Why Air America Will Be Missed

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bebeto Matthews / AP

Air America radio host Al Franken is seen during a news conference in New York. Air America Radio, a progressive radio network founded in April 2004 that once aired commentary from Franken and Rachel Maddow, ceased operations Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, and will soon file to be liquidated under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Franken, who is now a U.S. Senator, hosted his show until 2007

Air America Radio was born at noon E.T. on March 31, 2004, and on that premiere show, the host, Al Franken, proclaimed his first mission: to defeat George W. Bush in that year's presidential election. Air America died a year and a day after Barack Obama's Inauguration, and two days after Obama's Democrats all but officially became a minority party in the U.S. Senate. The liberal radio network — which provided Franken, the former Saturday Night Live comedian, with a conduit to his own Senate seat and gave MSNBC darling Rachel Maddow her first significant exposure — expired nine weeks short of its sixth birthday, after waging a heroic battle against advertiser indifference and listener apathy.

"It is with the greatest regret, on behalf of our Board, that we must announce that Air America Media is ceasing its live programming operations as of this afternoon," the network announced on its website on Jan. 21, "and that the Company will file soon under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code to carry out an orderly winding-down of the business." Live programming ended that day at 6 p.m.; reruns will continue, the statement read, "until 9 p.m. EST on Monday, January 25, at which time Air America programming will end."

The right couldn't wait to crow over the corpse, and it read grand omens in its entrails. "The passing of Air America is another reminder that our nation is center right," wrote Paul Cooper on David Horowitz's Newsreal website, "and the ideas of Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi will never take root in this great country." Really? Since Rush Limbaugh established himself as a radio phenomenon in 1991 and spawned a new genre of political talk (including Air America), the country has elected two Democrats to the U.S. presidency in three of the past five elections. The party runs the House of Representatives and misruns the Senate. To these factors, the radio dominance of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage is as irrelevant as the failure of Air America. Radio spielers don't shape legislative policy.

The Air America hosts realized that fact when their candidate, John Kerry, went down in November 2004. A few months later, on the network's first anniversary, comic Robert Smigel, in the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, told Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder, hosts of Air America's evening show, "You've accomplished so much. A year ago today we had a tyrannical President leading us into a costly war. And look at today. The war's going much better." Now, in 2010, America is still at war in Iraq — which is still going much better — and has ramped up the one in Afghanistan. This under the "liberal" President the network fought 18 hours a day to elect.

Financed by some, but clearly not enough, liberal fat cats hoping to provide a countervoice to right-wing radio, Air America lurched to life amid chaos and suspicious bookkeeping that nearly sank the network in its first few months. Flouting received radio wisdom that one strong host creates the strongest listener identity, Air America began with teams in each three-hour time slot, typically pairing a comedian (Marc Maron, Lizz Winstead, Franken) with a radio veteran (Mark Riley, Maddow, Katherine Lanpher). Evenings, radio novices Garofalo and Seder held a yearlong, on-the-air school of self-taught broadcasting. Nobody in charge realized that talking every weekday on the radio is a learned art. Standup comics — who hone their material into 10-minute bits rather than letting it sail for hours on end, and need to be wired, not radio-relaxed — are exactly the wrong people for this job.

The one solo flyer, Randi Rhodes, in the afternoon drive-time slot, showed the network how it's done. Braying and abrasive, funny and whip-smart, Rhodes had what Limbaugh had: a distinctive voice that made people tune in for her next insight or outrage. She built a large, loyal audience — Air America's only show with more than 1.5 million listeners. (She was fired after saying very rude things about Hillary Clinton at a benefit for the network's San Francisco outlet in 2007 but returned to the airwaves on some of its stations.) Maddow was the one star whom Air America created from scratch, though it took ages for them to realize her value. When the mid-morning show she co-hosted was killed after a year, the network honchos put her in the uncoveted 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. slot, promoted her to a two-hour show starting at 7 a.m. and finally moved her to early evenings in 2007. The next year, Maddow got her MSNBC gig and let Air America rerun those shows the next morning.

By 2005, Air America seemed a growing, if not going, concern. Its audience's average age (48, compared with the typical talk show's 60) and gender-graphics (48% male, vs. Limbaugh's 40%) made the network theoretically attractive to advertisers. Franken occasionally beat Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly in some markets. A quicker study than some of his comedy-bred colleagues, he also learned how to use the medium: by letting his inner wonk run rampant. He convened a kitchen cabinet of policy savants — Joe Conason, Norm Ornstein, David Brock, Lawrence O'Donnell, Melanie Sloan, Christy Harvey, David Sirota, Tom Oliphant — who brought nuance to confrontation. It was the thoughtiest radio around — National Public Radio with a serrated edge — until Feb. 14, 2007, when Franken announced his Minnesota Senate candidacy.

In choosing new hosts to replace the original teams, Air America was hit-and-miss. Miss: Jerry Springer, who when not refereeing domestic fights on TV was a soporific broadcast presence. The network had hits with two Rons. In 2008, Ron Kuby, a defense lawyer and former sparring partner with the rightward Curtis Sliwa during mornings on New York City's WABC, got Rhodes' afternoon slot and perpetrated smart, funny radio; he was out after a year. Ron Reagan, son of the revered Republican President, parlayed his Seattle radio show into an Air America slot and developed a style that was sharp without being unduly aggressive. He was the best of the remaining Air America personalities; his show would have gone on Thursday evenings at 6 if the network hadn't pulled the plug.

Whether the hosts were sparkling or not so hot, whether the liberal debate was about the crimes of George Bush or the weakness of Obama, Air America flailed, and finally failed, while right-wing radio flourished. Limbaugh held on to his listeners, in the 10-million-to-20-million range, each week and enjoyed a spike in the early Obama days when the Administration foolishly went after him and Fox News. In last summer's Arbitron ratings, Limbaugh was first or second in his time slot in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit — markets that are neither conservative strongholds nor hotbeds of anti-Obama malice.

So why is poli-talk radio so dominated by Limbaugh, when the country is not? Because even for people who don't agree with him, he can be monstrously entertaining; he makes great radio. He and his clones may dominate as a radio format and energize the conservative base and annoy liberal politicians, but their success is not a reflection of the mood of the country at large. And in the ratings, the whole contingent of the radio right is outpointed by NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That's where the liberal listeners so desired by Air America went for their news and (covert) commentary. At the same time, MSNBC was showing how liberals could make TV that was appealing and sometimes competitive with the Fox News behemoth. When Air America's stars went into the public- and cable-TV sectors, the radio network lost its strongest voices. And now it's lost its voice — forever.