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October 13, 2006

Why Air America Failed

Recent opera-related disagreements with Jonah aside, I think this argument he highlights as explanation of Air America's tumble into bankruptcy is pretty sound (conclusion, of course, excepted): The liberal radio market was actually quite crowded, mainly due to the overwhelming popularity of NPR. The impacts of Pacifica and so forth strike me as quite small, but radio wasn't a wasteland for lefties before Franken and Co. signed on -- indeed, nearly every liberal I know listened and listens loyally to NPR. Hell, half of them own NPR gear. And very few of them were looking for something more pugilistic, sharp-edged, or even exciting to replace their beloved public stations.

But nevertheless, liberals looked around, noticed that no one on the left precisely matched what Limbaugh was doing, and sought to fill the apparent vacuum. As Jonah writes, "That's why copy-catting the right is such folly for liberals across a wide range of fronts. They don't understand that they already control universities, for example. But they see conservative success with think tanks, so now they're investing in think tanks." Putting the think tank and university examples aside, that's mostly right. The conservative movement has stumbled towards a political infrastructure that works for them. The nascent progressive movement is trying to replicate a structure that works for conservatives. That's not necessarily the path to take. Liberals need to create a failure-accepting and chaotic funding structure that allows them to develop the sort of vast left-wing conspiracy that's well-suited to and popular among the left-wing.

Clarification: To be clear, I don't believe that NPR is liberal, I believe liberals listen to NPR. The two are not the same.

Update: Marc Cooper has some much more informed, lengthy thoughts over here. And he's right: I'm very earnest, very nice, and very ignorant about radio.

October 13, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

"indeed, nearly every liberal I know listened and listens loyally to NPR."

And just like most of the rest of the liberal MSM, NPR claims to be 'unbiased'. At least Limbaugh, etc. are honest enough to tell their listeners that they are conservative.

"explanation of Air America's tumble into bankruptcy"

The reason Air America failed in the free market is because "Bush sucks" and "Bush lied" gets old pretty quick. Plus liberal ideas usually lose when actually reasoned out. Gay marriage, abortion on demand, terrorist coddling, gun control, higher taxes, general America hating, etc. is repulsive to most Americans and they don't want to hear it on the radio.

Just like a station that just runs burps and farts would fail, so did Air America.

Here comes the 'Fairness Doctrine' proposals again.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Oct 13, 2006 7:28:39 PM

One is tempted to point out that the fact that liberals listen to NPR so much is one of their weaknesses.

I prefer to claim that liberals, having better taste in music, are listening to their albums rather than listening to anyone rant on the radio.

I don't think the end-goal was a bad idea-- what liberals need to do is somehow disseminate their talking points throughout the country to people who aren't interested in following politics all day. Talk radio is a great mechanism for conservatives to do this. The question is how liberals could do the same.

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 13, 2006 7:29:06 PM

I am way, way to the left of amost anyone I know, and NPR gives me hives. Ugh. It's so *dull*. Pacifica has its moments, but it has the worst aspects of both NPR (the pledge-drive, soothing-voice disease) and what I would really like (true lunacy): the dullness of the former, the misguided morass of the latter.

Granted, I am hardly the target audience, but I posit that Air America failed because the people running it thought of politics before money. Limbaugh's sponsors never let politics get in the way of the almighty dollar.

Posted by: wcw | Oct 13, 2006 7:29:43 PM

I didn't listen to Air America because if I want lefty commentary, I can get it from blogs. There's more variety, better quality, and frankly, it's just a better medium for it.

Conservatives go in for that voice in the darkness, the angry white male raging against the world. Whatever the slant of the content, that's just not the aesthetic of liberals.

But hey, we've got the Daily Show and Colbert.

Posted by: Royko | Oct 13, 2006 7:58:28 PM

I listen to my Air America affliate all day long. Frankly, NPR is a snooze. The various AA personalities tend to repeat one another as well as lift material from the blogs, but it's great to listen to while I work.

Which side of the Idomoneo question were you on, Ezra? I don't remember you weighing in. I prefer Cosi - stupid story, great tunes.

Posted by: J Bean | Oct 13, 2006 8:36:14 PM

It would appear that Air America radio filed for reorganization under the bankruptcy act (and protection from creditors until the reorganization gets put in place) because they spent more money than they received.

With this standard of black ink instead of red to stay in operation, the one the GOP Congress has ignored in for its own operations on the federal budget, some companies make it and some don't.

So then the question is, was it lack of listeners or lack of advertisers that was the root problem for AAR? Lack of listeners usually leads to lack of advertisers, but this is probably a special case. I don't recall hearing any significant corporate ads on AAR. Rush Limpdick doesn't seem to have this problem, curiously....

The (il)logic of Toke:
And just like most of the rest of the liberal MSM, NPR claims to be 'unbiased'. At least Limbaugh, etc. are honest enough to tell their listeners that they are conservative.

Liberals (and others) listen to NPR (for news and commentary), therefore NPR must be biased to liberals? Got that? So if liberals watch CSI on teevee for information and entertainment, CSI must be biased to liberals, right?

With that kind of logic in your head, and 3000 American troops to sacrifice (so far), you could justify lying to start a war that was doomed to fail from the beginning because of faulty logic, and continue the war to prove you are are strong and consistent. Stupidly 'strong' and 'consistently' stupid.


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 13, 2006 8:58:48 PM

Liberals need to create a failure-accepting and chaotic funding structure that allows them to develop the sort of vast left-wing conspiracy that's well-suited to and popular among the left-wing.

One thing we really need to do is set up a fund to bribe Mark Schmitt to post more often.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 13, 2006 9:27:57 PM

Jim, you don't think NPR has a liberal bias, or you just don't like Toke's reasoning? I think NPR does have a liberal bias, based on what I hear on it, more on some shows than others. This is reflected in a disproportionally liberal audience. But it's still the best free news and information source on the radio. Didn't occur to me that it would compete with Air America, but in hindsight that makes sense.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 13, 2006 9:34:32 PM

All this talk of NPR reminds me of a comment made to atrios back in May 2003:

Both PBS and NPR cater their news to their audience's taste--an audience made up of lots of people who are interested in personal essays from somebody you've never heard of talking about the renewing powers of moving to New England to devote one's life to gardening. True enough--who doesn't love gardening? But is it news? -Dan, 5/01/03 4:20pm

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 13, 2006 9:50:08 PM

I don't know if Air America is gone yet, possibly just restructuring.

Air America's strategy of having affiliates committed to running most or all of their programming, rather than trying to syndicate individual programs, is probably as much to blame as the supposed saturation of the liberal message. I listened to their programming occasionally, but it just wasn't that good from an entertainment standpoint. Randi Rhodes is a talk-radio natural, but I wouldn't say that about anyone else on the Air America slate. Maybe they should have put most of their chips on Rhodes, tried to get her on a lot of stations, then tried to piggy-back other shows, one by one, if Rhodes caught on. But trying to produce 18 hours a day of programming, out of the box, it was perhaps inevitable that the programming quality would be uneven.

Posted by: kth | Oct 13, 2006 9:56:30 PM

"With that kind of logic in your head, and 3000 American troops to sacrifice (so far), you could justify lying to start a war"

Jim,

Don't make me get out all the quotes by Democrats making a stronger case to go into Iraq than the president did.

"Lack of listeners usually leads to lack of advertisers, but this is probably a special case."

If AA had listeners, they would have had advertisers.

Are you saying AA turned away corporate sponsors because they were being true to their liberal principles? And are now filing bankruptcy rather than enrich coorporations and paying AA employees with the money from the millions upon millions of 'secret' AA listeners?

I wonder if NPR would stay afloat if not for public funding. We know AA can't stay afloat without donations.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Oct 13, 2006 10:05:43 PM

I agree with you on many points. My husband is a total NPR person except when football is on. He loves his NPR.
But, more importantly is the copying the republicans. Not a good thing. The republicans won due to celebrating thier conservative ideas.
The dems should remember that they are supported by people who do not agree with or have anything in common with or like republican ideas. We are democrats because of a set of beliefs we hold dear and see the democratic party as the one that best reflects those beliefs. We don't want republican lite. If we did we'd be republicans.
Pendulums swing and it swung into a super conservative way for awhile. People found they did not like it. It's now swinging back to normal---democratic.

Posted by: dlake | Oct 13, 2006 10:53:41 PM

I disagree with this analysis.

NPR is NOT a liberal network. They have lots of conservatives and basically give the public Cokie Roberts/Conventional Wisdom view of US politics.

I and millions of other liberals are hungry for fighting liberals on TV and radio.

Trouble with AAR is that its public face is Al Franken, a PC obsessed NPR type who is clearly very uncomfortable as a radio host. AAR's mistake was thinking they could get a celebrity with no radio skills and turn him into left's Rush. It doesn't work that way. There are very good liberal radio hosts and they are very successful. Stephanie Miller, Bernie Ward, Randi Rhodes.

Posted by: Nan | Oct 13, 2006 10:55:30 PM

The reason Air America failed in the free market is because "Bush sucks" and "Bush lied" gets old pretty quick.

Obviously an avid listener. Frankly, I find the endless 'liberals are turning our kids into gay terrorists' schtick elsewhere on the AM dial a bit tiring, myself. And I do note that when I accidentally get stuck on a wingnut show, the advertisers are the kind of people who make money from exploiting the naive and gullible. Nice demographic analysis there.

Anyway, I'll agree with those who think it would have been smarter to syndicate individual shows -- as done by Jones with Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz. But then you get the chicken/egg problem, since it took AAR's schedule to persuade Clear Channel and others to shift affiliates over. (My local affil takes Franken and Rhodes, with Bill Press, Miller and Schultz, and none of those have problems with advertisers.) My guess is that a reorg'd AAR might slim down and syndicate: they've created a space that other companies will exploit.

The conservative movement has stumbled towards a political infrastructure that works for them.

And the logrolling is spectacular: use the radio show to plug Fox News, use Fox News to plug the radio, use both to plug commentators and their books. Heck, Radical Cleric Dobson hits the sweet spot between right-wing broadcasting and Radio-for-Jesus.

Anyway, as a Brit, I'll say that NPR sucks balls compared to BBC Radio 4. But neither are liberal talk radio networks. And BBC World Service on Sirius does me nicely.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 13, 2006 11:36:45 PM

Yes, but... I think Air America offered something that NPR didn't - namely, the kind of caller-driven discussion that right wing talk radio does, and letting a different views get heard and get supported by the host. I think there's a place for that in the radio market, and I don't think NP "now another snoozy classic" R is built for it. More than being liberal, much of NPR is cozy establishment liberalism, high-toned and classy, and that's nice, but dull (to be fair, I only listen to NPR when strapped down in my Mother's car and I can't fight for control, or similarly, in her house).

If nothing else, I suspect a WABC or some such will figure out at some point that they could get some ratings zip by mixing it up and adding a liberal host who yells and snarls as effectively as Rush... well, Hannity, anyway. I think the absolute wrong lesson conservatives will take from this (a la Toke) is that somehow they're ordained to own one radio format over anyone else. Fads come and go, trends move, and one day, probably not too soon, conservative talk radio is going to look a little played out. The numbers won't quite be what they used to be. It's then when the desperation sets in. God help them then.

Finally, I think there's one otgher point to consider, a more general sense that radio sucks right now and that most people are listening to music, and many and growing numbers do it thru iPod and self selecting technology. Pretty soon, just like conservatives, we will all get to hear just we want to hear, and not what we need to hear: the opposing view, the challenging thought, the information as opposed to the opinions. I think Air America always had the possibility for catlyzing a format that melded liberal and conservative hosts into a more interesting entity. A shame that they were built on such a weak business model, and that the weak model becomes a stand-in for "liberals can't do talk radio." Better luck next time.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 13, 2006 11:53:34 PM

"the advertisers are the kind of people who make money from exploiting the naive and gullible."

Really? Liberals love to say "the people that voted for Bush are dumb" or "the people that listen to Rush Limbaugh are stupid". I guess it makes you all feel better, since you keep getting your asses handed to you in elections.

Well....


"Most regular consumers of news are better informed, better educated, and older than the average American. But the audiences for some news sources stand out in this respect.
...
the most informed audiences belong to the political magazines, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, the O'Reilly Factor, news magazines, and online news sources."

Posted by: Captain Toke | Oct 13, 2006 11:57:15 PM

I don't have any answers, but I think that this is a pretty important topic.

NPR, oprah, PBS are great, but they're not enough, because they won't take sides in a fight, whenever there's a controversy. And perhaps more important, their ultimate concern is not to find the truth and tell the truth as they see it, it's to produce great content, and to be perceived well by their paying customers, most of whom are apolitical/establishment.

I listened to Air America (mainly through mp3s via a great site, Air America place) a lot when it first came out and loved it. In fact, I loved an interview between bill clinton and al franken so much that I transcribed a bit of it and posted it on kos.

I think the main problem with air america, and maybe currenttv and even the blogosphere too, is that there a few different reasons why political junkies listen/read, etc.

1. sporting interest : rooting and razzing, and following the latest twists and turns

2. intellectual interest. slicing through arguments and counter-arguments and data, like solving a puzzle.

3. a sense of duty and doing good: feeling like by obsessively following and commenting, you're doing, in a very small way, your bit to help solve problems like health care, foreign aid, global warming, underemployment, stagnant incomes, debt, etc.

This is why I eventually stopped listening to Air America and generally cut back on political junkiedom. The sporting interest and the intellectual interest of politics is okay, but by itself it's not enough to keep you listening/reading/etc. There are other things more interesting from a pure hobby/leisure activity perspective. (The blogosphere is much better than radio/tv in the hobby/leisure aspect, because you do build relationships, even if sometimes ephemeral)

So then what's left is a sense of duty. And the belief that listening to Air America was a duty, and by listening to Air America I was chipping in a bit and helping to solve the problems we care about, while it never quite disappeared, started to wane after a few months. Even today, Al Franken is, along with people like Gore and Wes Clark, one of the people I really trust in terms of common sense and policy judgement.

And most importantly, there was a disconnect between what Air America perceived as their job and what I wanted them to do. Air America wanted to produce all this wonderful content that I would be so enthralled and listen to them hour after hour. Air America wanted me to spend more and more time on politics. What I wanted was some way for Air America to enable me to spend less and less time on politics, to provide a service that would enable me to spend as little time on politics as possible, while still feeling like I was chipping in a bit, and doing my duty as a citizen.

I think that's really the core issue, the disconnect between what Air America was producing, and what its potential customers, like me, felt like we wanted/needed in our lives.

As for conservatives, I used to listen to limbaugh and conservative radio occasionally, because he was sometimes quite funny and I rather liked his take on some things and liked him too, in some ways. Even when I was a young kid though, I had no trouble seeing through his frequent evasions and con-jobs. I don't really understand why any one would listen to him in a serious way today.

I think the main difference between conservatives and liberals in this regard is that there's a lot of problems that liberals want to solve through collective action.

Liberals want action and radio/media that help them to act, and achieve collective results. Conservatives want, to a greater extent, the status quo, and radio/media that will justify their inaction, and denigrate the most dangerous and threatening leaders: Those leaders who are calling on them to make some sacrifices for their fellow human beings.

For example, conservatives want media that will mock Gore for riding on a jet to a global-warming conference, mock Kerry for saying "I voted for it before I voted against it" (which is a perfectly comprehensible and sensible thing to say, BTW), mock Edwards for sometimes coming across as young and naive and hard to take seriously, mock Wes Clark for. . .I don't know, Wes Clark seems like one of the least mockable people I can imagine, but doubtless they'll find something.

Don't want to leave the final impression that conservatives are bad, just that in many ways they don't believe in public collaboration and public results, they believe mainly in private actions in the service of private goals.

On a not quite relevant note. It seems to me that they are three things: 1) inaction, 2) private, self-motivated action, and 3) public-spirited action, actions with some intention of serving others.

To the extent that liberals are damping the energy and drive and enthusiasm of private, individual action in favor of inaction, laziness, we are on the wrong side, and conservatives are on the right side. To the extent that we want to coax laziness and inaction into action, and harness and transform private, self-motivated action so that to some extent it serves some public goals, we are on the right side.

With the important caveat that such attempts at harnessing and transforming must be done in a non-totalitarian way that respects rights and autonomy.

Thanks for letting me vent:) cheers, and apologies for length.

Posted by: roublen | Oct 14, 2006 12:01:19 AM

"Fads come and go, trends move, and one day, probably not too soon, conservative talk radio is going to look a little played out."

Rush has been on for almost 20 years and has only grown in popularity. Not to mention the throngs of conservative talk hosts that have followed. Where are all the national liberal talk hosts? I guarentee the top liberal host has about 20 conservatives ahead of them as far as size of audience.

Yeah, Rush is just a fad.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Oct 14, 2006 12:07:11 AM

If NPR is what passes for "left" content, I think with Billmon we ought to just throw in the towel.

Posted by: della Rovere | Oct 14, 2006 12:17:02 AM

"NPR, oprah, PBS are great, but they're not enough, because they won't take sides in a fight, whenever there's a controversy."

Gee. That's the reason why I listen to NPR during drivetime and tune in for Talk of the Nation. I also love the human interest stories and international coverage. I read enough blogs and news to know what's going on in the world. I can provide my own viewpoint and "side" myself, thank you very much.

I don't want a liberal version of Rush Limbaugh. Who wants to listen to some shrill ego with a leftist bent hollering on the radio? I sure don't.

The real problem here is not whether or not certain viewpoints or "sides" are espoused by NPR, etc. It's that we're not educating kids on media and information literacy. How to Detect Bullshit 101.

Posted by: san antone rose | Oct 14, 2006 12:18:44 AM

I have to wonder if Ezra and some of the commenters above have actually listened to AAR. It is certainly not, and nor has it aspired to be, the left wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Whatever Franken's merits as a radio personality (and I think he's much better that some of you give him credit for), it borders on slander to compare him to the lying liars on the right.

By subscribing to Jonah's analysis Ezra is only perpetrating the false notion of equivalence between, say, Franken and Limbaugh or Rhodes and O'Reilly.

As for NPR being "liberal": Ezra seems to believe that because his liberal friends listen to NPR it must be a liberal organization. Well, most of my liberal friends watch CNN, but that doesn't make CNN a liberal network.
NPR's middle-of-the-road reporting and features can only be regarded as liberal if we swallow the notion that lunatics like Hannity and Coulter are actually mainstream. The genius of General Rove and his acolytes is that they have convinced not only their own troops, but many of our troops as well, that organizations like NPR, CBS, and PBS are on the left fringe of society when in fact they are pretty much dead center.

Posted by: zeke | Oct 14, 2006 12:19:15 AM

The concept of NPR being an "Air America killer" is not exactly in sync with the moderate successes of non-AAR "liberal" radio such as BigDumbEd or StephanieMiller. In at least one or two markets, ClearChannel is coming up with a non-AAR "liberal" format featuring those and others.

The fact that AAR was on sucky stations (50 miles from Chi, 50 miles from SanAnton, etc.) that were basically daytime-only didn't exactly help.

Posted by: BoreAmerica: The Absolute Truth About Air America | Oct 14, 2006 12:21:04 AM

Just in the interests of accuracy, filing a petition for bankrtupcy does not mean that Air America is shutting down. If anything they will almost certainly file for a Chapter 11 "reorganization" in an effort to restructure their debts in a way that allows them to continue functioning. Granted,their debt situation is pretty dire it sounds, and the Chapter 11 may only be delaying the inevitable. But it's not quite over yet.

Posted by: Xanthippas | Oct 14, 2006 12:31:50 AM

I agree with san antonio rose. Copying Rush on the left isn't a great idea, and not only because it might not work. Do we really need more polarization? I agree with weboy about "what we need to hear: the opposing view, the challenging thought, the information as opposed to the opinions." He says Air America had the potential to meld liberal and conservative hosts, which might be good, though I hadn't heard that they had any thought of doing that.

What I've longed for are hosts each of whom fairly present all sides, who would attract listeners and guests of all points of view. I like Neal Conan at NPR well enough in that regard, though he doesn't stray beyond the conventional on either the left or right, but most hosts can't quite manage to be equally fair to all, even when they bother trying. I actually wish conservatism was better represented at NPR, along with more Pacifica type stuff, even though it sometimes upsets me to hear the things that are outside my comfort zone. I'd like to live in a world that people with different views could communicate in, and where all sides had more common information.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 14, 2006 1:36:10 AM

the most informed audiences belong to the political magazines, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, the O'Reilly Factor, news magazines, and online news sources.

Don't celebrate too much, Toke. Did you see the questions used to determine this?

The three questions asked respondents which party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (Republicans); the name of the current U.S. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice); the name of the current president of Russia (Vladimir Putin).

Basically a measure of bare consciousness. The NPR folks who missed these must listen for the music. And don't forget which news network's listeners are still most likely to have basic misconceptions about things like who was behind September 11th.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 14, 2006 1:38:02 AM

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