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.

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.)

Talk Radio Redux

Monday, February 27th, 2006

The_lionel_1 Thought I’d take this opportunity to follow up on a couple of my previous topics discussed here, like Lionel (who I discussed in detail here). His program has been has been as sharp and manic as usual, and I continue to recommend it. However, I’m just mentioning him again here to let you know that WOR is now offering a FREE podcast of this show. It’s a commercial free hi-fi MP3 delivered to your computer within hours if you subscribe with this link. Or you can just download the individual hours of each show on the this page. Check it out.

Rhodes_1 On the other hand, Air America just started charging for their podcasts. They now require that you subscribe to their “premium” service to subscribe to their podcast (like Rush). And if you get lucky, you might be able to stream a live video of Jerry Springer doing his radio show right on your home computer! Now that’s entertainment.

Speaking of that, experiencing Air America on WLIB here in New York lately has gotten kind of depressing in general. Both Al Franken and Mark Riley sound lost without the original co-hosts who gave their show weight and substance. And somebody must have told Randi Rhodes that her recently perfected George Bush impression was either accurate or humourous. Because it’s neither, but she just continues working it into her monologs. I have to turn the radio off.

What’s worse is the loss of Mike Malloy on WLIB. While often hyperbolic and quick to fury, Malloy provides an important function on the Air America talk show roster. Went I went out to a “meet and greetsession with Malloy in the East Village, I came away with one memory that encapsulates the Mike Malloy radio experience. I passed a couple walking away from the event and overheard the woman say to her husband: “I told him his anger helps me…”

Malloynyc_1And when you’re really pissed off about the American political landscape and the cavalcade of Bush Administration screw-ups, Mike Malloy can provide the perfect prescription. He can be harsh, but these are harsh times. If you’ve never heard Malloy, here’s a clip that kinda gives you an idea of his style, when he gets… serious.

Mike Malloy – Shining Star  0:25

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And here ‘s one of my favorite moments from his show. I wish liberal talkers would do more of this kind of thing…

Mike Malloy – Right-Wing Mike  19:18

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It’s Malloy pretending to be a right wing moron for a guest from the "Christian Action Network" who’s very concerned about homos frolicking through Disney World.

So, while Malloy continues in his late night slot on the Air America network, on their flagship station WLIB his show is now pre-empted by “The Satellite Sisters.” It’s happy helpful radio with a bunch of real-life upper middle class white sisters who chat about "lifestyle" issues. It makes the Al Franken show sound like wild-eyed pirate radio. Some of the urgent topics recently on the Satellite Sisters show– “As you listen to the weather forecast this winter, think what it means for your animals” and “Look a salesperson in the eye when you say goodbye,” and most importantly “Wipe down exercise machines and mats at the gym after using them.” I’m NOT kidding. I cut and paste this crap from this page on their website.

Sisters Before the Satellite Sisters landed a syndication deal with ABC/Disney, their chirpy show originated here at New York’s jumbo NPR outlet, WNYC. But even some public radio listeners (who should be accostomed to fuzzy and precious programming), were nauseated by the self-important yuppie sisters when they were on WNYC. An article in the New York Observer in 2002 said “so much invective about the show hit the WNYC Web site that the Webmaster posted a reminder that vulgar or overly personal attacks are not welcome.” That’s the difference. Malloy helps you accept and even appreciate your own justified anger at Bush madness. The Satellite Sisters in turn, needlessly enrage with empty sterile fluff in an era of bad news and bad governance.

The official Air America excuse is that ABC gave them an offer ($$$) they couldn’t refuse to steal the last couple hours of programming on Air America’s flagship station. The unstated reason is that Malloy’s show wasn’t pulling in Arbitron numbers. But they never promoted his show in New York either. And replacing the fire of Mike Malloy with an blithe Disney product that’s too cute for the NPR Irony crowd isn’t just bad programming: It’s insulting to their New York listeners and gives the impression that Air America is running away from their original convictions and intent.

Add to that the dopey sports and cooking shows they’ve brokered off on the weekends and a lame cruise giveaway promotion they’re running through the weekday programming, and WLIB just sounds much more desperate and unimaginative these days. You would think that the mothership station of Air America would have more vision and more guts.

Marc Maron, the driving force behind the once brilliant “Morning Sedition” on Air America is kicking off his L.A based nightly program this week on the network. Let’s hope that Air America’s flagship station can find room on the schedule to offer him some time. Of course, an infomercial featuring anti-aging supplements might bring in more quick cash…

(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.)