Air America RIP-- A Guest Post From Former Air America CEO Danny Goldberg
The Real Story Behind The Demise Of Air America-- And Why Progressives Need To Pay Better Attention
-by Danny Goldberg
I think that the New York Times got it exactly wrong this morning in declaring that “the enduring legacy of Air America’s failure is that political media from either side of the aisle is more successful when run as a business instead of a crusade.”
That very attitude is what has hobbled the growth of liberal talk radio but conservatives have never thought about media that way and they still don’t. The week before Air America shut its doors the Rev. James Dobson announced that he was starting a new radio show with his son Ryan, a thirty-nine year tattooed surfer who shares his father’s ultra-conservative views. On Dobson’s Facebook page he asked his supporters to fund the new show. “Your participation will be greatly appreciated, especially during this time when startup costs will be very expensive. The budget for the first year, including the costs of radio airtime, will be about two million dollars."
Conservatives believe in doing whatever it takes to promote their ideas. Richard Viguerie, viewed as one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, wrote a book in 2004 called America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media To Take Power, in which he explains how the right wing used talk radio among other tools. Viguerie stresses that conservatives understand that ideological change does not usually occur over night, that it takes patience and long term thinking to build a movement.
In the early nineteen seventies the Washington Post and New York Times were instrumental in helping expose the Watergate scandal and publishing the Pentagon papers. Conservatives felt that liberals had an advantage in setting the agenda because of the influence of New York and D.C. newspapers on the national media. In 1976 Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and it has lost money every year since, the total loss estimated to be more than half a billion dollars. In 1983, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon created the Washington Times, which has also lost money every year. Widely published reports place Moon’s losses at over $1 billion on the Times and other political media including a purchase the venerable wire service UPI. These money losing properties have put dozens of conservatively slanted stories onto the national radar screen, altered the framing of every important political issues, and nurtured virtually every right wing pundit who now thrive as TV talking heads.
More recently, Phillip Anschutz bought the money losing Weekly Standard from Murdoch and announced plans to invest in more conservative media and his fellow billionaire and former Republican Treasury Secretary Pete Petersen started a digital news service called The Fiscal Times.
The fatal flaw in Air America’s genetic code was the pretense that liberal talk radio was a great business opportunity, that progressives could have their cake and eat it too, do well by doing good, make big salaries and get a great return on investment while also pursuing an ideological agenda. Sure, every once in awhile political media like Michael Moore’s movies or Rush Limbaugh’s radio show will make money, but for those interested in influencing public opinion, media in all venues is vital whether they make money or not.
Air America’s lesser-known competitor, Democracy Radio had a more coherent rationale. It was set up as a non-profit and it spawned the Ed Schultz Show and the Stephanie Miller show both of which survive but which may never have been launched were it not for Democracy Radio’s initial funding. (Democracy Radio folded in 2006 as a result of a lack of financial support from progressive donors.)
Some progressives blame bad management for the failure of both Air America and Democracy Radio and since I spent one unhappy year midway through Air America’s life as its CEO I suppose I am one of a dozen or so who are in that category. But if progressives really wanted to address talk radio they could have started competing companies with different management. Instead, most of the monied progressive community did the opposite of their conservative counterparts and bought into the notion that media should stand or fall based on media market forces.
It’s not that the left doesn’t have money to spend on communication. Labor unions, public interest groups, and Internet activists have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on TV spots and digital marketing.
138 million people commute to and from work in automobiles in which they can look neither at computer or TV screens. For around one-third of them, or 48 million, AM talk radio is their entertainment of choice. Of the top 10 AM talk radio shows, 9 are hosted by extreme conservatives giving the right wing a captive audience of around 40 million listeners a week, at least 7 times greater than the combined audience for Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Talk radio’s audience dwarfs that of every other category in the news political arena including the network news and Sunday shows, NPR’s public affairs shows, and political websites.
It was not pre-ordained that all of the millions of people who identify with the “tea-party” movement would believe the conservative narrative that the economic ills afflicting the middle class are the result of liberalism. But given that tens of millions of them had no alternative explanations or solutions, it is not surprising that conservative ideas and candidates are ascendant.
Many progressives blame the current political climate on the Obama administration, and I disagree with a number of Obama’s decisions including his Afghanistan policy. But why should progressives expect any President to lead the way on our issues given the nature of our political system? At the outset of the Obama administration there were dozens of columns reminding progressives that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had told the liberal activists of his day to “make” him initiative progressive programs by mobilizing public opinion. Instead, most of the modern left spent the last year talking to itself while conservatives convinced millions of people that global warming is a hoax, that torture in required to keep America safe, that non-millionaires in Canada and Europe have worse health care than their American counterparts. The right wing could never have convinced 45% of Americans that the Democrats wanted death panels if their outreach was limited to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page and the three million people a night who watch Fox’s highest rated shows.
Perhaps the major liberal money people have become confused because focus groups and polling are very useful tools in predicting short-term public reaction to political messages. They can tell you if a particular TV spot will turn off swing voters two weeks before an election. But long-term political ideas have a more complex creative path. Conservatives understand the need to focus on both long and short-term political communication. Or maybe media advisors and consultants who advise labor unions and an assortment of progressive groups on media strategy are culturally uncomfortable with the crude language of AM talk radio and other mass culture, and who are often so nervous about losing control of "their message.” Whatever the reasons, the theory of leaving political media to the marketplace has enabled a status quo in which one third of the American public are never exposed to progressive ideas or even to facts that are incompatible with the right-wing narrative.
To be fair-- the radio business has an idiosyncratic culture that is hard for outsiders to grasp. In 1987 when the Reagan administration ended the Fairness Doctrine, the cultural landscape was such that many conservatives felt under-served by the mainstream media of the time and Rush Limbaugh was able to use his considerable broadcasting skills to attract millions of them as an audience and revive the economic fortunes of AM radio stations around the country. At the same time, as described in Viguerie’s book, conservatives focused on small market stations for religious and political purposes and helped create an infrastructure that continues to serve them well. Traditional radio stations attract audiences based on “formats” that grouped together demographic cohorts. Thus music radio is either R&B, pop, rock, country or various versions or hybrids of those genres. A listener to a country station would not want to hear a Metallica song programmed sandwiched in between Toby Keith and Sugarland. While liberals ignored AM radio, viewing it as a passé medium for troglodytes, conservatives honed their skill at talk radio and by the nineties, most liberal and moderate talk hosts had been taken off the air because they did not fit into what was now the “conservative talk” format.
Many of the radio executives who programmed the right wing radio stations that produced the shows did not agree with their politics but, like most business people, they gravitated to the easiest path to make the most money the quickest. These “radio people,” understandably, were not going to be motivated by an ideological agenda, even one that they agreed with. But activists and public interest groups are supposed to be motivated by ideology.
When Air America and Democracy Radio launched in 2003 they faced, not only a lack of liberal talent with the broadcasting chops to entertain radio listeners, but also a lack of stations on which to place programs even by someone with the celebrity of Al Franken. One of the main reasons a sizable investment was needed (though nothing like the scale of the investment made by Murdoch and Moon in money losing right wing newspapers) was the need to create enough programming to fill up the time of stations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so as to justify a “progressive talk” formatted station.
Conservative talk had a 17 year head start and so there just weren’t enough experienced broadcasters with progressive politics to create a format, hence the need for experimentation. Identifying, developing and marketing talent takes a lot of experimentation with a predictable amount of failures in order to establish successes. This is part of the reason it took even an ultimately successful company like Fox News years to turn a profit.
Another need for investment was to market a brand new format with lots of personalities new to radio and to give incentives for radio station owners in smaller markets to give the new format a chance.
There are some who claim that liberals are not good at talk radio. Right-wingers considered the liberal talkers elitists who didn’t understand radio entertainment. Some on the left felt that the talk radio audience demanded simplistic angry polarizing tone that is incompatible with progressive values. I don’t believe that is true. I am an unabashed Al Franken fan, but even if one disliked his style or politics, the fact is that his show attracted several million listeners a week on AM talk radio stations and because of the under-development of the liberal talk format, it could only be heard, at its peak, by around half of the country's radio listeners. Ed Schultz has reached a comparable number and he too has not been able to get broadcast in markets where “conservative talk” is the only game in town. The apex of Air America’s penetration was in 2005-2006 and it not only helped broaden the audience for progressive bloggers who were regular guests, but it gave activists like Cindy Sheehan access to Americans who do not listen to the Amy Goodman Show or read The Nation. Just as conservative investment in the intellectual worked eventually produced legitimate conservative academics and writers, so would liberal investment in the populist media result in more Rachel Maddows.
In Viguerie’s final chapter he wrote that Air America “was the most ambitious effort by liberals so far to compete with conservatives in the alternative media marketplace." He nervously acknowledged Air America for “turning to articulate entertainers with liberal political convictions.” But he was confident that it would not succeed because of what he called liberals “fear of long-term commitment,” adding “Conservatives didn’t build their alternate media empire overnight. It was the result of decades of hard work.” Viguerie observed that Air America had “inadequate capitalization. Starting a network with clout will cost a lot more than the $20-30 million they claim to have raised. And to start to expect to make a profit in just four years in unrealistic. Ask Rupert Murdoch.”
Although the earliest and wackiest group of Air America owners overspent on a few items like studios and initial salaries, within months the primary characteristic of Air America was a lack of cash for marketing, for affiliate growth and for talent development. The pressure from wealthy liberals was not to create a long-term strategy as conservatives had done but to show a business model that would turn a profit in a year or two.
Thus, several ill-fated iterations of Air America were driven by delusional projections of traditional business viability and consequently misled themselves and staff regarding what resources would be available and then inflicted onerous cuts on a business that was already underfunded. (During my brief tenure I got thousands of hate mails form fans of comedian Marc Maron whose morning drive time show (the time when most commuters listen) was canceled to move Rachel Maddow from the obscure 5 AM time slot into the morning drive. Given her talent and discipline it is likely that Rachel Maddow’s success was pre-ordained, but there is no question that the audience she developed in drive time was one of the assets she brought to MSNBC. But if there hadn’t been such a cash crunch, there would have been a way of developing Maddow and keeping Maron and also giving more talent a real chance.
By 2004, the radio business, after years of robust growth that made it a darling of investment bankers, was beginning to feel the erosion of its business model experienced by all “old media.” The idea that conventional investors would find a liberal talk syndication company a sexy investment was laughable. Contrary to published reports, there were and are numerous “radio people” involved in running various versions of progressive radio but they all found that it was not a particular good business based on pure economics. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t and isn’t a good political investment for progressives whose agenda is to battle conservative ideology.
Thom Hartmann, Bill Press, Randy Rhodes, Stephanie Miller, Ron Reagan, and many other liberal radio survivors deserve all the credit in the world for their resourcefulness and their commitment. But the broader progressive community should not be leaving them to a Darwinian world while the likes of James Dobson continue to raise ideological money to further broaden the hold of right wing mythology on the minds of 48 million commuters who happen to like talk radio’s rhythms.