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.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 26th, 2010 at 9:58am #

    Nov ’08, 98% of voters voted for the plutocratic and thus oneparty rule. So where stood moderates and liberals?
    I cld be wrong but i thought the liberals in US are just a tad left of mussolini.
    2% of voters voted for greens, mckinney, and nader. Most of them may have been socialist.
    So, it does seem that the socalled liberals have voted for one of the two plutocratic agents or managers of their affairs.

    Or does walter think that safeway does not appoint own store manager after vetting several people for th job? tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on January 26th, 2010 at 10:29am #

    Liberal, conservative, left, right, middle, rich, poor in not to many years meaningless words and very few want to face that. Could I be wrong yes and I hope so but kind of easy to see. I guess the truth has always’ been the hardest part with us human’s to understand find but in twenty ten mind boggling to even give it a try. The best minds we have now are attacked and made to look like fools who walk into wall’s. There are wall’s alright always’ has been but now those wall’s will come tumbling down as they did before and were built again this time on our present path there will be wall’s the ones nature builds over thousands of years not human’s. Just the next few months and what is done or not done here in the States will give us more clues. Still time just not on this path.

  3. Deadbeat said on January 26th, 2010 at 3:09pm #

    Here’s a much better critique of why Air America by Louis Proyect.

  4. Deadbeat said on January 26th, 2010 at 3:10pm #

    Here’s a much better critique of why Air America failed by Louis Proyect.

  5. Joe Mowrey said on January 26th, 2010 at 3:56pm #

    AirAmerica was a sycophantic shill for the Democratic wing of the corporatocracy. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Now if we could just lose Thom Hartmann.

  6. beverly said on January 26th, 2010 at 8:28pm #

    Right on, Joe Mowrey. AirAmerica’s 24/7 shilling for the Democratic party just made them the flip side of right wing radio. Where were the dissenting voices? No Alex Cockburn, Joshua Frank, Ted Rall, Glen Ford, Chris Floyd. Nader, Kucinich, McKinney were rarely if ever mentioned, much less regular voices on the network. Air the dirty truth about Israel? Forget it. News items found on this site and Counterpunch never saw the light of day on AirAmerica. Instead, every day, hosts rehashed the same spiel over and over.

    Randi Rhodes, Ed Shultz, Rachel Madow, Thom Hartman, Bobby Kennedy Jr, Al Franken? All pathetic enablers of Democratic party high crimes and misdemeanors. Good riddance to bad rubbish indeed!!

  7. kanomi said on January 27th, 2010 at 1:43pm #

    The earlier commenters, and that article linked to, are right. People hunger for an honest truth-telling about how the corporations have purchased both political parties, all of the media, most of the politicians and damn near all the lawyers, the judges, even what’s left of the unions…not some regurgitated Democratic party sloganeers funded by a bunch of kleptocrats.

    Since Air America was nothing but apologist-corporatist pablum, consisting of known lies and pathetic excuses, since it was a simpering sycophantic cesspool of a repudiated viewpoint that’s already widely promulgated across CNN, Time, the mainstream TV networks, etc., it was nothing, it accomplished nothing, and it meant nothing.

    In short, a complete and total waste of time.