Air America reminds me of Hillary Clinton. Why? Because both are so despised by the right-wing media machine 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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!
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.)