Liberal Air America Goes Off The Air

Air America, billed as the Left's alternative to conservative talk radio, airs its last broadcasts on Monday, after fewer than six years on the air. NPR's David Folkenflik explains why high-profile hosts like Rachel Maddow and Montel Williams weren't enough to keep the network afloat.

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NEAL CONAN, host

When Air America hit the airways six years ago, star attraction and unabashed liberal Al Franken kicked off his first program by announcing to his listeners what his talk show "The O'Franken Factor" was all about.

(Soundbite of radio program, "The O'Franken Factor")

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): This isn't about Bill O'Reilly or even about Rush Limbaugh - which reminds me, we're planning to do this show drug free. We don't know if it's ever been done, but we're going to try. No, this show is about taking back our country. It's about having fun. It's about relentlessly hammering away at the Bush administration until they crack and crumble this November, because, don't get me wrong, friends, they are going down.

CONAN: Al Franken, back in 2004 on Air America. We'll he, of course, is in the United States Senate now, and Air America has gone down. The liberal radio network announced last week it would stop broadcasting and file for bankruptcy. Liberals and conservatives alike are now engaged in deconstructing the causes of Air America's demise.

You're invited to join that conversation. Give us a call. What worked? What didn't? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us from NPR West in Culver City in California. David, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Great to join you, Neal.

CONAN: And people can disagree on why Air America failed, but one thing they all seemed to agree on is it did not come as any surprise.

FOLKENFLIK: No. Air America has been in one degree of trouble of another almost from the outset. It was company-owned in - nearly six years by, I think, four or five different management teams. That's both a sign of and a cause of deep dysfunction, internally. It was riven by a sort of arguments over direction.

It was never able to take the kind of market share that would allow it to have leverage to induce stations to do more than really pick and choose and take a couple of shows here and there, but really carry a full lineup that - allowing itself to build a brand and establish a footprint in markets across the country. This was not a particularly viable thing. And part of it was - I think you can make the case very strongly. Part of it was from the outset. You know, was it a commercial agenda? Was it a political agenda?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: This was created by, you know, Democratic donors originally. They said, you know, we have to build a counterweight to the Rush Limbaughs and the Sean Hannitys of the world on radio. It is tough to build a viable financial structure when what you're really trying to promote is an ideological agenda.

CONAN: And you can also talk - you mentioned all those changes in the management structure. Every company has its pluses and minuses. The company itself had a lot of flaws.

FOLKENFLIK: The company itself was deeply flawed. You know, I've spoken to people in recent years who've been, you know, almost taking book on when it would really go into one form of bankruptcy or another. You know, we're now in a time when, you know, credit is - been much tighter than it was when Air America first found its footing and went on the airwaves. And so, you know, there is a lot less room for error. But, you know, business errors were, you know, apparent throughout.

You take a guy like Ed Schultz, who's now - pops up on MSNBC. You know, he came to fame and came to some degree of prominence as a radio host. And he was with Air America for a time, but found it was a more constructive for him to do so outside the America umbrella.

CONAN: And there are nevertheless - you mentioned Ed Schultz, but two people who really did become stars. Well, I think Al Franken was a star before he went to Air America, but Rachel Maddow, who now hosts her own show at MSNBC, really came to prominence there.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, yeah. I'd say that, actually, now Senator Al Franken and Rachel Maddow, now of MSNBC as a primetime anchor and a leading light of that channel, really are, in some ways, the two signature accomplishments of Air America. That wasn't what Air America set out to do, was to launch people to prominence other places. But, you know, if you think about Al Franken, he certainly was well known. He was a comic. He had "Saturday Night Live." He had written best-selling liberal, satiric books.

And at the same time, you know, this was a place he could park for a couple of years and talk about national politics every day in a way that I think gave him a better grounding, a versing in the issues that allowed him to have the vocabulary, almost, to go out and, you know, campaign with voters in his native Minnesota. You know, it's a funny, almost bank-shot approach to doing politics, and it worked for him.

For Rachel Maddow, you know, she's a very sharp woman, very learned. And at the same time, she'd been coming out of, shall we say, a slightly less serious radio background. Air America was a place where she could get the muscle knowledge to shine. She was seen as sharp and promising on MSNBC. And if you think about it, MSNBC achieved, to a degree, what Air America set out to do. That is, MSNBC, in recent years, decided, you know what? We're going to explicitly become a liberal primetime counterpart to the conservatism of Fox News on cable television. And it's had - it's not an equal of Fox News in ratings or in revenues, but it is now profitable. It is now a viable enterprise for NBC and parent company GE - until it sold off - in a way that it never was before. It was always something of a maybe break even, maybe lose money. MSNBC has found its footing as a liberal, primetime opinion block of shows that's, in a sense, a successor to Air America's desire.

CONAN: Yet, we've seen on radio that the conservative talk show lineup - and it's worked in a number of different syndication kind of deals - that works -not nearly works. It's a goldmine, at least as far radio is concern. Why did that not work for liberals?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, there may well be a hunger for a block of entertaining, intense, intelligent, articulate liberal hosts with an explicit ideological bent. It's not clear to me at all that Air America was the answer to that.

If you look at Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, to name but a few people on the significantly right of center who have attained real success on radio, you know, they're not all bundled up in a single, neat network. You know, some of them now share syndicates or share a programmers. But, basically, you know, it wasn't that they said this is a package deal. These guys emerged from - often from local radio as strong voices, and they succeeded.

The other thing was, you know, Air America said we've got to counter radio with radio. Well, those that have succeeded, really, in being a counterweight are people like Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post. So you're seeing - and Daily Kos, you know, as strong online movements, new forms of media thinking about counterweights to strong ideological conservative voices, but saying: Do we have to do it exactly the same way that Rush Limbaugh do it - did it? Do we have to do it exactly the same way Sean Hannity is doing it? No. There are new outlets for us. There are new ways to do this that will take a lot less investment and take a lot far fewer things to break in our direction.

So, you know, I think that there are counterweights. There are successes on the left in terms of media. They may not be exact mirror images of the big forces on conservative media.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about the demise of Air America. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Henry, Henry calling us from Brainerd in - is that in Michigan?

HENRY (Caller): In Minnesota.

CONAN: Minnesota. Okay. I just can't read today. That's all right. Go ahead.

HENRY: I thought a big problem with Air America is that they went after the -with the right, and they basically preached to the choir. And I don't think that this so-called leaning left ever sought out that kind of media. I think something more moderate like NPR, for example - which you could argue is leaning left, but at the same time, they don't give a one-sided opinion.

And I just don't think the left, you know, needs that so-called feel-good preaching to the choir type of aspect. I've just never ran into, you know, liberal that needed that. I think we look for more of the moderate approach, more (unintelligible) sensical approach, I guess.

CONAN: David, I know we could provide Henry with a lot of the statistics that indicate a third of our listeners here at NPR consider themselves conservative, a third considered themselves liberal, and another third somewhere in the middle. But, anyway, his point, though.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that there's something to that. I mean, there are studies that suggest different ways in which people seek out information and that not all liberals and conservatives have the same sort of media patterns. I will say that, you know, MSNBC has been able to attain a robust audience. But it is, really, a niche audience. You're not talking about a whole lot of shows above a million viewers a night.

But you're absolutely right in the sense that a lot of liberals who read The New York Times or listen to NPR or watch ABC News or CNN may find enough of what they're looking for with some, you know, some dissenting voices or other voices that they find that fulfills them. You know, there are also listeners to shows like "Democracy Now" or Pacifica Radio or things like that that are more clearly ideological.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: It's not clear to me at all that Air America was - that the personalities as a lineup up and down were robust enough, were provocative enough, were indispensable enough that it worked out as a full-fledged experiment of would this work on the left.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Henry.

HENRY: All right.

CONAN: Here's an email, this from Liz in Salem, Oregon. Air America was a business venture. Like some other startups, it ran into problems. But it did provide an alternative to right-wing radio. Our local station was the first affiliate. KPOJ is in fine shape. I often listen to their local morning show. They may have lost the Air America shows. Much of their lineup is local or none-Air America - Ed Schultz, for example. How are Rush Limbaugh and the other righty talkers - as Ed Schultz would call them - doing on their business plans? Do their networks make a profit?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. They make a lot of money. You know, I don't think Rush - you know, Rush Limbaugh always said that - in interviews he's done with me and with other people, he talked about his desire to make his show provocative enough so that he could charge confiscatory advertising rates to his sponsors. And he assuredly has done that. He's made, you know, a ton of money over the years. Sean Hannity and Michael Savage and others have done well, as well.

And, you know, there is nothing better, in some ways, for the ideological outlets - or the personalities, in particular - than to be in a full-throated opposition. It's a little harder for conservatives, in some ways, when President Bush was in office and they had a Republican Congress, because then, at times, you have to take issue with somebody who might be closer to you on the ideological spectrum.

I talked to Victor Navasky of this. He's the, I believe, publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine, the long-respected, very old, storied, left-of-center publication, leftist publication. And he said, you know, if it's bad for the country, it's good for the nation. The magazine never did so well as when it was in opposition. And the same holds true for Rush Limbaugh and other talkers.

CONAN: Here's an emailer named Zoren(ph), who contests a comment you made earlier, David. He said, your guest mentioned it's hard to build commercial success with an ideological agenda. That is not the case with Fox News. Ideology before logic - they appear to be doing just fine.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think - and Roger Ailes is a genius at broadcasting and at political marketing, and no one should mistake. You know, he was with "The Mike Douglas Show" before he was with Richard Nixon, but he was with Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush and other leading Republicans before he was with, you know, CNBC and Fox News. And he's very, very shrewd.

One of the things that he thought saw was that there was space in the market. There was an underserved market of people who felt they were not being spoken to you by the mainstream press, the CBSs, the NPRs, the New York Timeses and, you know, all the familiar subjects. So he catered to that.

And one of the things about cable and I alluded to this before - is that you need to build the largest niche market you can. So, you know, Bill O'Reilly, on a great day, gets four million viewers in primetime. And it's that's a big audience. But that's smaller than even the least impressive audience gotten by Katie Couric on the "CBS Evening News," which is the third of three major nightly newscasts on broadcast. So, that is to say he built a very large niche audience every night.

One of the things that Ailes does is he feeds the sense of aggrievement. He feeds the sense that somehow conservatives, that people in red state, people in the non-coastal regions of the country are somehow being overlooked, and, you know, effectively insulted by the mainstream media. And by both catering to those tastes and by feeding that sense of aggrievement, he's able to cement audience loyalty both in his opinion shows in primetime, which are very popular, but also throughout the day in the other shows, as well. There are these threads that you might not see in other newscasts. And it's a smart market opportunity that feeds in ideological interest.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent. We're talking about the demise of Air America.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Jennifer on the line, Jennifer, calling us from Germantown, Illinois.

JENNIFER (Caller): Yes. Hi. I think liberals in America just cannot take the snark. I know when Air America first came on, I was I really wanted to like it. I was glad that there was a response to the right wing stuff that we're disparaged with. And then after about a week, I thought, I can't take this. It was just too combative. It was too stressful for liberal America to listen to.

I think a lot of us spend our day working in social service causes, and it is too much. I we I just can't - the snark was ridiculous. I mean, I don't think the way that they responded to the right wing stuff was acting just like they did. I don't think any of us appreciated it. It was too stressful.

CONAN: The mirror image did not quite connect with the same audience on the other side.

JENNIFER: Not at all.

CONAN: Right.

JENNIFER: Not at all.

CONAN: Thank you for...

JENNIFER: So I was I hate to say I was glad to see it go, but I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Jennifer. Thanks very much for the call.

JENNIFER: Thanks.

CONAN: And here's Anthony on email, addressing a point you made earlier, David. Air America was a nice broadcast and a good stepping stone. However, their core audience has migrated to the Internet to organize. Air America helped liberals realized there were others out there like them, but the Internet proved a faster, more inclusive and more effective way to organize their efforts. I guess he - you were talking earlier about Huffington Post and, I guess, MoveOn.org.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that your emailer and the previous caller have it exactly right. I mean, there are other outlets for that. If you want snark, you can go to Gawker or any of a hundred sites that traffic in that. If you want a devotion to liberal causes, you can see Daily Kos. You can see Talking Points Memo. You can see Huffington Post, each with a different kind of take on politics of the day, but generally from a liberal bent, some reporting at it periodically, sometimes some prominent names and faces. You know, you can read what Alec Baldwin have to say in The Huffington Post. But you can also see what, you know, their small corps of actual reporters have to say, as well, often on pursuing storylines and threads that would be most of interest to people on the political left.

CONAN: The demise of Air America is the loss of one group of broadcasters. Well, this kind of thing happens all the time. Nevertheless, David, as you look at radio as a medium, the audience for radio overall continues to dwindle.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, that's right. But, you know, as I was my first month on the media beat about a decade ago, you know, the head of a local CBS station took me aside and said, understand, our ratings will probably go down. Understand, all of broadcast ratings will probably go down. He said, we are competing for time, not just with one another, not just with other broadcast outlets, but with all the sources of entertainment, diversion, information that were out there.

So they're competing with people playing, you know, games of Second Life online. They're competing with online news sources. They're competing with the expanding number of satellite and cable channels. You know, there's no they're competing now with iPods. They're competing with anything you can think of.

So there's no end of other diversions, and they're trying to hold onto - if you hold onto your audience, you're doing well. Actually, one of the few standouts, on the whole, is public broadcasting. Public radio, in particular, does quite well. But, you know, Rush is doing very well. Conservative talkers and certain kinds of talk are doing very well. But, you know, this is all going to chip away at established mainstream media outlets.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, thanks for your time today. Appreciate it.

FOLKENFLIK: My pleasure.

CONAN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joined us from NPR West, our studios in Culver City, California.

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