologues and calls from these tapes into complications for source material for the profile. Then, after weeks of listening and recording and interviewing many of Lassiter’s past associates and co-workers, I assembled a tall stack of questions and was ready to actually talk to the man himself. When I asked for the interview, I assumed it would take place at the radio station. Instead, Lassiter invited me into his house. Several days later I spent four hours in an air conditioned suburban kitchen drinking hot weak coffee and interrogating Bob Lassiter. And boy did he hate it.

In the course of working on the article, I probably met with Lassiter three or four times (including sitting in with him during his show) and he was always civil and basically pleasant. But he was never friendly. Not even close. In fact, after the interview Lassiter went on his show and made fun of me and complained about having to put up with the inquisition. To add insult to injury, he misrepresented my questions and generally made me look foolish. I hadn’t expected that.

In general, writing the piece became an unpleasant experience. The more I delved into Bob’s reality the worse I felt. I was having Lassiter nightmares, dreaming he was taking me to task for my foolish musings or that I never was able to actually finish the damn profile. In the end I found myself trying to adequately balance what was good and bad and true about Lassiter without writing a puff piece, or mentioning how creepy it felt being in the same room with him. There was so much to say about Lassiter, but it was difficult to have it all make sense.

But finally after much rewriting and editing it all came together. In the article, Lassiter claimed he tried conduct a two-tier program. "I do a show for half the audience that understands what I’m doing, and the other half that don’t can amuse the other half" he said. The piece I ultimately wrote was two-tier as well. I hoped that those who loved or hated Lassiter’s show (and there were many in both categories in the Tampa area) would find many reasons to justify the feelings they already had about the man, and that others could get a grip on his interesting inconsistences. My father, who couldn’t stand Lassiter thought the feature helped him understand why Lassiter was such an asshole. On the other hand, Lassiter himself really liked the article. (If you’re interested, you can read the text here.) And contrary to his earlier insults, Lassiter was quite appreciative and personally thanked me for writing it (and for getting all his quotes right). I was glad it was all over, and was a little thankful that I wouldn’t have to deal with Lassiter again, except as a listener.

To be fair, Lassiter wasn’t any more or less warmhearted with me than he was with most people. On his show (and later on his blog) he’d always been quite open about being a misanthrope. “I don’t like people,” Lassiter told me during that interview. “I don’t like people around me.” And while I never intended to be his friend, I was a bit taken aback by how awkward it was just talking with him. I’ve never experienced anyone quite like him in person– soft-spoken, cordial, and cold. Then again, it didn’t feel personal. I don’t think he disliked me in particular. But he did want to make it profoundly clear that he wasn’t going to be my pal.

By the time I left Tampa in 1997, Lassiter’s show lacked the buzz and crackle it had just a year before. After not being able to ply his provocative trademark radio style for a number of years, Lassiter burst out of the box at WFLA with guns blazing. But this time around was different than the times he did the same thing at WPLP, WFLA the first time around, and at WLS. Lassiter was wiser this time. When I interviewed him he told me: "You have to constantly change, yet without giving the perception of having changed, or you eventually burn out your audience." He knew his hostile radio style could create a big splash in a media market (and occasionally create some really unique radio), but maintaining that abrasive vibe for an extended period would likely darken the show into a negative mess for all concerned.

I think his new game plan that time around was to cycle his approach. All his previous gigs hadn’t lasted much longer than two years, and this time around in the home park where he had perfected his style he planned to have a long successful run. I asked him if at the beginning of this WFLA stint if he’d ever shift into the warm and fuzzy persona he often offered up at WSUN. “I will eventually be able to,” he said. “But I can’t right now."

Then a few months later Bob took on a female co-host as he did at WSUN. At SUN it was Sharon Taylor (who is mentioned in the last post on his blog, and currently is part of the morning team at WFLA), but on WFLA he was joined by his wife Mary (who masqueraded as “Lou”) and often his producer “Flounder.” While it wasn’t bad, and Bob at times was still the irascible “Mad Dog” when cornered, it wasn’t the carefully constructed outrageous drama with a constant stream of entertainingly angry callers. It was an attempt to be conversational and to have fun without resorting to being a prick so often. Bob’s obsession with computers and day trading became a major feature of his show as well. In retrospect, I think that the less than ballistic Lassiter was still a more compelling and individual talk host than over ninety percent of what passes for talk radio nowadays. But it wasn’t the same wild ride that made Lassiter the legend who burns bright in listener’s memories.

Once I moved to New York, I occasionally checked out Lassiter’s show over the web. I don’t recall anything special. I had heard second hand from Florida friends Lassiter’s three year run at WFLA ended in late 1999, and that in the end he did something you rarely hear. He went on the air and trashed the station. The Bob Lassiter Airchecks site has an archive of his final show, and it’s classic smoldering Lassiter. As his contract was running out, WFLA management was putting off negotiating a new one with him. Even the staff was avoiding him in the building. But after his audience was made aware of the situation and his anger at the station, Lassiter was asked to stay home. And that’s where he spent the rest of his life.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Bob Lassiter had been on the WFMU radar for a long time. I was working a table at their record fair when I discovered the first volume of the station’s “Radio Archival Oddities” cassette featuring a “Tampa talk host” who was none other than the magnificent Lassiter. When the Aircheck program debuted in 2002 I began contributing clips I had compiled when I wrote the article, and people beyond Tampa and Chicago began to discover there was more to Lassiter than those calls from Rocky the Rock-n-Roll Klansman and the guy in the Airstream trailer (who in reality were actually the same person).

Meanwhile, the state of talk radio (especially in New York) was increasingly right wing and depressing. It seemed like a prime time for Lassiter to appear in some market and stir up trouble again. As I regularly searched the internet for news of (and references to) Bob Lassiter, two things became obvious. The first was that Lassiter had indeed disappeared from the talk radio scene. Occasional postings on message boards and Usenet only revealed people who were doing the same thing I was, wondering what ever happened that Lassiter character?

The other thing I realized was that the few clips of Lassiter that were floating around hardly gave a full picture of his complicated and convoluted radio persona. Many people who discovered Lassiter through WFMU were blown away by his provocative talk style, but it also gave many superficial snapshots of his work. In the age of Bush, Lassiter sounded to many like a cunning and angry liberal who bravely battled rednecks, fundamentalist kooks and conservative morons. While he indeed contended with all sorts of folks on the battlefield of his program, Lassiter was never really left wing. He was a libertarian leaning contrarian with a mean streak. And he was so much more (and sometimes so much more frustrating) than what newcomers might glean from a few heart-pounding bits.

So in 2003 I set upon the task of providing a more complete overview of The Bob Lassiter Show by assembling a retrospective which turned out to be a two-part special on WFMU’s Aircheck program. (Which you can hear and/or download here.) I had recently swapped copies of some of my Lassiter archives with an aircheck tape collector for some 80’s Lassiter material he had. And after carefully combing through it all I had enough stuff to assemble a feasible documentary of Lassiter’s career, which aired over two weeks in late July of 2003.

Although, I considered contacting Lassiter to give him a heads-up on what I was doing, but I was frankly apprehensive about reaching out to him again. And while working on the shows I began to get a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be happy about it. I chickened out.

I was wrong. In less than a week after the first installment aired, Lassiter had found the archive, listened to it, and sent me an appreciative email. “I had forgotten most of the calls, and even some of the "monologue" snippets,” Lassiter said. “Things sure were different back then. It’s hard to believe that I actually got paid to do some of that stuff. It was a lot of fun – though I didn’t always realize it at the time!” In that email I also found out for the first time that Lassiter had serious health problems stemming from diabetes.

Well, that was a relief. Lassiter was happy and I got plenty of positive response from listeners as well. And thanks to the internet, all the Lassiter featured on aircheck continued to find old Lassiter fans and create new ones. Instead of the politically driven smear merchants who clutter talk radio today, Lassiter offered edgy entertainment that was both intellectual and absurd. And at his best he created gripping theater of the mind.

A few weeks later an old Lassiter fan from Tampa heard the Lassiter Aircheck specials and sent me an email. It has inspired him to digitize hundreds of old tapes of Lassiter and other Tampa talk hosts he rescued from his garage. I swapped some of my material with him, and he went on to create some nice CD’s collecting some of the highlights of the golden age of Tampa talk radio. I hope one day that all the material he’s gathered together finds a home online. Speaking of that, a few months later a guy named George in Texas who used to listen to Lassiter on WLS in Chicago found these shows as well, and sent me a nice email thanking me. “Man, I just shit my pants,” he said. And then George set out to spread the joy.

After purchasing some of the aircheck tapes of Lassiter available on the web, George put up a bare bones website featuring MP3’s of these tapes, and asked fans to contribute more. That was the beginning of the wonderful “Bob Lassiter Airchecks” site, which continues to grow with more new additions all the time. Now anyone who wants to truly explore (or remember) the full breadth of Bob Lassiter’s radio magic and mischief can access a huge online resource that could keep them busy for months. And I should add that it’s free as well. More than anyone, George has assured that Lassiter’s radio legacy will live on for many years to come, warts and all. That’s what I call public service. A busy Yahoo Lassiter fan group has sprung up as well, which often served as a place for his followers to converse when they were shut out of speaking on his personal blog.

Sometime in 2004 the first “blog lassiter” began. Lassiter shut it down after he began to get too many people wanting to associate with Lassiter via the comments section. The second (or maybe third?) version of his blog went online last summer, and it remains today. While comments were normally closed (except on the rare posts where Lassiter would allow them), the last post has been opened for comments from readers and fans. And as you might guess, they’re piling up quickly at this writing.

What became obvious to anyone coming across Lassiter’s blog was that it was going to be a chronicle of the end of his life. It was the document of a grouchy old man going through a slow and painful death. But it served a more important purpose in the long run. It kept the long love affair between Lassiter and his listeners alive until the very end. To be sure, it was often a dysfunctional relationship, but he cherished the attention and his fans clung to having some connection to a voice that had meant so much to them.

I’ve come to believe that Lassiter was as shy as he was egocentric and angry. He functioned best when he was in charge of the things, especially when lording over a talk show. Or by conducting a personal blog which allowed only a minimum of reader comments. Which brings me around to Lassiter’s last words.

While we all have no idea of the what Bob actually said or did in those moments before he lost consciousness or took his last breath, what we are left with is the personal public diary he left for his wife Mary to post after his passing. And his very last entry is telling. Until the end, Lassiter obsessively monitored his blog readership and web presence. And after seeing a post in the Yahoo group regarding how his last employer, WFLA, was putting together his obituary. “Overall, I’m amused that the bastards who threw me out in the gutter, now want to honor me with a fancy obit,” Lassiter spewed. “I’m sure that it will be a warm and fuzzy thing, praising me to the hilt – why must the world be so phony?”

There you go. While not knowing those would be his last words in public, that final accusation exemplified what made Lassiter good and bad and a little strange. Radio is a cutthroat business and many of those who work in the trenches on the business end find themselves in ugly roles and end up doing disingenuous things. And there is a phoniness there deserving of some bile and bluster. On his show, Lassiter was always a master of revealing the hypocrisy of many institutions, including his insights into the dark side of the radio business. However, if you read between the lines on this one you also get a sense of how difficult it could be to know (or care about) Lassiter the person, not the voice on the radio or the writer of a blog.

I know a few of Lassiter’s “many friends” at WFLA who Lassiter denounced for not calling or visiting him over the years since he parted ways with the station. While I don’t know the details of why his contract wasn’t renewed or the business angle of the decision. I do know that there was a huge respect for Lassiter at WFLA, which I’m sure didn’t end when he left the building. Lassiter had his greatest success there, with two stints marked by now historic moments of cutting edge talk radio. More than at any other station, they let him do his thing, to the hilt. They promoted him. They were proud of him. The acrimonious split with WFLA aside, you can be sure that the concern many there felt for Lassiter in his last days was hardly phony.

In real life, Bob Lassiter was a formidable character. Difficult to read. Difficult to approach. As a former co-worker, Lionel, said the other night when offering a brief eulogy during his show was that Lassiter wasn’t "somebody you’d wanna hug." He could be as pungent in real life as he was during those acerbic moments of radio genius. There was always the sense that he might unload at you at any time. It was a strange feeling, being in the presence of a man you respected and admired and having the distinct feeling that he not only didn’t care, but thought less of you because of it.

Lionel’s Lassiter Eulogy 10-16-06  02:38

(download)

I don’t want to delve into psychobabble regarding what made Bob tick. By the time he started his talk radio career he was already around forty years old, a fully formed man with all his powers and faults well-defined. And like many in show businesses, he employed his flaws into his act. The bitterness and anger you might hear during his show was real. And so was the honesty and the intellect, and on those rare occasions– the warmth.

So, the truth is I never really knew much more of Lassiter than what I heard on the radio, and what he told me. Although he could be painfully confessional on his radio program, it seems that during the last third of his life Lassiter was a cipher to most of the people who actually knew him. But what we’re all left with at his passing, is the power of life itself that he invested into his radio program. What he had such a difficult time expressing in person, came out in blustery torrents over the radio. He had a rare intellect powered by raw untethered emotions. And nothing was sacred… except his wife, him mom, a few friends and Christmas.

There will never be another Bob Lassiter. And as long as I’ve been aware of him, I’ve never heard anyone (including myself) fully define or explain his radio program, or his power as a media personality. Anybody with any interest in the guy should go through the archives at the Lassiter aircheck site and give a listen. Bob would like that.

There was only one last question I wanted Lassiter to answer. I did ask it once in an email, but he never responded to the question. Lassiter was such a storyteller and often built his show around extended monologues. And I’ve long wondered if he was influenced by the great radio raconteur, Jean Shepherd. Lassiter grew up in New Jersey and could have easily heard Shepherd’s show. And he even used to pull out a kazoo bust into a hot number when he was in the mood, just as Shepherd would. And I was actually considering emailing Bob one more time, just last weekend, to ask this one more time. I didn’t know he was already gone.

Lassiterwfla_2 If there would ever be a school for talk show hosts (and sometimes I think there oughtta be one) it should have a specific class (or seminar) on the work of Jean Shepherd and Bob Lassiter. Not to inspire imitators or clones, but to make future talk hosts realize the potential of talk radio. Sure it’s a swell forum for spreading propaganda or keeping people company, but it can and should be so much more. On the radio, both Lassiter and Shepherd explored the rudimentary mysteries of being alive, and threw aside conventions and assumptions to explore what things really might mean. They created something very rare– adventurous radio. That’s why people collect and trade their old shows. That’s why their work is as compelling now (or even more so) than it was when they were on the air.

In closing, I want to say that my intention here is to neither sully Lassiter’s legend or to inflate my small role in an important man’s life. I guess I wanted to pass along some of the ways I was personally bitten by the Mad Dog. I suppose I would have liked to have been his friend, but it was an honor to have been able to occasionally shepherd his legacy. And yes, Bob Lassiter was a strange and difficult man. But he was always honest about that. In fact, the one thread that runs through all of Lassiter’s work was a raw honesty that made his work intrinsically human and valid and ultimately appealing. And let’s be honest. It was almost always fun to hear foolish callers make fools of themselves.

"My worst fear would be that no one wants to listen to me," Lassiter told me that afternoon at his kitchen table. Don’t worry Bob, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Bare America

Saturday, October 14th, 2006

Frankenmug_1 Perhaps you’ve already heard the shocking news. Air America Radio has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Gosh, and things seemed to have been going so well…

Okay, all joking aside. Anybody who’s been been paying much attention to the ongoing situation at the left-wing talk network knew this was coming. Despite the fact that "progressive radio" is proving to be a profitable and timely radio format, two and a half years of bad management and poor decisions have savaged the radio network that had a rocky start to begin with. Lefty website "Think Progress" predicted bankruptcy was imminent weeks ago, and perhaps Air America was trying to hold out until after the mid-term elections. But just too many people were NOT getting paid. (Take a look at the long list at the Smoking Gun website).

For now, AAR has received court permission to dig into a nine-hundred grand pile of dough from a group calling itself "Democracy Allies LLC" who agreed to lend AAR the cast to keep them in business as the legal proceedings continue. It’s not clear if any of the "Allies" money will pay Franken any of the $360,750 he’s owed (according to the court filing), but the money could certainly be better spent.

And while Franken salary has climbed to an ungodly two million a year (and the better part of another million per year for his bloated staff) he probably can’t be blamed entirely for Air America poverty. While it’s easy to understand why this may have seemed to be a good idea to promote AAR at first, after Katherine Lanpher left the program Franken’s foray into talk radio quickly proved to be not only an embarrassment, but a HUGE drain on the struggling company. Apparently, the Air America executives haven’t figured this all out, and Franken’s ego is so huge that he can’t see it (or hear it) for himself.

For better or worse, Franken’s rubbery mug has been the face of Air America from the very beginning (In fact, I think every story I say online today regarding the bankruptcy filing included his name), and since he’s personally responsible for sucking away millions from the Air America’s coffers you’d think that on the day of the court filing he’d come forward on his program and deal with the issue. Fat chance.

On that Friday, Franken opened his show with an extended jokey segment preceding an interview with Bob Woodward in which Franken made fun of the way Woodward says the word "report." It seems that Mr. Woodward pronounces the word rah-port instead of ree-port. Wow. Hilarious stuff. This went on for several minutes before the Woodward interview, and then there were more knee-slapping clips of Woodward’s mispronunciation of rah-port after the interview was over. Jeez Al. Bob Woodward is from Boston, where some people talk a little funny. And that’s one of the many irritating things about Franken’s show, is that there seems to be nobody brave enough to let him know when his material is really NOT funny– like making a big stink about an important guest’s regional accent. And of course, he didn’t do it to Woodward’s face. Because Franken is even less than a lousy radio host. He’s also a coward.

Celebairamerica Franken not only failed to address the bankruptcy on his show, he didn’t take callers either. Actually, he almost never take calls during his program and he’s also a horrible interviewer. Why is Franken on the radio again? Oh, that’s right he’s a CELEBRITY. Other than the Woodward interview and the rah-port jokes, and an extended extremely unfunny repeat of a Franken humor segment (about negative campaign ads) from a previous show, the rest of his three hour program on that Friday consisted of interview after interview of Democratic candidates running in the upcoming mid-term election. No analysis of the elections from anyone other than Franken and the candidates themselves– just Al throwing softball questions and candidates in turn pleading for votes. As much as I hope every single one of those folks win their races in November, it was boring misguided radio. It was The Al Franken show, which somehow makes NPR sound pretty damn exciting in comparison.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. The Truthseeker

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

Malloy_portrait_2 After carrying on at length here at BOTB on the state of Air America over the last month or two, I thought I’d just shut up and let AAR do what they were going to do and see what happened next. I wasn’t all that hopeful, but I was frankly tired of thinking about the whole mess. Then while working on another post I happened across the Air America website, and I had to laugh and then shake my head. And so here I am again, blogging about the sad state of affairs at the struggling progressive talk network.

Yesterday, a new and revised on-air schedule went into effect at Air America radio. And although I happened to post an almost identical schedule (which I heard through the grapevine) here as a comment on one of my BOTB posts four weeks ago, and to my surprise I appear to have been the only one to actually promote the line-up. Sure, a few folks reposted and linked to the schedule I posted, but for some reason Air America never officially publicized their programming reshuffle until the day it actually took effect.  Very strange.

Sunday night, only hours before the new schedule became operational, the old one was still on the AAR website. However, If you spent some time digging deep into their site you could figure out that “The Young Turks” were taking over the network six to nine morning slot (not in NYC), and that Sam Seder and Rachel Maddow would now have new time slots as well, but there was no big announcement online or on the network itself touting the programming changes. I had assumed that after the line-up make-over there would be some major revision of the website to clean it up and add more current information. But so far it’s a turning into a poorly maintained online fossil.

And I got to wondering. Are they trying to keep their programming and decisions a secret for some reason? Or are they just so incompetent or short-handed that they’re not able to publicize (or define) themselves efficiently?

It seems to be the latter. As everybody who has been following the recent twists and turns in the behavior of Air America management, late-night firebrand Mike Malloy was suddenly canned a few weeks ago (with plenty of protestations among the AAR faithful). Well, apparently they haven’t been able to figure out what to do with Malloy’s time slot, and have brought in Peter Werbe (Malloy’s friend who often filled-in for him when he was away) to man the late night position at the network while they try to decide what to do with those hours. And much to my surprise, as I looked at the Air America when Werbe went on the air and there was no banner image of the host (as there always usually would be) and there was a brief description of Werbe’s broadcast posted by Mike Malloy himself. And it was hilarious:

"Hi. Malloy here. It’s Monday, September 18, 2006. Well, it’s been almost three weeks since we were fired by the really, really strange pod-people who have temporarily taken over Air America. Tonight’s program will be hosted by my good friend Peter Werbe. Not sure what he’s talking about tonight, but do tune in. If you’re wondering how we’re writing and posting this mini-blog it’s simply because the airheads in Air America’s executive suites – the pod-people mentioned above – are too, um, stupid to figure out how to handle their own website access.

The door’s wide open. Well, eventually their bodies will start to react to Earth atmosphere and they’ll have to leave. Meantime, Mike and Kathy here saying, stay tuned!"

Wow. Apparently, not only is Air America unable to keep their website up to date, but a host they fired weeks ago is still able to post text that shows up on their home page! Considering the possibilities, Malloy was practically graceful. Here’s what he says about it on his personal site:

"Strange things can happen when certain corporate entities fire much of their website editing department without first making sure at least one remaining employee knew how to operate the darned thing. I’m just sayin’ . . . . .

And be sure to tune into Peter Werbe at 10 PM ET on Air America Radio while you can. He’s a good guy and a premier talk show host and you should check him out, wish him luck, and pray his checks cash."

Cup_1 On the same page Malloy mentions that he was interviewed for an upcoming Salon article where he says we’ll all be able to read some of his “interesting observations” about the network. That should be fun.

The firing of Malloy infuriated thousands of fans and supporters (you can see or sign the petition to reinstate Malloy at AAR here) and led at least three or four Air America hosts to take time on the air to discuss their disagreement with the decision. (And all this following their split with Maron, a decision which caused the same kind of stink). But what’s even more curious, is how he was let go a few minutes before going on the air when they don’t even seem to have had a viable plan for his replacement. And the fact that Malloy can make fun of the Air America brain trust right on their home page just adds insult to injury. To be sure, Air America is hurtin’.

So, I do wonder if they’ll catch on by tomorrow night. It’ll be worth checking to see if Malloy can continue to poke fun at Air America’s sad state of affairs right on their own website. But the site is like a ghost town. There’s even a link to Marc Maron’s show, which hasn’t been on the air since July and never made it to the network. On the AAR Malloy page, which remains up as well, Mike put up a post hinting he’ll keep causing trouble there as long as he can get away with it:

"The door’s wide open. So we dashed in just for the hell of it to post this “howdy, how is everyone?”

Frankly, we think the suits are too stupid to stop us so we’ll probably do this every day and also post a longer blog inside the site where we used to. Until they figure out what we’re doing and stop our fun. Bastards. Just mean ol’ right-wing bastard pod-people running our Air America."

(Read the whole thing and some comments here, . The blog post and Malloy’s page at AAR’s website since vanished.)

 Yet, perhaps just mentioning Malloy’s little prank on this blog will be enough to make somebody scramble and change the password to keep the mischievous talk host off their site. I mean, I’m starting to feel like I’m an unpaid consultant for Air America. The new schedule has at least two changes I’ve advocated a few times here at BOTB– Springer’s off the schedule, and Randi Rhodes has been cut back to three hours. And in my last AAR post I discussed their shameful weekend Aarbe_1newscasts by the smarmy “Miles Cameron” (formerly “Frisco Hills”) which were obviously pre-recorded many hours beforehand and repeated the same "evergreen" (calculatingly viable all weekend long) stories throughout the day. Then when I was listening this last weekend, Miles was gone! The new weekend newsreader, a woman (Paula Reid?), was actually reporting news relatively current to the hour of the newscast. Coincidence? Or is somebody over on Sixth Avenue reading these posts? More importantly, why isn’t somebody who understands what makes radio compelling and worthwhile (specifically news and talk radio) listening to the network (and checking the website) and remedying embarrassments before a blogger like me points them out? Just the fact that the website has begun to rot and Jerry Springer even had a network show for longer than a week should tell you one thing– nobody making important decisions at Air America actually listens to Air America for more than a few minutes at time, or keeps up the network’s online presence (or gives a rat’s ass about it).

 A while back I fantasized that Randy Michaels might either take over, buy out, or merge his progressive talk company (Product First) with Air America. It seems that might have been a damn good idea. While recent rumors of Air America declaring bankruptcy have been officially denied, Positioningthey’re obviously in deep financial trouble. And Al Franken says he’s not getting his paycheck lately (at least that’s a step in the right direction). But what is obvious is that Air America really is bankrupt– of vision, new ideas, and the ability to even maintain the status quo of running a radio corporation.

While progressive talk radio has already proven itself in a number of ways as a viable new format (Clear Channel and Randy Michaels wouldn’t have gotten in the business otherwise), Air America itself is heading for failure with the current leadership. If Sheldon Drobny and Jon Sinton and others who remain of the original founders really give a shit about the network they need to either sell it to somebody who knows what they’re doing, or trim Air America down to a manageable syndication outfit and bring in real radio veterans to run the damn thing. And if they want to hire me, I’ll give them more detailed advice and quit sending snarky commentary into the blogosphere. I thought Air America Radio was a promising proposition from the beginning and I’ve been quick to say positive things about good programming on the network, but despite much good work by so many folks on and off the air, but AAR is obviously broken and needs to be fixed. First they hired a doofus CEO from the music business to steer the company, and now I hear the new guy calling the shots came from the cosmetics industry. Unbelievable.

As it stands Air America is a bloated and mismanaged monster adrift in the mediastream, and it’s become an embarrassment. There’s some solid programming, but it’s more by accident than part of some grand plan. There’s no focused leadership or willingness to make any major decisions that aren’t dictated by petty economic concerns.

And if you hear Air America via their new New York outlet have you heard Armstrong Williams (nickname "Army"??) on the local morning show? It’s a tragic state of affairs…

Of course I want to say all I’ve already said– bring back Maron and Malloy, and (PLEASE) get rid of Franken, all that. And maybe it wasn’t so smart to part ways with Carl Ginsburg or Shelley Lewis either. But while those may be good ideas, it’s now all too obvious that there are deep and pervasive problems with the entire structure and vision of the current management. Have I mentioned how much I hate these people who have taken over Air America?

This isn’t going well. The last thing I want to do is toss my lot in with morons who live to live to celebrate the demise of Air America. I hope Malloy is right, and "pod people" have only temporarily taken over. But I do plead with you suited men who can make such decisons–please let somebody else run the show or just let the seeds you’ve sown find more fertile ground. Air America provides an important role in a biased mediascape. Hand the reigns over to somebody who knows what they are doing.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. Reality – Part 4

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

Billboard_2 September has arrived, and so far almost none of the changes I prognosticated for Air America (to coincide with their leaving WLIB) have come to pass. At least not yet. However, I did clearly state that I was offering rumors and guesses, and reports of decisions probably still in progress. But with great sadness, I can confirm I that Bush administration toady Armstrong Williams is indeed co-hosting the morning show on New York’s new Air America affiliate, WWRL.

Also contrary to what I reported here, Randy Michaels has not gotten a foothold into New York City’s progressive talk scene, either by taking over WLIB or making a deal with Air America. Although it had been reported in radio trade journals as a done deal, Mr. Michaels and Inner City Broadcasting were either in negotiations, and or had a tentative agreement that fell thorough. Instead as September arrived WLIB switched to an all-gospel format, and Air America jumped to WWRL– where they now have significantly less coverage in the New York market and fewer hours of the broadcast day to open to their programming.

The upcoming new schedule I posted here isn’t valid yet. Check the current one here, (here’s a PDF of it today, to see when the link is updated) on Air America’s site. And here’s the current WWRL schedule (again with a PDF here to see once the page is updated) In fact, the weekday line-up is EXACTLY the same as before, with one big exception. Mike Malloy is history.

Last week, Malloy was filling in for the vacationing Randi Rhodes for the entire week, obviously enjoying the opportunity to vent and profess in a more conspicuous time slot. Then on Wednesday afternoon, driving on the expressway to the studio his cell phone rang. His friend (and Air America honcho) Jon Sinton suggested Malloy might want to pull over for some bad news. Then on the shoulder of a suburban Atlanta interstate highway, Mike Malloy was fired. If you’d like to hear Malloy’s version of the situation, check out this interview of Malloy on a California Air America affiliate

KTLK Harrison on the Edge – Mike Malloy Interview  16:13

(download)

 The official reason? Financial considerations. So, in order to save some money Malloy was fired in mid-commute? Do you get the idea there might be more to this story?. By his own admission, Malloy was the lowest paid weekday host at Air America. C’mon. The net yearly gross of Malloy and his wife Kathy (his producer) was probably less than the cost of a weekend retreat for Al Franken’s staff. Undoubtedly, there were other reasons which aren’t being released to the general public.

Malloy_smileIf I can shift again into the unsubstantiated rumors department. I’ve heard an alternate story on how Malloy’s abrupt spit with AAR went down. Although Malloy had been promised a contract, the ongoing meetings of the Air America brain trust were heavily split on whether they should keep him around. Then another of Malloy’s friends at network headquarters happened to see the latest draft of the upcoming Air America schedule. No Malloy Show. His friend thought Mike might be interested in the prosepective schedule change.  If so, perhaps the call Malloy mentions was really a return call from Sinton confirming his eminent split with Air America. Either way, that call made it suddenly impossible that Mike Malloy would host the next four hours on Air America in a matter of minutes, or ever. I’ve been told there was a hell of a scramble to find a last minute replacement that afternoon. Again, this is all hearsay…

Meanwhile, we’re left to guess why, and fume and question the practices of Air America. The indignation and rage of Malloy’s fans across the country has yet to crest. And the manner of his dismissal has been a huge to blow to AAR’s credibility and morale headquarters.

Springer_3 Actually, after taking a look at the new Air America schedule there’s one overriding fact– it hasn’t really changed, other than becoming more conservative and frugal. Two and a half years is a long time in radio, and one would think that an admittedly experimental network and line-up would be subject to some tweaking and improving in that time frame, something beyond trying to do more on the cheap. The grand cable TV comedy meets left-wing political talk radio vision for Air America and most of the seat-of-the-pants schedule they slapped together in 2004 around that idea remains in place, only most of the “co-hosts” have been eliminated. So far, despite all the turn over in Air America management, there hasn’t been any rethinking of programming other than downsizing. That is, unless you consider putting a prattling boob like Jerry Springer in the line-up a “eureka moment.”

Observing the outward behavior of the Air America management, it would be a good working assumption that the network leadership has been running on automatic pilot for the most part, with a bit of in-house squabbling along the way. How else can you explain firing Marc Maron, and then signing a contract for a new program with him, and then scrapping that idea and begging him to come back to mornings? What else could cause AAR to promote Malloy’s webcast (and podcasting options to hear his show) during the hours they took him off in New York, and then promoting his return to the New York airwaves (and personally promising him a new contract), only to suddenly fire him when he was minutes away from a prime-time broadcast? Do you get the sense that there’s been some heated discussions over on Sixth Avenue? Probably one or them brought about the exit of Carl Ginsburg.

Seder1 All that said, a schedule shake is probably just over the horizon. Sam Seder in this post (from August 24, 2006) on the Majority Report blog says that he will indeed move to mornings (in Springer’s slot) by mid-September. He also has says: “We’re beginning to develop ideas for the new show…” and that he has “a couple of surprises in mind.”  New ideas? Surprises? At least this sounds hopeful. An article in the Boston Globe also confirms an impending move to mornings for Seder at AAR.

I believe much of the prospective schedule (minus Malloy) that I posted as a comment will probably come to pass this month, most likely on the 18th of September. But don’t look for any hints from the Air America website. As I type this I’ve noticed that Malloy’s show is listed as “coming up next.” And references to Maron’s defunct program are still all over the site. Just last week I saw a dead link on the home page claiming Maron’s show was streaming live (The show was cancelled in mid-July). In fact, a recent post on the Huffington blog made note of how inept Air America has been in promoting their network and programming in general. Hopefully, if the schedule is going to change they’ll update their site at least a few days in advance.

Air America’s inability to substantially promote itself or its programs, and to generally communicate with the press, has been a big problem. Actually, after the huge media circus surrounding the launch of AAR in 2004, the best promotional work for Air America has occurred online (via message boards and the blogosphere), which has been both free (and generally positive, with a exception of few GOP trained blog doggies) although a completely independent network of fans and observers out spreading the love. Actually, the Majority Report has done the best job of serving the net savvy AAR crowd, and Malloy and Rhodes have very active message boards as well. However, Air America as a network doesn’t communicate any better with their online audience than they do with the news media. And the combination of two big and boneheaded missteps over the past year has kicked the online hive of AAR disciples into a burgeoning frenzy. And now many of their most active online promoters have turned to typing disparaging screeds and angry accusations all over the web.

Something they’ve admitted was an egregious mistake just by their subsequent efforts to reverse the decision–  watering down “Morning Sedition” into the Mark Riley show by taking Marc Maron and Jim Earls, really pissed off a rabid and growing fanbase. While it had yet to prove itself a ratings juggernaut, Morning Sedition inspired rabid loyalty and high-power internet buzz, and seemed positioned for a bright future (Especially considering that Howard Stern was about to evacuate morning drive across the country). Out of all the experimental talk shows AAR launched out of the box, it was the only one that eventually worked. It was funny, truly unique, and for many addictive.

Angry_listener If Morning Sedition fulfilled Air America’s initial promise of melding serious political programming with comedy, but incorporating Mike Malloy into the line-up provided a cathartic release valve for thousands of nightly listeners boiling over with rage over our government’s abysmal behavior at home and abroad. Kicking Maron off the network schedule irked many, but at least Maron was allowed to go gracefully. But jerking Malloy out of the ring in mid-fight without notice has unleashed a surge of online blowback that is sure to bounce around negative feedback on AAR for some time to come. While Franken or Springer may have a larger actual audience because of the hour their program airs, Malloy’s listeners are intrinsically more loyal, more engaged and sincerely pissed off in a very un-moderate fashion. It isn’t hard to find many raw bitter emotional strings of messages all over the net now regarding Malloy’s departure from Air America. (Imagine the national outrage when Springer is dropped from the line-up…) Rachel Maddow and Sam Seder have made online statements regretting the decision already. As of now, the Air America website doesn’t officially mention it ever happened. Does that mean they don’t care, or they’re still weighing the decision?

And why did Air America suddenly dump Malloy? Online, conspiracy theories abound. The most common one is that Malloy spoke out against Israel’s merciless ravaging of Lebanon of late. But Malloy was never known to follow the Democratic party line to the letter, and hundreds of civilian deaths would bring about his ire in any case. Malloy never really sounded managed or careful. And that’s what inspired listeners. He spoke his raw unedited gut every night. But straddling the midnight hour kept most of his more meaty commentary out of the limelight, except among fans, followers and insomniacs. But when Malloy would sit in for Rhode’s afternoon drive slot, many people (including AAR suits?) suddenly found themselves basking (or roasting) in the deep purple glow of Malloy’s anger. I mean, Al Franken is so much nicer…

I’ve actually listened to the last two Malloy fill-ins for Rhodes a couple of times now. I thought that by listening to his last broadcasts I might hear a particular damning moment. If there was some obvious wild jab, I can’t figure out what it might have been. That said, there was plenty of Malloy’s trademark ball-to-the-wall commentary to go around. Night after night of venting and ranting, it’s hard to know what one thing (or what things) could have ultimately doomed his relationship with the network. Maybe it was just the flavor of it all. (Oh, and for comic relief check this.)

Wwrl_welcomesAir America is in a strange place. Fans are angry, conflicting information on schedule changes is all over the web, and network’s public outreach is in a sloppy state of affairs. Most of the hosts are now on vacation. And the schedule is filled with reruns and substitute hosts. Sure, Labor Day weekend has been underway, but the network is now in its second week without most of their hosts running live shows.  It’s the kind of situation you’d expect just before a big change.

It’s my guess that at least some of the schedule upheaval changes I offered in a comment here will come to pass soon. Although I frankly find it hard to believe that “Eco Talk,” or even “Politically Direct” will become weekly shows, I guess it’s possible. Officially, Air America has posted that some  square headed local talk host (Jon Elliott ?) from San Diego was taking Malloy’s slot. Funny thing however, is that I haven’t seen any confirmation of this except for on AAR’s schedule page. In a phone in interview on an Air America affiliate, Malloy said he’s heard that Laura Flanders (the host of “Radio Nation” on the weekends) is being groomed to take his place. I also heard that Flanders may have turned the slot down. Then this Monday night (what I assume was a repeat of) Thom Hartmann’s show was running in Malloy’s slot.

I frankly wouldn’t be too surprised if Malloy was invited back into the fold, despite how embarrassing that might be. What does Air America have to lose? Credibility?

Speaking of credibility, there’s a particular lack of it at Air America that I’ve been meaning to mention for a while now. I listen to Air America on the weekends, specifically to “Ring of Fire” and occasionally to Laura Flanders program. And like during the week, the network has a newscast at the top of the hour. However, the newscasts that play on Air America during weekend afternoons and evenings are embarrassing canned affairs, which again smell of radio done on the cheap.

Radio_news These newscasts are OBVIOUSLY pre-recorded, usually by a guy who calls himself “Miles Cameron.” (Nice name, right? For months the same news reader called himself “Frisco Hills,” until somebody probably told him it just wasn’t very funny). Anyway, Miles (or whoever might be filling in for him) seems to come in during the morning, or perhaps the day before, and fudge together a newscast utilizing stories that would probably remain “evergreen” through the weekend. Not only do you hear the same stories repeated in different ways in newscasts through the day, but I’ve even heard the exact same newscast repeated at a later hour (a lazy board-op?). For a network that’s supposed to provide current news and information, it’s pretty shameful. Many times I’ve heard ongoing top stories totally ignored all day and night during the AAR weekend newscasts.

I hear that these lazy productions are the product of a private news “service” wired into the network. And from the looks of it, I hope it’s an inexpensive deal. Is Air America so broke that they can’t afford to keep a living breathing news body on hand around the clock? Hell, any local news talk station worth its salt is able to afford that, you’d think it would be essential for a news/talk network to do at least as much, if not more.

And as far as the news, right-wing stooge blogger (and talk radio has been) Brian Maloney is reporting that Air America is also having trouble paying for their AP wire service. Like much of the slime on Maloney’s blog, it might be true. And Maloney has been shoveling out dirt like this since the inception of Air America– a few big “exclusives,” but mostly a lot of little digs like this one. While it’s certainly not on my roster of regular visits, his blog comes up quite a number of times when I’m in the middle of web searches on Air America. So, I’ve seen it quite a bit. Maloney is a just a hatchet man, a gossip columnist with an axe to grind. I don’t get the impression that he’s heard more than five minutes of any of Air America programs. He appears to have a mole or two who work for Air America that regularly contact him when ever they dig up some little tidbit that might look bad for the network. If you have any real interest in radio or the state of Air America, and happen to end up at his blog for looking for any practical information, keep that in mind that he’s a trained rodent. No substance there, just zingers, potshots, and GOP catch phrases.

However, if you do come across the "Radio Equalizer" from time to time, there’s no reason you can’t have some fun getting equalized. First off, take some time to enjoy some of the "outsider" photoshop gags on display there. And if you’re in the mood, grab a friend and a bottle of something strong and set yourself up for a Radio Equalizer drinking game. Then set up the glasses and start scrolling through Mr. Maloney’s posts. As you meander through his razor sharp insights, take turns upturning a shot of booze every time you come across the word “unhinged.” You’ll both be completely unhinged in just a matter of minutes.

Wwrl_aa_2And let’s raise a glass as well if Jerry Springer is finally being dumped from the AAR line-up. Good  riddance. Other than that I’m hard pressed to hope for any impending good news at Air America. I can tell you one thing, the WWRL signal is big disappointment. I can only get a clear read on Air America on a couple of the more expensive radios I own, or in the car. And then at night, WWRL is slightly polluted by bleed-in from nearby frequecies no matter what I try. It’s sad. And I live less than a mile from lower Manhattan.

Who knows? Perhaps a schedule shake up will tighten up some programs and bring in some fresh thinking. While Franken’s a snore and Rhodes is what she is, Maddow is rock solid and Seder may take the opportunity of having a better slot and put some new life into his new show. However, if Malloy is truly gone for good, Air America may have dealt a crippling blow to its own future. More than just the hosts you hear, Air America is made up of a lot of underpaid hard working people who have expended huge amounts of energy because they believed in the network, and were empowered by raw politcal passion for change.And like the online fans who feel cheated and betrayed by Malloy’s firing, it all makes for a lot of despair and frustration that isn’t going to benefit a business that is already strapped for cash, and doesn’t seem to have any new ideas.

If enough faith and good will dries up, the network is sure to follow, or at least shrink into something much less powerful.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. Reality – Part 3

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

 It’s been three months since I’ve discussed Air America here at Beware of the Blog, and there’s some fresh news to report. But Perhaps more significantly, there’s rumors aplenty flying around town here regarding the lefty talk network these days. In May, I predicted there would be “some drastic changes” at Air Aato1600America this year, that seems to be coming to pass. And some other prognostications and hopes I tossed around regarding AAR in these pages may bear fruit as well. But one big alleged “fact” that I passed along here seems to have been either misinformation, bad reporting, or that a certain deal was never final in the first place..

I’ll explain.

First, the big headline is that Air America is in fact jumping frequencies here in New York City– moving from 1190 WLIB to 1600 WWRL on September 1, 2006. And like Humpty Dumpty’s tumble from his perch, the results of this fall (note: the broadcast range of WWRL doesn’t quite have the coverage of the audible radius of WLIB) may result in local and network AAR programming in a bit of scramble. At least that’s what I’ve been hearing. As you read on, realize that while I’ll link to online sources when I can find other sites that back up what I’m asserting here, other hearsay I’ll offer here is based on innuendo and whispers I’ve heard from people I trust. That said, I also am led to understand that negotiations are ongoing with several of the parties concerned and possible changes being spoke of today could turn into something else over the course of the next two and half weeks when Air America actually makes the switch. If you’ve listened, you’d know that Air America has always been a New York-centric national radio operation, and if there’s going to be a changes in what will be offered here it will probably alter the media footprint of Air America nationally as well.

Now, onto how I have probably misled readers at BOTB when I was basing my commentary on “official” online sources. Contrary to a news story I linked to and discussed, it now does not appear that (the former CEO of Clear Channel) Randy Michaels and his new lefty talk company, Progress First, is actually going to be doing very much, if anything, with WLIB. Yet, at the end of April that was the story and I based what I wrote what I understood to be fact. Then, it was strange. For many weeks, there was no news whatsoever the supposed P1 takeover. As memory serves, when Michaels launches a radio project, he launches big. He’s not a coy operator. Something was fishy.

And then early this month Air America announced they were actually going to leap over to WWRL. on the date the story about P1’s deal with WLIB said it would have to abandon the frequency. And new reports appeared that Michaels Malloy_in_nyc_2005might be interested” in leasing the station, but no longer affirming that it was a sure thing. It makes you wonder where the initial story that P1 was certain to take over WLIB (in MediaWeek and Billboard) came from in the first place?

And now on to get into some more of the unsubstantiated rumors I’ve heard. You know, I know people who know people and I spend too much time Googling the fate of Air America. And from what I understand, the only sure thing about Air America’s move to WWRL is that Al Franken and Randi Rhodes will certainly be broadcasting at 1600 AM in New York come September 1. And that’s not all! According to Mike Malloy’s website, his powerful program will also be returning to late night New York radio with the big frequency switch in September. Good news, but I hear that just like WLIB, WWRL is going to hold onto the six post-midnight hours, as well as the morning drive spot. Which is fairly canny for WWRL I suppose. If they part ways one day as WLIB is about to do, they can maintain their on-air identity in the meantime.

And that reminds me… I expressed my outrage and disappointment in this blog when Air America supplanting Malloy’s show with the inane “Satellite Sisters” on WLIB in January of 2006. The yuppie siblings not only produce really mindless radio for ABC (and originally for NPR!), but I frankly would honestly characterize their program as one of the most repulsive and worthless instances of broadcasting in modern history. Listen to this promo Air America was running in New York this summer, actually encouraging local listeners to tune out the show that’s currently on WLIB (the dopey perky sisters) and switch over to Malloy online or via XM instead. Amazing.

WLIB Promo – Listen to Malloy somewhere else! (but not here)  0:10

(download)

Garofalo_tattoo Rhodes, who has apparently had some of the best ratings results on the AA schedule, has recently signed a multi-year contract, and Franken remains the reigning mascot/celebrity figurehead at Air America. And speaking of that, number two AAR mascot Janeane Garofalo has officially parted ways with the network, although the word is that they may maintain some relationship and Garofalo may fill in now and then. Oh well. I mean, how much shrill psychobabble can you take? To be honest, it’s not my favorite form of comedy either. I can’t believe they kept (or just kept a “place” for) Garofalo for over two years on a national radio show. Is she really that beloved of a celebrity? Did I miss something?

From what I’ve heard, Air America and WWRL remain in molar grinding up-to-the-finish-line negotiations on how the implementation of Air America at 1600 AM is going to actually pan out. The rumor I’ve repeatedly come across is that WWRL has successfully bargained to hold onto the morning drive hours. And don’t forget this is the prized branding daypart of regional radio media. This could leave Rachel Maddow and Mark Riley (who’s radio legacy is completely New York based) without an air slot in the Big Apple. Not good for Air America if true. (Although I’ve also overheard that Riley may land some role in the early evening slot if the Majority Report is actually axed. Stay tuned.)

Bush_pulls_armstongs_string The current WWRL morning show (which I assume would remain in place if this rumor is correct), is hosted by local liberal voice Sam Greenfield (yes, he’s a man) and closeted right-wing goofball Armstrong Williams, who is best known for taking a quarter million bucks from the Bush regime to parrot their party line on the “No Child Left Behind” idiocy. A hack like Armstrong Williams holding a drive time slot on Air America’s flagship station would certainly be a sad state of affairs. And I haven’t heard whether Air America will continue a national morning drive program for other stations to carry.

However, an encouraging rumor abounds that Jerry Springer is going to be dropped from Air America’s schedule in New York very soon, and it seems his run with Air America in general may be coming to an end as well (One can hope.) Yet if Michaels is really investing himself into WLIB, Springer could remain on 1190 since he also has a working relationship with P1. Also, if Michaels really does have some upcoming relationship with WLIB, Ed Shultz (the meat eating, gun toting liberal who USED to be conservative), P1’s biggest property, will probably immediately take over afternoon drive there, giving the corn-fed North Dakota yakker a home in New York City.

SamThen again, this story in the Amsterdam News claims that Springer and the rest of the daily Air America schedule will follow the WWRL morning show (with Greenfield and Williams) at 1600, AND that “Radio One,” an African-American radio syndication outfit would be taking over some hours on WLIB. So perhaps Randy Michaels may not be gaining any headway into the New York market after all. It’s hard to imagine Ed Shultz floating in the middle of an all-black talk and/or music format.

 As far as Air America nationally, there are probably other programming changes on the way. For instance, as the nightly “Majority Report” has now lost Garofalo, co-host Sam Seder is currently flying solo weeknights and acknowledging on air hat the future of the program and his gig at the network are in jeopardy. And he’s been asking for supportive email to lobby Air America to keep him around.

Sam Seder Explains – 08-07-06  01:46

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Leftofthedial_1I hear the Majority Report will soon indeed be history. But as Seder has been a good soldier for the network (carrying on solo while Garofalo was away for weeks at a time, and filling in for Franken and Rhodes when they were away) I’ve heard he may move into the late morning slot after TV sleaze king Jerry Springer gets the boot. While I’ve never felt that Seder matured much as a talk host on the Majority Report, I’d hope that by landing his own program it might encourage him to reinvent his somewhat hyperbolic and smug radio style into something more compelling. Of course, the fact is just about anything would be an improvement over the childish musings of Springer for three hours every day.

 There have also been rumors that Air America’s ace morning whirlwind, Rachel Maddow, has been gunning for an evening or afternoon slot on Air America. However, the accompanying rumor is that former AAR bigwig Carl Ginsburg was working behind the scenes to relocate Maddow on the schedule, and since he recently parted ways with the network the chances of Maddow taking the Majority Report slot may be less likely as well. It’s worth mentioning that Ginsburg’s guiding hand has been navigating Air America from the very beginning, and with his departure there’s been almost a complete turn over within the original brain trust behind AAR. Another omen of programming changes to come. (To get an idea of Ginsburg’s importance in the early days of Air America check out HBO’s documentary on the birth of the network– “Left of the Dial.” It’s worth renting if you have any interest in AAR.)

I have no proof that the Air America brain trust has been reading my AAR posts, but it seems that a few the suggestions I’ve made here were surprisingly valid. Not only does it appear that Springer and the Majority Report are toast, but something else I mentioned may be coming to pass too– AAR reducing the epic "Randi Rhodes Show" to a more reasonable three hours. Even for fans of her daily manic lathering of the news and her self-referential asides, it just has always seemed like that fourth hour was just overkill. But I’ve been led to understand this change is still being negotiated at press time. And then there’s one other issue I made a big stink about here…

If there’s a punch line to the whole unfolding reinvention of Air America  it’s that AAR really did end up coming to regret their biggest programming mistake (which I discussed here and here), and tried to fix it up in a rather awkward and bumbling fashion. That’s right, Air America practically BEGGED Marc Maron to return to their national morning programming. Don’t believe me? Listen to Maron himself spill the beans right before his L.A. based show (which Air America repeatedly alluded would soon syndicated on the network) bit the dust in July.

Marc Maron Explains – 07-12-06.mp3  05:09

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“The Mark Maron Show,” while it lasted on that one California radio station (and available for pay via podcast) was a great program. More entertaining, savvy and energetic than anything else on the national Air America roster. It was everything one might have originally hoped for, and wanted from, the (ultimately tedious and smarmy) Franken show when it launched over two years ago. If you listen to the clip, you’ll realize that Maron would probably have settled for a very small fraction of the money Air America currently wastes on Franken’s doomed program. (Dozens of Maron’s old shows are still available for free as torrents online here and here. Have at it. Well worth checking out.) Maron says he’s going to try to shop around the program he developed in California with Jim Earls (and AAR’s Brendan McDonald). I wish him luck. Maybe he should call Randy Michaels.

As a listener it’s been interesting to hear Air America’s on-air radio presence on WLIB transform after they officially announced they were moving to a new “flagship” station. Suddenly, all sorts of promos and bumpers proudly announcing the WLIB call letters were gone. Instead, the new productions replaced the calls with a drawn out and emphatic “AIR… AMERICA… RADIO.” In fact, the only time you hear “WLIB” in any way during the Air America programming on the station is when they have to say it– for the official top of the hour ID. You have to listen carefully to even hear the call letters (almost hidden and moderately distorted) in the legal ID they’re now using.

WLIB-AM – New ID  0:08

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Here’s the old ID just to hear how it used to sound…

WLIB-AM – Old ID  0:10

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1600_in_dc In general, some of the promos spots on the network and WLIB over the course of this year have seemed ill-conceived at best, and just plain not funny in general (despite the obvious intention.). The pleas to sucker listeners into buying their podcasting service (Air America Premium) have truthfully been PAINFUL. And here’s some numerology fun they slapped together, reminding listeners that Air America is moving to a numerical locale on the NYC AM dial that actually matches the address of the White House! (“1600" Pennsylvania Avenue).

Air America Radio NYC – 1600 Promo  0:10

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But this one’s worse. Check out this promo announcing that Air America is “movin’ on up” to WWRL and that they might finally get their “piece of the pie.”

Air America Radio NYC – Pie Promo  0:30

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Yes, it ends with “The Jefferson’s” theme. You would think the fact that Air America is moving from one station where the network usurped a black format, to another station where it will also usurp a primarily black format might have made them think twice about airing this production piece. But, the thinkers at AAR are probably too busy to spend much time reflecting on such things.

But the fact is, they’re certainly smart to dump featuring the official call letters and make a point of driving the 1600 frequency reference into listener’s mind right away. After all, the fall Arbitron book is just around the corner.

Twisted_ms_malkin In case you’re new in coming to my commentaries regarding Air America on this blog, I want to be clear– I’m not in any way in league with a number of online stooges who are following the Republican playbook in routinely trashing Air America or their programming. While I’ve occasionally been critical of programming decisions and AAR network content in my writing here, I’ve also been equally complimentary and encouraging when it was appropriate. In many ways, Air America’s sound has gone from being inspired and messy in the early days, to offering predicable branded radio product that just doesn’t have the same magic. I hope that the impending mini-evolution at Air America is a harbinger of better things to come. At least they tried to get Maron back, even if they screwed it up.

Finally, let me say that if there’s one thing I’ve never heard done quite right on Air America. These absurd times call for talk radio hosts who can dispatch a misguided or moronic right-wing caller in an entertaining and enlightning fashion, without resorting to hysterics (or just cutting them off). And one particular talk host I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog, Lionel, is getting better and better at just that. While Lionel does run on some stations which carry Air America, he’s also syndicated on a good number of outlets who carry the typical burden of right-wing propagandists. Many listeners from across the heartland who wouldn’t likely tune into an Air America station end up running into Lionel’s show on the dial  anyway. And some of them are extremely unhappy to hear him say unkind things regarding our chimp-in-chief or this insane Iraq war. Not only that, but Lionel’s been routinely questioning the official 9-11 narrative as well. And although he’s not touting any particular conspiracy theory, to even question such things REALLY upsets some listeners.

Anyway, some of the calls to Lionel’s show featuring lost Bush followers aren’t just poignant and satisfying, but they’re ultimately top-shelf radio theater as well. Check out this tasty talk radio takedown of Sean from Maine from last week on Lionel’s program.

Lionel Show (excerpt) – Lionel Talks To Sean 08-12-06  4:17

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It’s beautiful in its perfection. And Lionel never breaks a sweat during the entire four minutes. “The Lionel Show” show which runs locally in New York, from 10 to midnight on 710 WOR, is available nationally from 10 to 1AM (Eastern Time) weeknights. And I heartily continue to recommend his (free!) podcast, available by subscription or as individual hours here.

So ends the biggest episode of rumor-mongering I’ve ever typed up. But it was fun. Air America was a brazen startup, and it would be nice to see some sense of vision remake it into an exciting media prospect once again. It’s really time for them to make more inherent changes other than just shuffling around their ongoing roster of air talent. I hope that the next time I write about Air America here that I’ll pass along a rumor of Franken’s impending departure from the network. That really seems like the next step AAR should make to completely let go of old concepts that might have once looked good on paper but never really added up to much. And maybe one move could save Air America some of the huge wads of dough that it might need to come up with some new and compelling programming.

Hey, let’s hope.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. Reality – Part 2

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Air America reminds me of Hillary Clinton. Why? Because both are so despised by the right-wing media machineFrankenclinton that it makes you feel you’re in bed with the theocrat-warmonger zombies just to utter any criticism of either in public. However, there’s a really big difference between folks who put Bush, the Republican party and the cloud being above all logic or morals and everybody else. Some people actually use reasoning skills and have opinions that don’t follow lock-step dogma and aren’t interested in sycophancy to raw Machiavellian power.  And this is a big dilemma for most folks who aren’t on the far right, is that we DIFFER on issues and ideas and that is often used against us.

I’ve never really had much of an opinion of any previous American “First Ladies,” (except a bit of sympathy for Pat Nixon), but the spew of bile from the right against Hillary Clinton during her husband’s administration did make me come to her defense over the years. And when she talked about a “vast right wing conspiracy” that morning on the Today Show I thought she was brave to say it. (Read David Brock’s “Blinded By The Right” to hear how right she was from one of the actual “conspirators” of that era). But since that time, her election and subsequent cowardice in not standing up to the Iraq War in the Senate has changed my mind completely. Rush Limbaugh is obviously a scumbag, but no matter how much he trashes Clinton I’m no longer a fan. And NOWI read that ultra right-wing ultra media mogul Rupert Murdoch is hosting a goddamn fundraiser for her re-election to the Senate in July. Ouch.

Aa_oreilly If Mrs. Clinton happens to get the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 2008 I may likely hold my nose and press her lever (and I pray it IS still a lever), but I do hope that’s not the choice we’re given.

And if you’ve followed the news stream on Air America over the last couple years, there’s been a disturbing trend in the criticism of the network, ESPECIALLY online. Instead of just denouncing content, or questioning the opinions offered on Air America, there’s always been a loud choir of voices in the media predicting (and cheering for) the demise of the network. And some wingnuts, like Bill O’Reilly, have even called for the arrest of Air America hosts and/or employees. You know, just the fact that these morons hate Air America so much they want to destroy it tells you Air America MUST be doing something right.

Michaels_cover And Air America has done a number of things right. First off, they’ve offered a “patch” of sorts on the post-Fairness Doctrine talk radio environment. Before the launch or Air America there were hundreds of stations featuring right wing talkers and not one commercial talk outlet offering liberal talk programming through their broadcast day. Now there are dozens, with new “progressive talk” stations coming online all the time. And to the surprise of many, Air America’s biggest partner in the spread of the lefty talk format across the country has been Clear Channel Communications– a corporation that owns plenty of conservative talk stations as well AND some of the biggest right-wing programs in the U.S. (including Limbaugh).

Enter Randy Michaels. The former head of Clear Channel hasn’t missed the rapid growth of the liberal talk format fostered by his old company. If you had to pick one word to describe Mr. Michaels, “opportunist” might best fit the bill. Other adjectives that accurately describe Michaels– tenacious, outrageous, and except for falling from the Clear Channel throne– very successful. Although Air America continues to bleed cash, their strategy of cultivating left-wing talk stations across the country isn’t necessarily a losing proposition. If Randy Michaels has staked his career comeback on the format, there’s probably a lot of money yet to be made in progressive talk radio.

Pig_sticker You can be sure of one thing, snatching WLIB away from Air America was a brilliant and strategic move for Michaels’ new company “Product First.” Certainly purchasing “The Ed Shultz Show” (now the most popular liberal talk show in the U.S.) immediately put his new progressive talk radio enterprise on the map, but taking control of Air America’s flagship station (and their only outlet in the biggest radio market in the country) puts P1 in an incredibly favorable position in a number of ways. And when it comes to the radio business, there’s no one better than Randy Michaels at sizing up the competition and then audaciously destroying or assimilating them. (For a good example of Michaels’ lack of mercy, check out this timeline on how quickly Jacor’s “Power Pig” dispatched Tampa’s Q-105 in a matter of months in late 1980’s.) And when it comes to lefty talk, Air America is the ONLY competition for Michaels to destroy or absorb. And in one swift move he’s put his one competitor, which is already in trouble, into a much weaker position AND provided his company with a New York City radio outpost. Amazing.

Franken_sketch The name of Michaels’ new company is telling. Air America came out of the box as a massive experiment, hitting the airwaves with a half a dozen shows at once, most featuring hosts with no radio experience. It was a big splash in the radio industry back in 2004, and a lot of the buzz was generated by putting TV comedy talent on the air like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. However, out of the original Air America lineup only one program was a proven radio product with a radio vet as host– The Randi Rhodes Show. In other words, politics and TV comedy came first for Air America, and the hope was that because they believed themselves to be on the right side politically (and they were going to have lots of witty funny bits) would naturally prove itself viable in the market place. The product itself did not come first. Hope did. And in the scheme of things that hasn’t worked out so well.

Losing WLIB is going to drag Air America into the cold harsh light of reality and it’s going to hurt. The challenge of a radio brute like Randy Michaels is either going to force Air America to realign their vision and adjust their business model toward profitability or it may be the beginning of the end.

If you had been listening to WLIB here in New York over the last year, you wouldn’t have to read all the internet rumors and allegations to figure out Air America was in big financial trouble– Putting the yuppie idiocy of ABC’s Satellite Sisters in place of Air America’s late night angry man, Mike Malloy, and selling their weekend day slots on WLIB to shows about sports, food and money management. These were obviously stopgap measures to slam together enough cash to keep the rest of their programming on WLIB. Although Air America had a long term agreement with Inner City to camp out on WLIB’s frequency for years, it was undoubtedly the fact that they weren’t able to make their payments to the owners of WLIB that gave Michaels his opportunity to step in.

Aa As I said last week, the one option nobody has mentioned is the possiblity that Air America might somehow join forces with Michaels. However, this would mean that the cold calculation of the former head of Jacor and Clear Channel would drastically alter Air America programming. But if they keep bleeding cash, it’s hard to see how they’re going to have much choice if they’re going to survive at all.

I don’t know how this is all going to pan out. And I’m certainly only guessing that Air America might consider handing over control of the network to Michaels in some way. But I’d bet something like that is on the table right now. The only official statement from Air America is a bit cryptic. A rep told the Daily News that the network "will not go silent on the New York City airwaves." Whatever happens, I have a feeling that over the next few weeks the course of talk radio history will take a turn behind closed doors somewhere on the island of Manhattan.

Meanwhile, as long time observer of the talk radio scene, as well as a fan of some the programming Air America has put out over the last couple of years, I offer the network my personal suggestions on what could be done to tighten and tweak their programming, and actually put the “product” ahead of the purpose. And if Randy Michaels actually gets his hands on the helm of Air America, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these suggestions actually come to pass. However, I’d bet he’ll be less charitable.

1. Ease Out Al Franken

Stuartsmalley_1 That’s right. I know it’s blasphemy, but despite Franken’s success as a liberal author the rubber faced comedian doesn’t cut it on the radio. What’s worse is how expensive it is for Air America to keep the TV funnyman as their mascot. It’s been reported that Franken drains between one and two million bucks a year out of the Air America coffers, and with his production staff, writers and researchers the total cost for the Al Franken Show accounts for over half of Air America’s programming payroll. Bringing in a left-wing radio legend like Neil Rogers would have cost only a fraction of that amount, and obviously would have been a much smarter move. And now Air America has invested in a Minnesota studio for Franken as he explores a possible Senate run there in 2008. Why blow all that cash on somebody who’s likely to split in a year or two anyway? It’s absurd.

Outside of his books, nothing Franken’s done on his own has been overtly successful? Ever seen that Stuart Smalley movie? Me neither. However I have heard Al repeat the same lame jokes literally DOZENS of times on his show. While Franken has a great roster of regular guests, it’s still not enough to carry the show. The idea of putting a well-known TV comic turned lefty author on the radio might have looked good on the drawing board, it’s hasn’t created much good radio and to be honest it’s not been all that funny either. And without Katherine Lanpher to keep things rolling and hold Franken’s expansive ego in check, it’s been a painful listen at best.

The last thing I wanna do is throw my lot in with the knuckle-dragging hoards of Franken haters. I hope he keeps writing books and fighting the good fight. He’s still capable of some funny TV moments, and he might even make a good Senator. But really– Air America should invest all that cash into the development of new programming and paying off their debts. If he’ll take it, give Franken a weekend yuk-it-up talk show and a drastically reduced salary, or cut him loose when the contract allows. Have mercy.

2. Put Thom Hartmann Into The Regular Network Lineup

Hartmann The obvious replacement for Franken. Hartmann continues to grow as a talk host. He’s brilliant, knowledgeable, and runs a tight fast-paced show. Hartmann puts current events into historical perspective, and has an amazing memory and a sense of fair play that makes him the perfect foil for the challenges of right wing callers. Air America now owns his program, but offers it in syndication outside of their regular lineup. It’s always a pleasure (and often a relief) to hear Hartmann fill in for other hosts on the network. I’ve always assumed that the syndication deal put him in the bullpen to fill the next gap in their weekday schedule. I hope that’s true.

3. Cut Randi Rhodes Down To Three Hours, Please

From what I’ve heard, Rhodes has been the biggest ratings success so far on the network. That’s great. Before Air America existed, I listened to Rhodes on the internet and was happy to hear her taking on the right wing noise machine loudly and proudly. I’m not convinced that she’s actually changed, and perhaps my ears are burned out, but I don’t have the patience to take in her show every afternoon these days. And FOUR hours! That’s just TOO much Randi.

Rhodes_beer Yes, she’s usually quite up to speed on current events and the issues and impassioned to be sure. But she’s also shrill and repeats her points so many times in one program that your brain can go numb. And no matter what the issue or topic, it becomes tiresome to hear Randi talk all about Randi whenever she gets a chance. She never mentions the 2000 election without noting that she was ACTUALLY in Florida during the vote controversy there. And if she’s ever met a politician, she’ll be sure to tell you about it every time their name comes up. And if some event coincides with some special day in the life of Randi, you’ll hear about it. Whether it’s a penchant for bragging, or just insecurity, it’s tough to hear Rhodes blow her own horn so loudly everyday. At least it is for me. I’ll admit, she is a pro, but I don’t need her to remind me anymore. C’mon, four hours is just plain overkill.

4. Make “The Majority Report” A Weekly Show, Or Just Get Rid Of It

Majority_report_2 When I first heard Sam Seder and Janeane Garofalo host this show, it hurt. I mean, it was basically a spasmodic rendition of a college radio political opinion show. I wanted it to get better. It hasn’t.

Okay, I kinda like the new wave-punk bumper music, and the fact that they feature some high-profile lefty bloggers and occasionally have interesting musical acts. But when the content isn’t formed around a good guest, this show is just a lot of panting and spewing and snarky repartee that never seems to grow up. An hour or two in a weekend slot could be bearable, but for the life of me I can’t understand why this show has lasted over two years like this.

5. Give Marc Maron A Prime Night Slot, Now!

Marc_maron Maron was the ONLY non-radio talent who really grew into the medium in the great experiment of Air America’s opening programming lineup. Morning Sedition, the show he hosted with Mark Riley evolved into a funny and unpredictable talk show that covered important issues, made you laugh, and never took itself too seriously. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, cancelling Morning Sedition was a bonehead move.

However, the HUGE internet wave of anger over this decision didn’t go totally unnoticed by Air America. No doubt that’s the only reason Maron got his own program at the Air America affiliate in L.A. And now The Marc Maron Show is not only the best weekday program in the Air America lineup, and it’s also the only one that’s only on ONE radio station. The network keeps promising to put him on their network roster, but several roll out dates have passed and Maron’s not happy that he’s left languishing on one California station. Read the latest here.

I say it’s simple. Give Maron the Majority Report slot. What are they waiting for? The money would be better spent to pay out Garofalo for the rest of her contract then to let her psychoanalyze right wing losers and discuss the liposuction on her chin or the trying tooth bleaching procedures TV roles require. Please.

While I’ve got more notes in front of me on changes I’d like to hear on Air America, I think I’ll cut it off here and wait to see what happens with WLIB in New York this summer. While I don’t particularly like commercials themselves, even in this era of deregulation and mega-mergers there’s still something exciting and vital about commercial radio which is almost impossible to find in public and community radio. Commercial radio HAS to prove itself viable in the marketplace, one way or another. If the radio product itself isn’t powerful, efficient and appealing in some populist way, it will not last. The Air America brain trust needs some of what makes a guy like Randy Michaels tick. I wonder if they can figure that out before it’s too late?

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)