Sunday, March 05, 2006

Thoughts on Air America

KXXT 1010 AM was Air America's radio home in Phoenix, featuring left of center talkers such as Al Franken, Randi Rhodes and Ed Schultz, who routinely chastise the Bush administration and rival conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
But KXXT's owners sold the station to a Christian broadcasting group last year and the station's format officially went from political talk to religious content on Wednesday.

The above is from "Air America's Phoenix affiliate drops talk format" (The Business Journal of Phoenix, March 2nd). Note that Ed Schultz is not a part of Air America. Meanwhile, rumors swirl around NYC's WLIB and they've lost an afflilate in Montana.

From Billboard's Chuck Taylor's "Krantz: Air America A-OK; O'Reilly Criticisms False" (Billboard, Feb. 28th):

Air America's ratings "went up substantially" in the Fall 2005 book and its affiliate base has grown from 36 affiliates in January 2005 to 90 across the country, including internationally on Armed Forces Radio, Krantz said.
"Financially, Air America is significantly stronger than ever," he added. "As of today, our booked and pending business for 2006 represents 83% of the entire revenue generated in 2005. We are also up to date on all of our financial obligations. Most importantly, we have a dedicated board and investors who support our business."

So what's going on? What happened in Phoenix? From The Brad Blog, a portion of a statement by former General Manager of KXXT Bob Christy:

You helped take an unrated, unprofitable AM radio station and pushed it to a tie for 3rd place out of 25 AM stations in Phoenix. You took that same AM station and made it profitable in less than a year and even after the sale was announced you stood by Air America Phoenix and we kept on making money even when our future was in doubt and we didn't know when our "plug" was going to be pulled. In fact, the last month we were on the air was the 3rd best month we've had financially!
Air America Phoenix has now disappeared into the ether and Phoenix is left with multiple Christian formats, some in English and others in Spanish, several 'brokered' time stations (you know the radio stations selling you vitamins, good bowel movements and financial advice) a bagful of right wing "Conservative Talk stations" featuring Rush, Sean, Laura, Bill Bennett, Savage, Medved and all of their local imitators, three "Sports Talk" stations that live off the largess of their sister stations in the big corporate clusters that dominate the dial in Phoenix. Is anyone enjoying Tony Snow on KTAR…did anyone ask for him?

A reader brought this to our attention (Blulady) and she takes this very seriously. Should you?

If you're a fan of the work done by Laura Flanders, Mike Malloy, Randi Rhodes, Steve Earle, Chuck D and Janine Garofalo's we think you should take it seriously.

When Air America began, there was a split on whether it should become a radio network (owning or leasing stations) or a content provider -- meaning would they own (or lease) stations or would they just make programs that they would then syndicate? It's been a mixed model from the start. They've had success with it so that's allowed them to avoid choosing one side or another.

Air America was supposed to be the answer to the likes of Limbaugh, et al. The network was talked up (as a "network") in the early stages as just that. But before it went on the air, you already has one plugger (now gone) telling the press that it wasn't going to be "liberal" but more 'left of center.'

In terms of what they chose to promote, Baby Cries a Lot, they weren't left. The left doesn't rush to salute Ronald Reagan (one clue). But there were (and are) shows (mentioned above) that did present a left perspective.

AAR has demonstrated that there is an audience for non-right-wing, commercial talk radio. By any commerical test, they are a success. In fact, the "network" has been enough of a success to interest media conglomerate Clear Channel. That actually poses some problems. As stations across the country add some Air America shows to their lineup, they avoid other ones. Ed Schultz, to repeat, is not part of Air America Radio. If you're hearing Schultz on your local "Air America," you're missing programming they actually offer. In Dallas, Eddie is enraged that Randi Rhodes and the entire schedule has been pushed back so that Schultz can air live.

And that's a concern. As stations add some (and not all) Air America programming, they pick and choose and they go for what they know. Which means women and people of color beware. Boulder's not interested in The Kyle Jason Show. (They do offer Chuck D's On the Real, as well as a show hosted by Jesse Jackson.) When AAR started up it promised some diversity in the make up. (Though no Latino or Asian hosts were part of the line up.) In the time since, we've seen Unfiltered (two White women and one African-American man) replaced with Jerry Springer (white male).

So what's the deal? We're told the deal is AAR is not going under and is not in trouble. (We were told "no comment" on WLIB so we'll wait and see like everyone else.) Which means that a "network" started with a "We can do that!" enthusiasm is hitting some of the to be expected bumps in the road but not in danger of falling off the dial. (Right-wingers boo and hiss.)

When all else fails, you do have the net . . . if you have a computer that you can listen on. But as Eddie points out, they went from listening to Randi Rhodes after softball practice (she hooked them from the first day Dallas radio carried her -- and Eddie adds that it was a nice touch for her to play the theme to the TV show Dallas) to listening later or online.

"She's the perfect person for the two to six slot," Eddie told us. "It's the end of the day, everyone's lagging and even the boss says 'Turn her up!' because we all kind of wake up when she's on. And when you're hitting five o'clock traffic, especially on a hot day, you need someone like that. Now we've got Ed Schultz and he's not doing it. I don't want to be stuck in traffic in Schultz. He doesn't make me laugh, he doesn't find the thing that everyone else misses the way Randi does."

But more troubling to Eddie was the fact that co-workers and friends lost interest when Schultz was given Rhodes timeslot and Rhodes was pushed back.

"It was the thing to do, listen to Randi. Now she's coming on when people are sitting down in front of their TVs. I think the change was a big mistake because not only are people not listening to Randi as much at the later time, they're also not interested in Schultz. Randi's this voice that comes out swinging and still makes you laugh. Schultz is like Rush's twin. It's like, 'Will you ever shut up? Do you know how to do anything with your voice beside boom-boom-boom?' He just turns people off."

Now "conventional wisdom" would have it that Schultz would be a natural fit for the Dallas, Texas area. He's a former football player and the area is home to the Dallas Cowboys. But Gina and Krista were kind enough to ask for input on Air America Friday in their gina & krista round-robin and the e-mails poured in. Billie and 12 other listeners in the DFW area wrote to complain, as Eddie does above, that they've screwed up the entire line up by moving Randi Rhodes.

And that's a concern because if ideas are going to have traction, they need to be heard.

"The beauty salon I go to, a Black business, would have Randi on," Billie explained. "We all thought she was a trip. We just thought, okay, White woman, yes, but she gets it. They tried playing Schultz at first, when he took over Randi's spot, but most of the women found him too scary."

Did Billie ever listen to talk radio prior to Air America?

"No, because in my area, it's all right wing. Even the sports radio is that way. They'll have a wimpy Alan Colmes type on, say, The Ticket, and he'll make sure that everyone knows he's more of a libertarian than an actual Democrat. He'll pretend to disagree with the right-wing, Bush loving host but he'll lose every time. And you get the idea he was only picked because he has a high, squeaky voice and makes the Democrats sound bad everytime he speaks."

So ideally, Air America has the opportunity to extend not only ideas but sources. The male strangehold on talk radio could be dealt with. We're not really sure who's served with nine hours of males in a row (Springer, Baby Cries a Lot and Schultz). We're not sure that many could stomach that. We also think that the juggling by some stations carrying AAR programs results from the fact that the "network" has pushed Baby Cries a Lot at the expense of all other shows.

But it's not just Baby Cries a Lot, and it's not just paid advertising. In their most recent newsletter (Feb. 28th, "Marc Maron Returns, see Sam Live!"), they mention four males and two females. And "Maddow." Rachel Maddow (whom none of us are a fan of) is "Maddow" in the newsletter "join Maddow." Who? Sam Seder's name is all over, as is Marc Maron's. Rachel Maddow, mentioned only once, is "Maddow."

When, as Baby Cries a Lot did, you make the Grateful Dead your exclusive bumper music, you're sending out a message. Martha wrote that she washed her hands of the show early on because the message was clear to her, "Blacks and women, and women who are Black, not welcome." By the same token, when a newsletter is e-mailed, whether AAR intendes for readers to walk away with a message or not, impressions are created. All pictured are White. Three are guests, Robin Wright Penn, Annabelle Gurwitch and Norma Mailer. The other three, Joe Conason (guest host for Baby Cries a Lot), Sam Seder and Marc Maron.

Besides bringing back Maron, they've added another show to the lineup with another White male host, State of Belief hosted by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy. Presumably, someone thought, "We need a religious show!" and the natural choice for a host was Gaddy. There are problems, no question.

One of the hopes of Air America was that it would inform by reaching out to people who didn't listen to talk radio. Why didn't they listen? For some, it was because they didn't feel that their views were reflected, they didn't feel represented. AAR could do a great deal more to demonstrate representation and inclusion. They could also book more guests who were non-White, non-male. What's the current ratio during the daytime hours of the week? Two males for every woman? Three males for every woman? (We won't break down race because that's even dicier.)

The e-mails were primarily about Baby Cries a Lot, how irritating he was and how his guests tended to annoy. Portland seemed to sum it up best when he asked, "Why use the talking heads that are already on Fox, MSNBC and CNN? You'd think it would be book heavy from the left to demonstrate that there are left voices who are left out."

So there are problems with the "network" but Air America, for all its highs and lows, goes on. It doesn't go in Phoenix where its success allowed a struggling station to suddenly have a higher market value. Is there anything AAR could have done to prevent that loss?

That would probably require that they have a model and make decisions about whether they want to be a network or a content provider. But from the start, they're attitude has been, "We can do that!" The enthusiasm has carried them along so far and they have had many highs. Losing WLIB in NYC would be a huge blow but they lost Chicago early on and survived that.

But as long as they're a content provider, they'll have to expect to lose stations (even when they're doing well in the ratings) and to have the schedules mixed up. For listners, this is very frustrating. Blulady was very distressed and we understand where she's coming from. It is a blow when a community loses a station. The change in programming left Eddie bothered but he was able to listen to Randi online and ignore Schultz. Not everyone has that option.

We could make requests of AAR (like more diversity in guests -- Laura Flanders shouldn't be the only one aware that the world isn't all White and male). But in terms of how they should go about their off air business, they seem to know what they're doing, or luck into it. They've been written off repeatedly, even before they ever broadcast. So they're either the luckiest people under the sun or they have some idea of how to play the game.

But if they'd read Blulady's e-mail, they'd also grasp that one of their most loyal fans is very troubled by the actions in Pheonix and the rumors surrounding WLIB's impending status. Suggestion, they might want to tap into those dedicated listeners. Phoenix had an audience. It shouldn't be all that hard to convince another station in the area to take on programming that took a station from last place to third in so short a time.
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