Air America, the liberal radio network, went down in flames, Jan. 21, when it filed for bankruptcy. It wasn’t because of air-to-air combat with conservative talk shows and bloggers. It wasn’t because of the Recession, although reduced advertising revenue, a reality of all media, also affected Air America. It wasn’t even demographics, even though older, marginalized conservatives tend to listen to radio more than do younger liberal professionals. And media history was only part of the problem.
By the 1960s, liberals had become masters at developing and using not only mainstream media but also an emerging alternative media to advance a social agenda. But then they choked, sputtered, and fell into disarray.
During the past two decades, conservatives slowly, almost methodically, established a talk show base that ignited its own movement.
By 2000, with liberals more focused upon the print media and the emerging social media, and having neglected the advantages of a re-energized AM bandwidth that was more adaptable to talk than to music, the personality-drenched conservative talk radio medium filled the vacuum. The talk shows targeted the same kind of audience that the liberal ’60s alternative media had targeted—the socially and politically marginalized who distrusted Big Government and believed in individual liberties. Any emerging liberal network would be seen as merely an annoyance, rather than competition. The conservatives, embraced by Fox News and talk radio, solidified their hold upon the listeners by playing to irrational fears of their base—that the media were controlled by liberals, and that government was out to get them.
Air America had begun as a fresh challenge to the conservative talk show movement. It had a decent mix of comedy, rant, and music. Eventually, it would syndicate shows to about 100 affiliates. Air America had come into a market saturated by right-wing talk radio—and then committed suicide by incompetence. Its death was celebrated by a vitriolic rightwing mix of radio commentators and listeners.
Even facing the Recession, diminished advertising revenue, a target population that had almost abandoned radio except for niche music stations and NPR, and the dominance of conservative talk radio, the six-year-old network could have survived…
IF it had better investment funding…
IF it didn’t spend a disproportionate share of its small investment on lavish studios in a high-rent Manhattan commercial building…
IF it didn’t have so many management changes, and so much ineptness among senior managers…
IF it could have hired more on-air personalities and off-mike producers who had significant radio experience. Even the most talented (among them Al Franken, Sam Seder, and Rachel Maddow) had minimal radio experience. In contrast, almost all of Rush Limbaugh’s career was in radio before he became the man most loathed by liberals.
Air America might have survived if it tried to evolve slowly, as had conservative talk radio, and not try to match it in salaries and personalities the first year.
It might have survived if its primary message wasn’t to attack the conservative infotainment hosts but to develop its own entertainment and issues, and to deliver a focused message. By the demise of Air America, conservative talk radio not only had a larger fan base but better websites and outreach.
But, most of all, Air America might have survived if it wasn’t so arrogant. Its hosts and producers ignored phone calls and e-mails from liberals and moderates who were not on its radar as “important.” And, it and many of its affiliates also ignored calls from many reporters who were trying to do stories about the network and its personalities. If the producers arrogantly didn’t think something mattered, then it didn’t.
In the end, Air America didn’t do for the liberal movement what the rest of talk radio did for its conservative movement—it didn’t respect its listeners enough to allow them their own voice.