Mar 1 2007

The Trials of Air America

The unlearned lessons of right-wing radio

Shortly before the launch of the liberal talk radio network Air America in March 2004, Jon Sinton, an executive with the network’s corporate parent, Progress Media, explained to the New Republic (2/10/04) why talk radio was dominated by conservative hosts. It was all about Rush Limbaugh’s success, said Sinton: “If Limbaugh had been a flaming liberal, then today there’d be a bunch of conservatives complaining about all the liberals who are on the radio.” Sinton suggested that Limbaugh’s conservative politics were immaterial to his initial success: “Limbaugh being a conservative was almost beside the point. . . . He was just a phenomenal radio talent.”

Sinton’s remarks betray a naiveté about the history of political talk radio, a format where conservatives, while more dominant today than ever before, have held the upper hand for more than 40 years.

If Air America brass had illusions about a level political playing field, they would quickly learn otherwise. “Early on, our ad-selling service told us, ‘You’re going to have a problem,’” Carl Ginsburg, a former Air America executive, told Extra!. “We were told there would be a problem getting ads, because of the liberal politics.”

Asked if the ad problem was related to the recent leaking of an ABC Radio Networks memo (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/31/06) that listed scores of major corporations that the memo said did not want their ads airing within Air America programming, Ginsburg said: “I am told that there are ‘no buys’ on Rush Limbaugh’s show. Opinion radio is something that many major corporate ad buyers avoid. But liberal talk takes a double hit.”

The way the deck is stacked against liberal talk radio, it’s not surprising that Air America is in trouble. On October 13, the network announced that it was filing for bankruptcy, though it had no plans to cease operations. What part of Air America’s money woes are due to the industry’s bias and how much they are the results of the network’s own decisions is still at question. (See sidebar.)

As for the network’s political impact, the results have been mixed. At its best, Air America has shown it can successfully fire up activists and move them to action, as conservative talk has been doing for years. For instance, when anti-war activists led by Cindy Sheehan camped out near George Bush’s Crawford, Texas home in August 2005, Air America aired a great deal of discussion about Camp Casey, named for Sheehan’s son, killed in Iraq. Sent by Air America’s Randi Rhodes Show to interview demonstrators, writer Barry Crimmins told Extra!, “Many of the activists there told me they had come because they’d heard about Camp Casey on Air America.”

And the network has given airtime to other liberals and progressives who have shown the ability to fire up left-of-center listeners. In addition to the Randi Rhodes Show, there’s Laura Flanders’ Radio Nation, Mike Papantonio and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Ring of Fire and the Rachel Maddow Show.

But some of Air America’s programming decisions have been questionable. To the dismay of many listeners, the network began airing trash television host Jerry Springer in March 2005, presumably betting that the huge audience for his TV freak show would follow him to political talk radio. Springer left Air America and talk radio in September 2006.

As this suggests, Air America’s ideological course has often been unclear if not wishy-washy. Over all, while hosts have been good at belittling George Bush and other Republicans and conservatives, they have not been good at articulating a progressive agenda. This may stem in part from the way Air America hosts tend to cleave to a Democratic Party line that has itself often been hard to decipher in recent years.

This would not happen in conservative talk. For one thing, the Republicans with whom the conservative talkers ally themselves are virtually never at a loss as to exactly what their agenda is. But there’s also a spirit of independence in conservative talk that leads hosts to sometimes criticize the Republicans for not taking a principled right-wing stand. For instance, recently conservative hosts have widely criticized congressional Republicans and the White House for being soft on immigration and federal spending.

Right-wing radio’s role as a conservative vanguard may be irksome to GOP officials on occasion, but conservative talk, even when it’s critical, still benefits the GOP. That’s because conservative talk radio is not just a laboratory and echo chamber for testing and amplifying the party’s ideas and policies. More than that, its most influential hosts—e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage—are often ideologically situated on the far-right flank of the party, so conservative talk serves to widen the national political spectrum to the right, giving cover to Republican politicians by allowing them to appear more moderate by contrast.

If Air America was setting out to play a similar complementary role for Democrats by broadening the national political spectrum to the left, it hasn’t done a very good job, particularly on the issue that has loomed largest over the country during Air America’s entire existence—the Iraq War. While Air America has offered opposition to the war on occasion, besides a few of the network’s lower-profile shows (such as Flanders’ Radio Nation), it hasn’t been a reliable place to turn for anti-war experts or views.

In part, this is because Air America’s hosts don’t all share the views of the anti-war movement. For instance, in a February 2006 Playboy interview, Air America star Al Franken told the magazine, “I’m not for pulling out of Iraq right now.” Franken, who can be brilliant at lampooning and parodying Republicans and conservatives, has more-or-less centrist politics, as reflected by frequent appearances of other champions of centrism on his show, including Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The network’s now-defunct Majority Report featured Janeane Garafalo and Sam Seder, both staunch liberals who opposed the Iraq War. As comics, both were adept at putting down their opponents on the right, but had limited experience as political analysts. In the 2006 Ohio Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Seder crusaded vigorously for the centrist Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett against the far more progressive U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, who had been calling for withdrawal. At times, when Seder sang the praises of Hackett, he didn’t seem to know that Hackett opposed withdrawal. Seder seemed to be taking his cues from liberal bloggers who strongly supported Hackett and were a regular feature on the show. Seder’s and Majority Report’s preference for bloggers, who were often newcomers to politics, over experienced progressive experts and activists detracted from the show’s seriousness and impact.

For all its missteps, Air America has still been able to make inroads into the talk radio market. With fits and starts it has fielded some relatively progressive programs that have begun to build audiences. If Air America succeeds in becoming half as effective as its counterparts on the right, it would be a significant accomplishment. If it doesn’t, it still will have helped to establish that there is a market for liberal and progressive talk radio shows, despite industry pressures; no one should expect progressives to do in a few years what it took conservatives five decades to accomplish.

Please also see the sidebars to this article: Self-Inflicted Wounds?