Monday, February 8, 2010

The (Completely Timely) Fall of Air America

I said I was going to write about this weeks ago, but I never seem to have the time. Or, to the larger point, I stopped caring about Air America a long time ago. If we hopped in a time machine and went back a few years that would seem completely unforeseeable.

Let's go back further. Ten years maybe? I can remember the little corner of northwest Alabama where I could pick up Jim Hightower's radio show when driving to Memphis. It seemed like an amazing pocket in the substance of the universe that let one view a world where liberals were allowed to speak. There was also a mildly left-wing program when I would drive up the interstate through Chattanooga. I remembered where I could get the stations. I probably got a total of an hour of left wing programming in a year. And I am a radio junkie. Funny, that was the title of my radio show which I didn't name. So, when rumors of Air America's founding became a reality, I was sprinting like Ben Johnson towards whatever outlet would give me some of that. That outlet, it turns out, was very simple. Anyone could listen to Air America, for free, on the internet. It was like goddamn Halloween for Christmas every day of the year. Realize that the morning line-up was in my evening and, as Ed can testify, I spent most evenings with Air America's morning line-up.

In the beginning, that line-up was truly bad-ass. You had Unfiltered with Lizz Winstead, Chuck D and some unknown Rhodes Scholar Phd, Rachel Maddow. Leading in to that was Morning Sedition with Mark Maron and Mark Riley, which was a really very good honest show which mixed Riley's old radio professionalism and Marc Maron's instinctive, life coming unhinged commentary. It also had one of my favorite titles of all time. There was also the Al Franken Show, which, although a little more down the middle than the others, contained a lot of good policy information. Looking back, the show that stands out to me most, however, is The Majority Report. Even at its worst- It's worst probably being Jeneane Garafolo's foray into the public service wing of Scientology and Sam Seder's subsequent flip-out, was great radio. I was never too into Randi Rhodes, but she was alright. Thom Hartman amazed me but I didn't listen to him as much.

Sadly, what happened to Air America, is what happens to lots of good things. They weren't doing so great financially and they decided to listen to people who told them that in order to fix this they had to do what everyone else in radio did. Of course, that is, in the end, terrible advice, because Air America's entire selling point was being something different. I lost interest gradually due to three separate factors.

1. They started implementing a pay-to-listen system. I can't remember how or when now but it discouraged me. I think you could still download podcasts, but it got more complicated.

2. They started getting rid of personalities. I hear that they started making cuts for budgetary reasons, but who they cut is telling. They tossed out everyone whose voice was unique to Air America. They jerked around Sam Seder and Marc Maron and replaced them with Lionel and Jerry Springer. I think this is what most people would tell you made them unhappy with the station. Anything that was new or interesting or with any kind of unique appeal was thrown out the door for things that were considered safe. I could extrapolate this to a problem with the left-wing in America in general. I understand that Lionel was their highest rated host, but is that really what you are in it for? It isn't something I wanted to participate in. It is kind of like electing Barak Obama only to have Rahm Emanuel be Chief of Staff. Wait, that happened. Radio is like the NFL everyone wants to copy success because trying something new has stiff penalties and being mediocre is safer than trying and failing.

3. During Air America's downturn, other outlets began popping up. The Young Turks internet radio program was more accessible and far more DIY. Rachel Maddow became a household name and Al Franken became a senator. This final reason for my lack of interest in Air America would seem to also be praise for Air America. If they hadn't been around, I don't think Maddow and Franken would be where they are now.

Of course the bankruptcy will be heralded by those on the Right as a failure of liberalism. They will fail to mention that Fox News lost $90 million in its first five years of operation. They will forget that Fox News's parent company lost $30 billion in market value in 2008. Most conservative media outlets run at severe losses but are funded by super wealthy patrons who don't care. Nothing like that exists on the Left and it probably shouldn't. To me the failure of Air America has very little to do with Left vs. Right and everything to do with the mediocrity of playing it safe. If you have ever worked in radio, you know that the pressure to do what everyone else is doing is overwhelming. In my 2 years in radio I pushed for internet broadcasting every day. I was told repeatedly that that was absurd and could never work. Good thing we never tried. Well, Air America, for a brief few years tried until things got rough. And when the going gets rough, the squares play it straight. Count on it.


The Morholt said...

Thanks. I knew you'd have the whole story much better than I did. i tried to listen to the station, but i didnt stream radio back in the day and it wasn't broadcast in new Orleans, because while nola is a progressive left city in many ways, the money and the power are big business right. And the left there isnt very interested in what college people say about national events; very local, so no air america.
When i did listen, i was often bored. When i got to mexico and started streaming it sometimes, about 3.5 years back, it was just plain dumb radio. i found i got my entertainament from ira Glass (TAL has been doing a lot of political/financial shows in the last year or so) and my news from NPR. So my impressionw as it was never very good at air america, but now know it just got bad, wasn't born that way. thanks for the summary.

The Morholt said...

PS "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?"

17R3W said...

"Of course the bankruptcy will be heralded by those on the Right as a failure of liberalism."

They are heralding it that way and it drives me nuts. There is a limited market for Liberal talk sure, but the failing of AA is that other people have corned that market.

AA was killed by the success of Liberalism, not it's failure. If there was no Dial Global, Premier or Fox syndicating names like Schultz, Rhodes and Colmes AA may still be on the air.

"They will fail to mention that Fox News lost $90 million in its first five years of operation."

Actually, it was 1 Billion over the first 5 years.

wwc said...

Ahhh. I thought it was more, but lots of numbers get thrown around. Was it $90 million a year for its first five years perhaps? I couldn't find documentation. Either way, it is a loss that the Left can't take.

attempting to silence the voices in my head.