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.)

Air America’s Next Big Mistake (part 2)

Monday, November 21st, 2005

     "Has anyone ever heard of Rachel Maddow?"
                                               – Rush Limbaugh

Rachel_sorts_papers

Yeah Rush, we sure have. And by now, so have of you.

That little quote has been an oft-played sound bite at the beginning of The The Rachel Maddow show since it debuted on Air America last April. And the fact "El Rushbo" hadn’t discovered Ms. Maddow last spring can probably be based on two things– For one, Limbaugh most likely knew nothing about Air America, beyond that fact that TV stars Al Franken and Janine Garofalo were a part of it. And the other reason Maddow was probably off the Limbaugh radar back then was his comment came at the dawn of Maddow’s new sub-career as a liberal TV pundit. And it isn’t hard to imagine that most of Limbaugh’s media intake (beyond the likely emailed orders from Rove staffers and the heralded "stack of stuff" his staff prepares) would come only from television.

For most people, Maddow’s program airs when they’re unconscious. On the radio from five to six in the morning from the Air America studios in New York, The Rachel Maddow Show is a hot coffee jolt of headlines, breaking stories, and some news almost no one else is talking about. And twice each program, you get 2 off the wall satirical newscasts from Kent Jones. The hour goes by fast, and by the end you feel a little smarter. She’s like that.

Rachel_show_bannerRachel Maddow is a unique and powerful new media entity, and a young honest voice in the age of Bush II who offers challenging facts instead of raw malice against all the madness the administration propagates.  Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar and a proud "out" lesbian who comes across on the radio as warm, sincere and a little fierce. Her approach to radio has a paced athletic quality that makes her a bit of a current events trainer on the radio. I imagine it’s the perfect show to accompany a gym regimen. Maddow never goes over the top, but the pace is rapid, and to the point with context. She maintains good humor and spirit in the face of bad news and strange times. Combined with the sharp humor of Kent Jones, her program is an informative and practical way to deal with the onslaught of nauseating news, and to keep up with the bad guys.

Situationjune2005Maddow’s powerful presence on television is ironic in a number of ways. First, Maddow doesn’t watch TV. Her media intake is print media, internet and radio. But she’s become a cable TV talking head via a regular role on Tucker Carlson’s show on MSNBC– "The Situation." And what’s odd, is he had another program last year on PBS called "Unfiltered," which had the same name as Maddow’s original show on Air America. Although both were canceled, it was Air America who first used the title.

While Carlson‘s gotten mixed reviews at best as the host of the show, Maddow star has quickly risen as a respected progressive pundit on the cable news scene by being a regular panelist on his program.

Maddow_msnbc_3_1For now, radio remains the focus of Maddow’s energies. It’s a statement to Air America’s recognition of her talents that they expanded their schedule one hour into the early morning to create a program just for her. Maddow’s original Air America program, "Unfiltered," was a bit of a muddle at times, but had it’s moments and built a loyal fan base. While the other co-hosts of the show, Lizz Winstead and Chuck D. were already minor celebrities in their own right, Maddow’s only media fame before Air America was a morning radio show in western Massachusetts. Yet, it was the boyish Maddow’s news doggedness and earnest energy that drove the show and gave Unfiltered purpose.

So while most are either sleeping or hitting the snooze alarm, Maddow bolts out of the gate at 5:06 a.m. And for thirty some minutes (minus the commercials and the Kent Jones hijinks) Maddow informs, opines and speaks truth to power with a warm voice of authority and positive style that always calls on activism and humor instead of boiling over in outrage.

She sprints through the lead stories that are out there each morning, and digs in and finds stories she thinks should be in the headlines. And whether or not the wars in the Middle East are making the headlines, each day Maddow kicks off her show with "news from life during wartime." But her signature bit is when she "pokes a stick at the soft white underbelly of the right-wing scheme machine" and offers insight on the latest and shadiest political tactics of the neo-cons and the religious right. It’s a tradition she developed during the days of Unfiltered as a liberal muckraker who predicted what the right was going to do next, and let you know what the Bush Administration was trying to hide when they released bad news right before a weekend news lull or when a bigger story was attracting everyone’s attention.

If you’re interested in upgrading your news & information media diet, you can download daily archives of The Rachel Maddow show here, and if you follow the directions you can podcast any Air America program via this site.

Nyt_aa_story_2The New York Times ran a minor feature on Air America a week ago Sunday which sang the praises of hosts Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes. In it, Air America CEO Danny Goldberg is quoted saying that both are "exactly the two people who have emerged in dramatic fashion" from the shadows of Franken and Garofalo as prominent voices of Air America. The fact that the controversy over Air America getting rid of Morning Sedition’s Marc Maron is NOT mentioned in the article is telling. For one, it seems that at far as Air America is concerned Maron is history. And sadly, it seems like the New York Times is either not paying much attention to what’s going on at Air America, or is selectively reporting the news again. But most significantly, it seems to foretell of the post-Maron Air America. Most likely, Ms. Maddow will probably be the anchor of the next incarnation of Air America’s drive-time morning slot.

While Maddow’s talents would undoubtedly translate to good radio no matter which slot she might occupy at the network, it seems unwise to completely dump one of the most dynamic programs on Air America, especially the ONLY one that always delivers laughs, in order to give Maddow more air time. Let’s not forget that the 9am to noon slot is occupied by the radio non-talent Jerry Springer, who sounds as if he’s explaining the issues of the day to a room full of middle-school kids, AND controversial talk monster Howard Stern is about to abdicate his morning throne and head off to Sirius Satellite Radio. While some of his fans will fork over the dough for the equipment and subscription fee to follow Stern, a lot of his other listeners will be scanning the radio dial for topical comedy talk, and if it were around Maron’s Morning Sedition might be a viable magnet for the coming Howard Stern radio diaspora.

Springer_2 While I don’t have the Arbitron data, the word on the street is that Morning Sedition is yet to make a big dent in the morning New York market, and that’s the bottom line reason Maron is being squeezed out of the slot. Sure, that’s important stuff but Air America is a network and Morning Sedition is national. If Air America is making decisions based on traditional NYC radio statistics could be counterintuitive. Over 5000 people have signed the internet petition to save Maron’s role on Morning Sedition since my last post on his pending removal. While the NYC ratings may not be what the network desires, it seems obvious the program has strong support within the Air America listener base. Shouldn’t that mean something? And in the last year I’ve seen outdoor advertising in New York for Franken, Rhodes, Springer and The Majority Report. I’ve never seen one ad in the city for Morning Sedition.

Again, I’m not privy to the Arbitron numbers, but I think internet data has a significance that’s not to be ignored. For example, look at the difference between the number of strings on the Jerry Springer show’s message board, compared with the how many are running the Morning Sedition board (these are NOT official Air America boards by the way). One show inspires discussion, the other almost none. The Springer show has all of three threads, one of them about how LITTLE discussion there is on the board. Springer’s daily show blog posts generate a handful of comments. The Morning Sedition daily blog posts gather from 150 to 250 comments.

Internet_boy Less than stellar ratings aside, Air America has been an important element in countering the Republican noise machine and is developing an avid fan base on the internet. It’s damn important that they succeed financially, but in the scheme of things they’re not paying attention if they totally ignore the power and persuasion of their internet crowd. People who podcast, download archives, and post on the web aren’t just net savvy, they’re strategic links in a broad network of thinkers and disseminators of information that Air America needs for voices and networking nodes within the burgeoning media counterbalance to the right-wing propaganda machine. And they spread the gospel of Air America on the internet. That’s promotion you can’t buy.

No doubt, Rachel Maddow would kick ass in a better (and longer) slot on Air America’s schedule. But to scrap one of their best programs (one that also has cutting edge comedy, has co-host chemistry that works, and fires up the internet listener base) seems like a bad idea– Especially when there’s another morning program on Air America with an insufferably boring host who engenders almost no significant internet fan base.

While it’s obviously a smart move to give Maddow more air time on the network, it’s a shortsighted move to eliminate a dynamic and vital chunk of programming to give her the airspace she is due. And it seems that’s what’s about to happen, and it’s possible that there’s nothing any bloggers or internet posters can do keep Maron on Morning Sedition. Go ahead and add your name to the web petition. Feel empowered?

I advise you to go ahead and enjoy what’s left of the doomed Morning Sedition. Listen via your local affiliate or Podcast the show by going here, or snatch up one the archives right here. In theory, you’ll be able to access Morning Sedition archives at Air America Place for a while, but if you want to hear the show right up until the end (which is supposed to be the end of November), or you also can stream it live in the morning from Air America’s site. And if you’d like to just check out some of the hijinks of Morning Sedition satirists Jim Earl and Kent Jones there’s archived bits available here. (Or you could scroll down to the 11-04-05 post on this blog to see a insightful love letter to the show.)

Rachel Maddow is an excellent host and pundit with a sensitive sniffer for important stories that are off the radar. It was smart to keep her around after the dissolution of Unfiltered. Considering her work at Air America it would be damn intuitive to bring her into a better time slot and give her more time. Though Maron has a much different approach to radio, like Maddow he’s quickly evolved and improved as a talk radio personality in the twenty months of Air America’s existence. Not only that, but they both come across as dedicated to sticking with the network Springer_idiocy_3for the long haul. And their two programs are currently followed by two shows hosted by dabblers in talk radio. It’s very likely that Springer and/or Franken could easily shed their radio pulpits in the near future to dedicate their time to television again, or even seek political office. Franken’s show is a mixed bag, but he’s still the face of Air America. However, Springer’s radio program is second rate across the board and he offers nothing beyond his notoriety. Admittedly, Franken has successfully marketed himself as a powerful political force, but Springer’s fame in the general public is based solely on a legacy of sleazy television that anybody (including Springer himself) would admit has coarsened the medium. If he was doing groundbreaking radio, it might be easier to forget his crappy TV show or his past political scandals, but he’s NOT. What’s the point?

Sammy_the_stem_cell_2Never a fan of Howard Stern, I’ve never heard compelling satire on a morning radio show until I heard Morning Sedition. But I’ve also never heard a talk show like Maddow’s with a host who digs into the news with a voracious and graceful fury that enlightens and empowers the listener. They’re both strong programs, but the block they now fill is unfortunetly followed by a radio amateur who happens to be a celebrity.

Best idea? Trim Springer’s show, or just pay him off and cut him loose. Maddow and Maron are homegrown Air America air talents who have proven themselves, and with the news wisdom of Mark Riley and the satire of Jones and Earl, their work makes the first four hours of the Air America’s weekday schedule the most listenable and informative chunk of their line-up.

Maddowglobe_5Air America is an ongoing experiment and radio is extremely competitive, especially mornings. One can understand Air America’s desire to tweak and perfect their schedule, but making network wide decisions this early in the game based on the ratings in one city instead of making a judgment based on the merit and viability of the hosts they’ve successfully developed seems wrongheaded.

If the rumors are true, and Maddow gets a better and bigger role on the schedule, it’s a plus. But if Maron disappears too, there won’t just be a backlash, there will be a drastic loss to Air America’s air staff. That would be sad.

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

Air America’s Next Big Mistake?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Maron_emotes_1It looks like Air America is about to lose one of their best on-air personalities, Marc Maron. There’s been no official announcement, but on his show, Morning Sedition, Maron has repeatedly said he’s probably on his way out. And yesterday he said it’s unlikely he’ll be part of the Morning Sedition air team (with radio veteran Mark Riley) after this month. And they’re promoting their live remote at O’Neal’s in the Upper West Side this Thursday as their "last live appearance."

Why would Maron leave? Or why would Air America let go of the funniest guy on their talent roster? Best guess– deadlocked contract negotiations.

Maron_rileyWhen Air America went on the air over a year and a half ago, a lot of us in radio were dismayed that a new talk network would go on the air with so many air personalities and writers who made their mark in television instead of radio. Not that media cross-pollination in general is such a bad idea, but just that when a start-up radio network was trying to do something SO new (a national liberal talk network) AND they were also attempting to reinvent the medium at the same time by leaning so heavily on TV talent instead of loading up the schedule with radio veterans.

The big exceptions were South Florida’s leftist talk bulldog Randi Rhodes who’s held down the late afternoon slot since the beginning, and then a few months later acerbic career talker Mike Malloy who was tacked onto the late night end of the schedule. Those programs were the only ones done in the traditional talk radio manner–  one host on the air brings up issues, vents, and takes calls. All the other shows were more experimental– with multiple hosts, many guests, and only a few (if any) calls. And all these programs featured one or more hosts best known for their work in TV or film.

Aa_logoAir America’s biggest experiments were their two morning shows, both featuring teams of three hosts– "Morning Sedition" and "Unfiltered." Morning Sedition came into its own after one host left the show (more on that in a minute). But Unfiltered only survived the first year. Two of the hosts, Rachel Maddow and Public Enemy’s Chuck D now have their own programs (Maddow’s early early morning show which now runs from 5 to 6 a.m. is a tight and timely review of the news well worth a listen). But the third other co-host Lizz Winstead (who was also one of the key programming-creative figures at the dawn of the network) is gone. Best known as one of the creator’s of TV’s "The Daily Show," Winstead was the biggest architect of the "television-vision" for Air America. And now she’s in the middle of a lawsuit to claim unpaid wages from the network. While I don’t know the details as far as which side seems to be in the right, the filing of the suit revealed that they were paying Winstead a quarter million a year for her services. And you wonder why they’re having money troubles…

Springer_1 Oh and speaking of television, Unfiltered was replaced by TV crapmaster Jerry Springer. It’s easy to forget that Springer was a politician before he became the host of one of the most inane hours in television. His Air America talk show is a serious one featuring his heartfelt leftist views on political issues. However, it is BORING. It’s traditional talk radio run by a host who has no understanding of the medium. It’s so boring that I don’t have anything more to say about it, except to hope it’s not long for this world. It’s a waste of valuable radio frequencies across the country. And let’s hope they’re not spending a lot of money to keep Springer’s big name on the schedule.

If you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with talk radio or leftist media and mention "Air America," they likely won’t know what you’re talking about. Then tell them it’s that new talk network with Al Franken, and then they’ll probably recall hearing something about it. Best known as a TV writer and comedian, Franken has become a political media superstar. He’s just finished another lefty book sure to rise up the best-seller list, and seems to be headed toward a U.S. Senate run in 2008 in Minnesota.

His mid-day show has been the flagship show for the fledgling network since its inception. Teamed with public radio’s Katherine Lanpher, Franken’s program settled into a groove pretty quickly as a breezy political talk show with plenty of writers, researchers and politicians discussing the issues of the day. And of course, there’s always heaping helpings of Franken style humor to be found in between the serious bits. However, despite his big name and notable accomplishments in the comedy realm, Franken’s constant retelling of bad jokes and his just plain hokey sense of humor doesn’t often make for cutting edge radio.

Lettermanfranken_3 And what’s worse, Lanpher has left the show and Franken seems to be floundering a bit without her there to keep the show on track and keep Franken’s expansive ego in check. Franken now is using the technical and production staffers around him as comedy foils and it’s a little painful to hear. That said, his appearance on Letterman the other night was quite funny and almost electric. It all made it painfully obvious that Franken’s charisma doesn’t translate well to radio or the long form medium of a three hour talk show. And how will he fare on the campaign trail? Or on the Senate floor? You gotta wonder.

Which all gets me back to the subject at hand, Marc Maron. If you happened to see the excellent and insightful HBO documentary on the beginning of Air America, "Left of the Dial," you saw the good and bad of Mr. Maron at the dawn of his radio career. Previously Maron had been a stand-up comic (and author) best known for his appearances on cable and late night talk TV. Painfully neurotic and unsure of himself, Maron is seen in early scenes in the film as someone out of his element, having no idea how to navigate three hours of radio five days a week, as well as having to adjust to working pre-dawn hours every day. And in the beginning Morning Sedition show was a mess, with three separate personalities trying to find some kind of chemistry. Just to hear all three of them conduct an interview or take a call kinda hurt.

Maroncigg And it was plain to hear (and see in the documentary) that there wasn’t a lot of love between Maron and one of this co-hosts, Sue Ellicott. A former BBC TV commentator (and frequent panelist on the NPR comedy show abortion known as "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me"), Ellicott didn’t have much of a stomach for Maron’s fast-paced acid humor. My favorite line in the whole movie occurs when the show is live and Ellicott tries to smooth out and "balance" something Maron had said in an interview– and Maron fires back: "Who’s side are you on British Lady?" Perhaps more than Randi Rhodes’ first-day slap fight with Ralph Nader, that moment was a telling blow that Air America was going to be nothing like the limp-wristed and neutered political coverage of NPR. Thank god.

Since Ellicott has left the show, the partnership of Marc and Mark has gained fame and followers across the country. Each local remote appearance is packed with fans. They’re a good team. Co-host Mark Riley’s decades of  newsroom experience grounds Maron’s scattershot rants, and his "everyman" quality makes him the perfect straight man for Maron’s rabid wit. And then you have some solid wacky writers (including comedian-writer Kent Jones who adds his stable of characters and impersonations into the mix), and the end result is a dependable helping of news and chuckles in every show. It’s a radio program that offers up-to-the minute information, historical context, and wild-ass funny bits. And any moment can yield an impromptu dose of Maron’s off-the-cuff self-obsessed rambling about his life. Somehow, it’s about as good as morning radio gets in this era of incompetent and malevolent governance. It would be a shame to lose it.

Unlike anyone else on Air America (including Franken), Maron slams the idiocy and evil of the Bush administration AND makes you laugh at the same time (which isn’t easy). If you can imagine combining the indignant anger of Mike Malloy (without the froth) with the dark comedy of Bill Hicks and the over-the-top irreverence of Andy Breckman, you get an idea of Maron’s talk radio persona. Air America has grown a real radio talent with Maron, and while nobody on the outside seems Maronriley_remoteto know the exact details of why they may soon part, you’d have to hope that Air America wouldn’t let loose one of their best on-air assets at this point in the game.

You don’t have to look far on the internet to find the details of the money troubles Air America has had since the very beginning. And Maron had a fairly successful career before Morning Sedition, and one would think that the radio show has probably given that career a boost. He also has a long-distance marriage (to his wife in California) because he has to be in New York for his Air America duties. If he’s holding out for a healthy sum, it’s easy to understand why. Maron has become a valuable asset to the network, and must he know that. One can only imagine what they pay Franken, and it’s assumed that he’s probably only going to be around for so long anyway. Air America should invest in their future, if they want to have one.

If you’re not familiar with Morning Sedition or Maron’s radio efforts, have a listen to some MP3 bits from yesterday’s show. It ain’t the funniest one I’ve ever heard, but hey it’s fresh.

Maron Discusses Leaving The Show  1:07

(download)

Cat Giveaway  0:47

(download)

O’Neal’s Announcement  1:20

(download)

Email Plea-Belly Dancing Call  1:40

(download)

The INews 5000 WiFi Headline Translator  1:36

(download)

The Monday Job Listing  1:13

(download)

Morning Remembrance  5:05

(download)

Liberal Marching Orders-Halloween Tripping Story  2:09

(download)

Maronriley_official_3And if you’re not up early in the morning, or you can’t hear Air America where you live, you can download Morning Sedition (without ads) every day right here, and even easier, you can podcast it with links from this page.

Maron is now saying that he may occasionally be part of Morning Sedition in some small way, and he occasionally hints that there’s some small chance he’ll remain as co-host. But it’s important to remember, even if you love the host of any show or love the station that carries it, radio is really a cutthroat business. It’s rare that a radio personality remains on the air when contract negotiations are failing. And you can hear in Maron’s on-air discussions of the matter that he’s being very careful about what he says, and what he doesn’t say. If you piss off the boss and you’re on your way out, you’re likely to be off the air in as soon as they can drag you out of the studio. It happens all the time.

Manic_maron_1Ongoing online conversations regarding Marc Maron leaving Air America can be found on the Morning Sedition Blog, or the Morning Sedition Message Board. An online petition to keep Marc Maron on Morning Sedition can be found here, and the official email address to plea for Maron’s survival at the network belongs to the Air America CEO, Danny Goldberg (dannyg@airamericaradio.com).

Air America is not Clear Channel, and they undoubtedly have some hard financial choices to make, at least for a while. However, there’s a couple of weak shows in their lineup that are just ripe to be plucked from the schedule and replaced with something else. But Morning Sedition isn’t one of them. And while Riley is a real radio talent with more experience than almost anyone else on the air at the network, it’s the manic magic of Marc Maron that keeps people listening every morning. Let’s hope Air America figures that out before it’s too late.

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