Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2010

Air America: gone and already forgotten

Filed under: liberalism,media — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

It was perhaps more than just a coincidence that Air America, a radio network established in 2004 as a liberal alternative to Rush Limbaugh and company, announced that it was going out of business just two days after a Republican candidate won Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. In either case, you are dealing with the exhaustion of liberalism and more particularly as expressed by the Democratic Party.

For just about every on-air host, the agenda both under Bush and now under Obama has been to rail against the Republicans. Obviously when Bush was in office this kind of programming had more of an edge than it does today. Given Obama’s one year in office functioning as Bush’s third term, however, it makes little sense for “progressives” to keep harping on Sarah Palin. After all, it is not Sarah Palin who has escalated the war in Afghanistan or catered to the needs of Wall Street. In fact, it has been the cozy relationship between the White House and the financial community that has been partially responsible for the burgeoning “tea party” movement.

On the Air America website, the demise is explained in terms of an overall slump in radio, and more particularly the loss of ad revenue:

The very difficult economic environment has had a significant impact on Air America’s business. This past year has seen a “perfect storm” in the media industry generally. National and local advertising revenues have fallen drastically, causing many media companies nationwide to fold or seek bankruptcy protection. From large to small, recent bankruptcies like Citadel Broadcasting and closures like that of the industry’s long-time trade publication Radio and Records have signaled that these are very difficult and rapidly changing times.

One might wonder why Air America never explored the possibility of listener sponsorship, which combined with corporate and government support has enabled NPR to survive over the years. It is likely that the millionaires who launched Air America in the first place never thought in terms of that kind of grass roots empowerment since like most Democratic Party overlords they had no use for the people whose interests they were supposedly looking out for.

Sheldon Drobny, a Chicago venture capitalist who had been a major donor to the Democratic Party, thought up the idea for a liberal radio network in 2003. As the February 17, 2003 N.Y. Times reported, the initial investment group formed by Drobny saw it as just another venture capital project:

The group said it was prepared to go it alone, selling its programming to the individual radio stations rather than go through a middleman. It has an initial investment of $10 million, which radio analysts said was enough to start up. Ms. Drobny said the cash would be placed in a fund that she hopes to grow to at least $200 million within the next year, which she hopes to use to finance other media ventures like the acquisition of radio stations and television production.

The initial investment group included Drobny and his wife Anita, Jon Sinton, an Atlanta-based radio entrepreneur, and Javier Saade, a hedge fund operator. In other words, the same kind of people running the Democratic Party today.

I tried listening to Air America when it first went on the air but found it boring. It consisted mostly of people calling in to complain about how bad George W. Bush was. I suppose that there was a ready-made audience for that sort of thing, but I found it unsatisfying even as entertainment. While I cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than 15 minutes, he was much more of a master of the medium than somebody like Al Franken.

Franken, of course, was the biggest star on the network whose tepid centrist politics could not be made more palatable by the occasional witticism. My review of a documentary about Al Franken made in 2006 seems prescient:

The documentary next takes up Franken’s stint at Air America, a radio station funded by wealthy liberals that is intended to counteract rightwing radio. We see Franken and his staff celebrating after they get the news that their ratings are better than Rush Limbaugh’s, whose show airs at the same time as Franken’s. However, despite listener approval, the network did not achieve the same kind of commercial success as the rightwing competition. We see Franken looking glum over news that the Chicago and Los Angeles outlets were forced off the air. Perhaps Air America’s difficulties have something to do with the fact that bashing the Republican Party is not exactly pushing the envelope nowadays. A radio listener can tune into Don Imus any weekday morning and hear people like Frank Rich or Imus himself stick it to Bush. If one objects that Air America’s approach is more progressive than Don Imus’s, then I’d have to recommend listening to the station more frequently as much of it consists of the same sort of low level insult found on rightwing stations, but with different targets. It can be fun, but it grows tedious after a while.

While I never had strong feelings one way or another about Air America, that all changed when I learned of on-air host Randi Rhodes’s treatment of Ralph Nader.

While the interview speaks for itself, I can only add that Rhodes epitomizes the “anybody but Bush” stupidity that is offered up as a substitute for political analysis across the liberal spectrum. Rhodes eventually got fired from Air America after calling Geraldine Ferraro “a fucking whore” at an event sponsored by an Air America affiliate. The poor thing did not understand that such abuse is only tolerated when it is directed at leftist politicians operating outside of the Democratic Party.

Despite its ambition to make money, the station was not very good at it. So much so that it was forced to declare its first bankruptcy in 2006 after which it was reorganized under the ownership of the Green brothers. Stephen L. Green heads a company that controls 27 million square feet of real estate with a market capitalization of $12 billion. His brother Mark is a long-time New York City politician with liberal pretensions.

When Mark Green was serving as Public Advocate, he did virtually nothing to rally against the rent increases that were devastating the very public whose interests he was elected to defend. Since 12 percent of the nearly 6 million dollars he used in his campaign came from his brother, some raised the question of special interests including the liberal Village Voice that wrote:

Mark now promises “full disclosure” of direct business interactions between his administration and Stephen’s company—which already collects $10  million a year from the city for office space it rents to several agencies. But the candidate had to be forced by The New York Times editorial board to reveal what Stephen raised, after months of hiding behind the facade that he was a “fundraising agent” of the campaign and thus operating beyond the finance laws’ disclosure requirements. Only a Times slap on the wrist could get them to cough up the data.

In other words, just the kind of person who you would expect to own and run Air America.

Last year I finally found a program on Air America that I could listen to, if not actually enjoy. Ron Kuby, the New York attorney and long-time critic of Israel who used to work with Bill Kunstler, had an afternoon show that was fairly lively. Kuby used to co-host a talk show on WABC (Limbaugh’s network) with a cretin by the name of Curtis Sliwa who had founded the Guardian Angels, a police auxiliary. They operated under the same guidelines as Sean Hannity/Alan Colmes or any of a number of shows that derived some entertainment value by having liberal and conservative co-host’s bickering with each other.

Ron Kuby upbraiding Israel

As a trained attorney, Kuby obviously knew how to think and talk on his feet, a must for anybody running a talk radio show. But he also had a way of mocking himself in a way that most of the sanctimonious hosts of Air America could never achieve. Around two months into the Obama administration, that Kuby initially supported as the second coming of FDR, he decided that he had been conned and began making that clear on his show to my delight, but not to Mark Green’s. He was fired on June 22nd.

Air America went steadily downhill from there. Assuming that having more mainstream hosts would broaden his audience and bring in advertising revenue, Green hired two of the most unlikely people you could imagine. In the morning, there was Lionel, a veteran of WOR and WABC radio in New York whose real name is Michael William Lebron. Lionel is basically a “personality” with politics having less to do with his career than market share. Even more inexplicably, the afternoon hours were turned over to Montel Williams, the African-American TV talk show personality whose politics were even more secondary to his professional calling than Lionel’s.

Typical Lionel Fare

Apparently, the Green brothers assumed that with their proven track record of attracting listeners, the station would begin to make money. That calculation was almost as shrewd as the campaign that Martha Coakley ran in Massachusetts. Air America, gone and already forgotten.


  1. Good riddance, Air America. Sirius left also usually offers much of the same shrill, one-note anti-Republican diatribes on satellite.

    And the frustrating part is that there are left radio programs that are informative and engaging. Unfortunately they all have the temerity to criticize the Dems, and we can’t have that can we?

    Comment by Fred — January 23, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  2. I occasionally listen to Mike Malloy on SiriusXM’s “America Left” channel. He is more radical and has more of a working class perspective than other progressive talk show hosts. I wonder when SiriusXM will drop America Left from their lineup.

    Comment by Doug — January 23, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  3. The only Air America I haven’t already forgotten about is the odious airline run by the CIA when it facilitated Uncle Sam’s genocidal campaign against the Vietnamese.

    Since it was tied to the politics of the Democratic Party I knew instinctively the moment that radio network began that it had about as much chance of success as the UAW organizing its membership to back over a million workers. No chance. Doomed.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 23, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  4. Nice post. I used to be a huge AA fan, but gradually tired of the Airheads.
    Randi Rhodes was just a screaming harpy with no facts and all personality peddling stupid conspiracy theories about 9/11. Occasionally she rose to something higher, but otherwise was not worth it.
    I liked Rachel Maddow and still do. She has brains and poise. She’s graduated from AA, which gave her an insulting 4 a.m. time slot for her years of commitment to the station.
    Lionel and Montel were worthless, as you said.
    John Elliot and David Bender are relentlessly centrist and boring.
    I liked Thom Hartmann, although he tended to be repetitious. He had a lively personality and was clearly an intelligent man. His tearing neocon creep David Horowitz apart will be in memory ever green.
    I liked Morning Sedition. I thought Mark Maron was immensely creative and had a good way of skewering smug, narcissistic liberals (his reports from the Babara Streisand Compound were just hysterical).
    Kent Jones is a great radio character. He doesn’t do so well on TV, alas. One thing that endears me to Rachel is the menshlich (if I may say) way she treated him on her new TV program.
    Greene was one of the most boring of the lot.
    Alan Coombs was OK, but too argumentative to listen to for long. Alan, when someone asks “How are you,” say “Find, thanks,” don’t hang up.
    Jerry Springer was eminently forgettable.
    Ed Schulz is OK, if he didn’t sound so much that he was in the pockets of agribusiness.
    I thought Mike Malloy was a huge embarrassment, but he had an engaging personality and a gift of gab. He tended towards cliches and crackpot conspiracy theories.
    Ring of Fire was and is a good program. At three hours, it’s a tad long.
    I couldn’t disagree with you more about Al Franken. Yes, his politics were tepid, but you could learn a lot from his program. He prided himself with delivering wonkery, and he came through in spades. I think his departure marked a downward spiral for the group.
    And I couldn’t agree more with you about Ron Kuby, who has really matured over the years.
    Another problem with the station is the way the suits treated the talent. Summary firings for no apparent reason and replacing real talent with blah talk just made it a waste of time for me.
    Can liberal talk be saved? There is some fine talent on Head On Radio (available online, through iTunes, for free, but send them a buck). The Young Turks are, to coin a phrase, “Awesome.” Stephanie Miller and her mooks are very talented and have a lot of chemistry, although her interviews with bland Democrats are tedious. Kuby is great for bringing up the left. Of course, syndicating Amy Goodman, who has also matured nicely, would be just amazing, but her critical view of the State of Israel makes her radioactive. Thom Hartman’s worth keeping. Bring back Morning Sedition with the Two Marks. Keep Ring of Fire. And maybe thrown in someone from the Libertarian Right just to shake things up. I’m thinking Antiwar Radio’s irrepressible Scott Horton.

    Comment by Evan — January 23, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

  5. A few years ago I had a long conversation with Al Franken about Air America and his show in particular. Mutual friends put us together. He knew my background in broadcasting and seemed sincerely interested in what I had to tell him. Basically, I said pretty much what you have said. The network product was, I told him, substandard crap and his show was only a little better. I told him that broadcasting was “entertainment” and Air America just wasn’t entertaining enough. I said he would never tolerate his own Air America type performance if he was on the road doing stand-up. A point-of-view on the air is worthless if that point-of-view is not presented in an entertaining fashion. There are no seminars on radio — there are only “shows.” I reminded him that I had hired Rush Limbaugh for my Philadelphia station back in the 1980s and I told him that everyone in broadcast management knew that at least half of Limbaugh’s audience didn’t agree with him… but Rush was a great air-personality, entertaining people (by the millions!) with his craziness… and what’s more important – Limbaugh knew it. I said to Franken – You are a comic… When you’re on the air, BE FUNNY!

    Sadly, Franken rejected nearly everything I told him. I did it for free, so what did I care. The left will never have success — in an entertainment environment — as long as it takes itself soooo seriously. Look at FOX NEWS… “fair, balanced and sexy”… without the news-babes’ puffed-up lips and squeeze-em-tight tits, what do they have?

    Goodbye Air America, we hardly heard ya.

    Comment by Richard Greener — January 23, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

  6. Your article perfectly sums up my own feelings about Air America. Having touted the Democrats as the solution to all our problems, the network became irrelevant when, after Obama’s election, our problems stayed the same.

    Comment by the spanish prisoner — January 23, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  7. Thom Hartmann has a show on Free Speech TV (ch. 9415) on DishTV, which also runs Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” that also appears on Link TV (ch. 9410).

    I live in a Clear Channel area and Air America ran on KLSD-AM for a year and a half. I agree with the people who say that the network wasn’t funny enough, that it was too strident, that it was too partisan towards the Democratic Party – however it was the only licensed* broadcaster in the area that had shows that weren’t from the the far fringes of the John Birch mentality. For years all you had were the idiots of the various FM morning zoos or Rush, Beck, and such minor right screechers like Rodger Hedgecock or “Dr.” Laura. Clear Channel was never really for the network and seemed to do a poor job of running KLSD, which they later turned into yet another AM sport station. People did come to protest the station change, which was very abrupt.


    * We had two FM pirates at the time; one was very punk rock, the other more hippie, but both ran Amy Goodman’s show. Weird thing about “Dr.” Laura; her one time lover Bill Balance used to have a talk show that would run on KFMB-AM, and then she later wound up on KOGO, another local AM station.

    Comment by mr. mike — January 24, 2010 @ 4:57 am

  8. Fair enough, if debatable- the roundup of Air America’s shows by Evan hits some good notes. As for the other dude, if you hired Rush Limbaugh willingly without a gun to your head, then I take it as a fair guess that you shared some good jokes, eh? Maybe a little racist humor to cement the friendship back then?
    The fascinating part for me is the mention of “Stephen Green,” who must be the “Steven Green” thanked by Danny Schechter in his foreword to “Plunder” as being his real estate guru. He could be the sugar daddy to us broke lefty reformer-types all and not miss a single rent check. What a world.

    Comment by jsf — January 28, 2010 @ 12:55 am

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