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.