The Demise of Air America Radio?

A post this week on the LB Message Board about the prospects of Air America Radio (AAR) going bankrupt got me thinking long and hard (Butthead: “huh huh…he said long and hard”…) about the current state of things regarding the representation of liberal points of view in today’s media.

One post took a harsh tone with the listeners of AAR, for not supporting the network enough. Others blamed the network itself for not having good enough programming to reel in the casual listener or sustain the interest level of the converted.

I for one, am not sure the recent reports surrounding AAR of it’s apparent problems is really a matter of blame at all. While I do believe there is truth in each and every post, I’m not sure it’s even possible for a product like AAR to flourish in today’s society at all. Let me explain a few natural handicaps that AAR has had working against it from day one.

1. Terrestrial radio is controlled by conservatives.

Let’s face it, the only reason that a conservative owned conglomerate like Clear Channel brought AAR to as many of its affiliates was because it thought it could profit from it, then, in all likelihood, use those profits to back other conservative special interests.

And don’t think Clear Channel’s lack of interest didn’t show. Where I live, Clear Channel owned WTPG 1230 is the local affiliate for AAR, but you wouldn’t know it. Outside of the Al Franken show you wouldn’t know that WTPG had much to do with AAR at all. For a while, the only AAR programming you would hear was the Franken Show and one hour of Randi Rhodes. They would do things like bump the morning lineup for a re-run of Springer’s show from the day before. Nothing like listening to stuff you heard about yesterday all over again to start your morning. Then the AAR mid-morning programming would be bumped for the Stephanie Miller Show. Now I like Stephanie Miller and her show, so I’m glad I got to hear it, but it didn’t do much for AAR and the Unfiltered show. Franken had his full time slot, then Ed Schultz would come on and bump the first 2 hours of Randi Rhodes (maybe the best Lib radio host out there). To finish the day off, I would get my full dosage of Cincinnati Reds baseball from 6:30 to 11:00. Not exactly giving Central Ohio it’s full helping of AAR. Clear Channel did not represent AAR very well, but being a startup, AAR probably had no better offers, and beggars can’t be choosers.

The sad reality is that most major radio networks are part of larger conglomerates that are usually in lockstep with BushCo’s tax breaks and corporate friendly policies. You are not going to find many billionaires wanting to finance shows that argue in favor of increasing their taxes and regulating their trade.

2. Liberals don’t lie.

All things considered, it’s way easier for conservative radio hosts to make things sound more interesting than they actually are when they have “poetic license” at their disposal. The average American schlep does not have the intellectual attention span to sit through hearing the real explanations behind why the Bush administration is doing what it is doing. Hearing why PlameGate is such a bad thing takes some work on the part of the listener. It was much, much easier for Rush Limbaugh to get people to pay attention when he said “If you don’t support the Patriot Act, terrorists will come and kill you!”

Limbaugh didn’t really say that, but probably wanted to. And you can’t argue that that lie was the most memorable part of the last paragraph. The main problem with liberal radio hosts is that they feel too much of an obligation to the truth to be entertaining.

3. AAR was too open about what it was trying to accomplish.

AAR never made any bones about what it stood for. From day one it billed itself as a champion of progressive causes. BIG F’ING MISTAKE!

You can’t sell something to the masses by letting them know what you are really selling. Trust me, I work in retail. You ever seen Kraft trying to sell cheese by promoting the amount of polyglocuthenalimines (I made that ingredient up, but, again, lying really helps..see!) in it? No, you have not, because the American people can’t handle the truth. You’d be surprised to know just how many average Joes think Glenn Beck is just a moderate straight shooter. Fox News is the evilest entity on the planet, but I have to give them credit for bashing us over the head with “Fair & Balanced” as much as they have. If their slogan had been “Slanted & Conservative” I doubt their numbers would be where they are.

AAR never should have ever acknowledged that they were there to promote progressive values. That alone instantly turned off half of the market. People do not trust people with an agenda, no matter how much truth they are spouting. We even debated that issue here when we started Liberal-Bias. I felt that being up front about our mission would not allow us the opportunity to do much more than “preach to the choir”. More of the other founders disagreed and felt we should be more open of our intentions. They were true liberals. I wasn’t. They got their way. We lost our potential to reach the masses.

So where does that leave liberal radio? The picture I painted above might lead one to think it leaves it with potential for success. I disagree. I think there is a way that liberally biased radio programs can exist, but only under the following conditions:

1) If you can’t own your network, then just syndicate only.

AAR would have been in a much better position to succeed if it had control over what programming was available to its local markets. The Central Ohio example above was only one of many similar situations. How can you develop a consistent listener base, when the listeners never know when or if a program is going to be on or not. This appears impossible in terrestrial radio today, but perhaps as satellite radio’s popularity increases their may be an opportunity to exhibit such control over programming.

If the network cannot happen, then stick to syndication. Having the ability to negotiate with several stations in a market can give the radio shows more of an advantage to control their consistency in availability.

2) Pretend to be something you are not.

America likes to be lied to in some small way. It’s easier than facing facts. I believe more people would rather hear false confirmation of their preconceptions, than accurate contradiction. So it makes no sense to go public with your intentions of pushing a liberal agenda. Too many people that intentionally consider themselves moderates or centrists will turn off without giving it a chance. Rush Limbaugh & Glenn Beck did not rise to where they are because they billed themselves as neoconservative points of authority. They connected with their base because the successfully sold themselves as just regular guys who argue from no other vantage point than “just plain old common sense” and used those points to make a case against liberals. Not so much as promoting what they really stood for as much a tearing down those they opposed by showing how disconnected liberals were with “us plain old American folks”.

That’s how you do it. Connect first, push later. That’s why I’ve always held that Oprah Winfrey could be the great savior for liberal causes if she ever wanted to go that route. She’s already connected with her base. If she would just run one program on Downing Street or the evils of the sham that is Iraq, the results could be devastating for BushCo. But for some reason she chooses to not go that route. I’m guessing it’s in effort to keep a stronghold on her $1.4 Billion empire, and not suffer the mild but recoverable corporate backlash that would follow.

I think the area of greatest impact right now in the media is Keith Olbermann. He already achieved his street cred via his time on ESPN, and by taking a relatively neutral, albeit cynical, stance in the past. It hasn’t been until the last year that he has taken his anti Bush position up a notch. And because he waited, it is now carrying that much more weight.

The next big movement in liberal radio needs to present itself in the same “Hey we have no agenda except to look out for you, the average American” stance that the Neocons have preached so well up to this point. It’s quite amazing how many people, regardless of race, religion, or income, think of themselves as “average Americans”

3) Entertain us.

I hate Limbaugh & Beck as much as the next guy, but they are great radio personalities. If there is ever another concerted effort to find liberal radio hosts, they should look for people who are entertaining and have a great radio presence first, then worry about their liberal credentials later. AAR tried this and failed with Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, and Al Franken, and it didn’t work. Maron was a good standup, but never seemed comfortable in the radio booth, and never failed to make mention of how much he didn’t like his job all that much. Garofalo’s attendance on her own show was spotty at best. And Franken, while having had the most success so far, is not good radio. His pauses can be unbearable at times and his wit is too high brow for Joe Ironworker to get on a regular basis.

There needs to be an effort to find a great radio personality, who will not be afraid to “go political”. I have often contended that the great liberal voice we are all searching for, does not even have to have a political show. It can be from a musical or sports themed show if need be. There just needs to be that one person who can handle a mic, and not be afraid of the backlash for “going political” every now and then.

4) Play dirty.

Liberal radio needs to stop living in fear of the backlash from conducting business on less than “on the level” manner. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t do interviews. He doesn’t debate people. He screens his callers ad better than they screen your luggage at airports, and will even stoop to having planted callers. He’s not afraid to contradict himself to prove point at that moment. The same guy that said all drug addicts should be locked up, and that Saddam Hussein wasn’t that bad a guy, now wants sympathy for the disease of addiction and says the world and Iraq is safer without Hussein in power. Do his listeners care? No.

It’s very easy to manipulate the public when you have the resources at your disposal. Liberals need to start using them. The bad guys always have the upper hand, so you are not going defeat them by playing fair.

In conclusion, if AAR does go in the proverbial toilet, I think it should stand for future generations of liberals as a hallmark for what not to do if you actually want to make a dent in the current conservative media bias. It’s not just about being right, or being truly liberal. It’s about ratings, and the rest will take care of itself.

Like Tony Montana once said, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”

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