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.
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.”
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’s why liberal talk is 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.”
And, on April 1, Air America will start carrying Jerry Springer’s syndicated talk-radio program. Yes, that Jerry Springer.
“As soon as I found out it was available to us, I jumped at the chance to get it,” Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly. “I’m sure there will be some people who say that we shouldn’t run his radio show, because they don’t like his TV show. But the two shows are totally different, and I feel that Springer can reach an audience that we otherwise could not easily reach. He is a genuine celebrity in Middle America — including the so-called ‘red states’ — and has a gift for speaking in the cultural language of a wide piece of America. He is, in other words, a practitioner of exactly the kind of mass communications that I have long wished for in progressive politics. And his politics are truly progressive, on every conceivable issue. Of course, on a business level,” adds Goldberg, “it significantly strengthens us in our relations with affiliates and advertisers.”
But inside Air America, morale has been weakened by what is perceived to be a diversity problem on air and off. Even if the radio network’s management doesn’t practice what it preaches (Goldberg promises more airtime for people of color and women beyond what is currently scheduled), the fact that its programming is preaching at all is a godsend to progressives and their blood pressure. There’s something so soothing about switching from dittohead-targeted rants about “feminazis” and “godless atheists” and “the homosexual agenda” to hearing smart people make fun of all that. For the fair-minded who think National Public Radio has gone too far down the slippery slope and fallen on the side of right-wing bias, the antidote is Air America’s Morning Sedition.
And, for cable-TV-news watchers who’ve forgotten what a Democratic politician looks like, many of the network’s shows deliberately broadcast long and thoughtful excerpts (not just short soundbites that made her seem shrewish) from California Senator Barbara Boxer’s poking and prodding of Condoleezza Rice at the recent confirmation hearings. (Says Goldberg: “As someone who’s supported Boxer and her campaigns, I’ve yearned for her to play this role. I was just so moved by the way she handled herself and really stepped into a national role at a time when we really needed her.”)
But perhaps Air America’s finest moment to date came during last week’s legal wrangling over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. That’s because the radio network repeatedly played for listeners that audiotape of closed-door addresses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the culturally conservative Family Research Council on March 17 and 18. Released by the nonsectarian and nonpartisan group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the tape shows both politicians shamelessly exploiting the Schiavo tragedy to politically suck up to the religious right.
All of this speaks very personally to Goldberg and his own progressive views.
“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to run a business that’s really affecting the conversation of the country. So, for me, it’s like a no-brainer. It’s definitely something that, if they didn’t pay me for it, I would probably do it for free. But as a matter of fact, they are paying me for it. I actually think it’s a fantastic business, and those of us who are shareholders, and I’m among them now, are going to make a lot of money.
“You can do well by doing good.”
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