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Goldberg Flies Air America 

Music-biz biggie pilots a new radio hit

Thursday, Mar 31 2005
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Maybe it’s just bad static or poor reception, but isn’t the new CEO of liberal radio network Air America soundbiting like a Republican?

Sure, he thinks Al Franken is a “genius,” but he admits listening regularly to Rush Limbaugh “because I was fascinated by his ability to be so entertaining.” He says Air America won’t take its cues from the Democratic National Committee, “because I hate to see people just lockstep following a political party.” He believes people in Hollywood should be “supportive of politicians, not a replacement for politicians, unless they actually want to run for office like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I hope we produce one of those in my lifetime.” He sees American media becoming more like “the European media now, where media is admitting who they favor, and I think that trend is not all bad because I think there was a bias anyway.” And he says his most immediate goal is to “make a lot of money for shareholders.”

Then again, 54-year-old Danny Goldberg has always defied conventional wisdom.

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When the Gore-Lieberman campaign railed against rap in the 2000 presidential race, this longtime record-industry executive and bicoastal political activist accused the Democratic ticket of turning off young people with GOP-pandering tactics. (“Gore’s dramatic drop in the support of younger voters alone cost him the election. The statistics are clear.”) When lefties began writing books savaging the right wing, he wrote a book attacking the Democratic Party as too tone-deaf to popular culture. (Goldberg’s How the Left Lost Teen Spirit is coming out in paperback next month with a new introduction and additional chapters.) When the November election deeply depressed millions of John Kerry supporters, Goldberg not only wasn’t surprised, but also felt less disappointed than most because he saw “a silver lining” in the loss. (“Unlike any election in my lifetime, the campaign left an infrastructure of activists, media and organizations that have at long last begun the work of creating a true progressive electorate.”) When the music business in recent months started to return to growth mode through rising digital sales and stabilizing CD sales, this former top executive at Warner Music and Mercury Records suddenly stepped down as chairman of indie Artemis Records. (He left for what he says were “philosophical differences” with the new investors over the future of the company.)

So it’s not surprising that, just as HBO was scheduling a very warts-and-all documentary about Air America’s start-up and near bankruptcy, Goldberg last month decided to take the helm of the no-longer-struggling company, which had already burned through two CEOs. “It’s just the chance of a lifetime,” Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly in his first interview since getting the gig. “I wasn’t miserable in the music business, but I’d done it for 30 years. And I’ve had this strong interest for the last 15 or 20 in politics, especially how it intersects with media.”

(Full disclosure: I am a regular unpaid contributor on Air America shows.)

But Goldberg won’t even get to enjoy birthday cake celebrating Air America’s first year of broadcasting nationally on Thursday. Instead, he receives that big fat pie in the face with the premiere of HBO’s Left of the Dial, which chronicles the dramedy of what happens when mayhem meets moola, or lack thereof, complete with bounced paychecks, unpaid health-insurance premiums, complaining creditors and confused staffers.

Especially riveting is the behind-the-scenes chaos as Air America was thrown off its Los Angeles and Chicago radio stations after only two weeks on the air, and the ensuing cover-up. (Then again, the documentary fails to make the point that Air America won’t go down in history as the first company to obfuscate its true economic condition. Yet we should expect better of any champion of progressive politics.)

“It covers the first six months or so, which included a period when a charlatan who said he was funding it flaked out,” sighs Goldberg. “In general, I think it demonstrates the commitment and politics of our on-air talent and reminds people that we’re there. It was an independently produced documentary, so naturally there are a few cringe-worthy moments from our point of view. But, overall, it’s a huge plus for the network.”

Well, only if you believe in the old adages that all publicity is good publicity and that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long they spell your name right. “Somehow or other, these people got this thing off the ground,” Goldberg defends. “It defied the conventional wisdom of the radio business. It was troubled in terms of the financing issues. This is about the art of the possible, the kind of programming that nobody would have taken a year ago, because they didn’t believe there was an audience for it. This is very much a work in progress. There’s been almost a destiny to it and a dedication, not only the people on the staff but also the investors who have stuck with it.”

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