By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
What Goldberg vigorously emphasizes, what the HBO broadcast only casually mentions, and what Rush Limbaugh and his echo chambers (Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Medved, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Michael Reagan, Dennis Prager and Larry Elder, ad nauseam) purposefully ignore, is that Air America and its Bushwhacking stepsister in the radio business, Democracy Radio, are now not only on solid financial footing but also informative and — dare we say it — even fun. And not just because of the Grateful Dead bumpers.
That’swhyliberaltalkis the radio industry’s fastest-growing format. That success has been the catalyst for Air America’s sudden adoption by Clear Channel Communications, long despised by Democrats for hosting shows and promotions that bolster the Bush administration agenda (which is not just paranoia, since the Texas-based company CEO is a big GOP donor). For instance, the day before Dubya’s second-term inauguration, listeners tuning in to the Detroit sports station WXDX-AM were suddenly greeted by the sound of braying donkeys, according to AP reports. By the time Bush was taking the oath of office, the radio station had new call letters and a full schedule of liberal talk shows. It’s just one of 22 stations owned by Clear Channel, many of them registering mere blips in the ratings, that have switched to a liberal-talk format in the last year. “Listeners across the country are asking for more progressive talk radio,” said John Hogan, president of Clear Channel’s Radio Division, in a prepared statement on January 19. On the other hand, ABC’s sizable radio network still is bucking the trend with a near-monolithic right-wing show schedule, even though former Democratic U.S. Senator George Mitchell chairs parent company Disney.
“There’s a lot of attention to the fact that Clear Channel has done it because of the perception of Clear Channel. It’s from Texas, and some of the people there are friends with George Bush,” says Goldberg, picking his words carefully. “But it’s not just Clear Channel. The new stations in Texas — Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — are not Clear Channel stations. What simply happened is that the ratings have been good enough to demonstrate that there’s a frustrated talk-radio audience that’s not right-wing. So, faced with an underperforming AM station, this is a much better business decision for an owner than the other alternatives. And that’s where we’re getting the stations from.”
Not only is Air America now on in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (KTLK-AM 1150, another Clear Channel station), but it has also expanded from six to 51 stations, into 15 of the top 20 markets, into major red states like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alaska, and on XM and Sirius satellite radio. But will left-leaning listeners be able to hear? The truth is that many of Air America’s stations are low-wattage. For instance, in Dallas, where Air America replaced Spanish-language programming on KXEB-AM (910), static nearly drowns out the station in some areas. Even in Los Angeles, the signal can be faint, as opposed to Limbaugh showcase KFI, where the 50,000-watt blowtorch sounds more like 50 million.
Besides scoring well with women and young people, Air America currently claims 2 million listeners (and Goldberg predicts the size of its audience will double by 2006). One way the network is accomplishing this is by learning from the past mistakes of other syndicators of liberal talk who looked for national talent in all the usual — and dull — places.
Gone are the monologues and monotones of former politicians Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower and even lawyers like Alan Dershowitz. Just as Democracy Radio sought out converted former Republican and ex–football player Ed Schultz, whose syndicated show has gone from two radio outlets to 77 in the past year, Air America also thought outside the box.
It offered gigs to liberally attuned comedians Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron as well as media and politics veterans Marty Kaplan, Laura Flanders and Mark Riley. Expecting Franken to go head-to-head with Limbaugh in many markets was a huge risk for such a radio and political neophyte. Even liberals who had heard he would be the cornerstone of Air America’s programming feared Franken would make a fool of himself. But when Goldberg began listening to him, “I thought, ‘My God, Al Franken is really like a genius.’ He’s brilliant at taking complicated issues and, with a strict focus on the facts and logic, refuting conservative arguments. To be involved with somebody like that is such an honor.” And he also describes as “very good” Randi Rhodes, who, before Air America gave her a national platform, was beating Rush Limbaugh in the ratings in her Palm Beach County listening area.
Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and eight-time Grammy nominee Steve Earle have new shows. Given his background, Goldberg may want to see more confluence between music and politics, and possibly even Hollywood and politics, in Air America’s programming. “I do think that the war, and the election, brought out a level of intensity by a lot of artists that I hadn’t seen since the ’60s. A lot of those people who became politicized are still passionate. And that’s an asset that the left has, this support of a lot of very creative people in the arts and movies and television and especially in music. There ought to be some way of making those connections.”