Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Air That We Breathe
The only thing I ever seriously wanted to be in my life was a radio guy, from the time I was 11 years old. I got over it, though. Now, I've been out of the business on a full-time basis (10 years) almost as long as I was in it (12 years). I used to miss it some, but I don't miss it much at all anymore. The industry I fell in love with as a kid is not the same one that exists today. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, it's a long, plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run wild and good men die like dogs. Nevertheless, I do miss radio a little right now. That's because tomorrow is launch day for Air America, the new liberal talk-radio network. Although I was never a talk show host, I'd like to be a part of this. The network has hired some funny, opinionated people as its on-air hosts--Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, rapper Chuck D., and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead--as well as a dozen comedy writers to keep the material flowing. It's a promising lineup (although some of the programming announced for off-hours and weekends sounds pretty snore-inducing, exactly like a conservative parody of what liberal talk would be). The goal is to create an alternative to the gazillion hours of conservative bilge pumped over the airwaves every day.

Honesty compels me to observe that the odds against Air America's success are pretty steep, though. For one thing, many liberals have a congenital need to see varying points of view, which works against one of the cardinal rules of successful talk--the need for a host to have a consistent point of view, and to always give listeners what they expect. Also, it might be argued, we liberals are out in the world doing things with our days instead of sitting home in a bunker reading Guns and Ammo and listening to AM radio. And some liberals shun commercial media altogether (how many conservatives do you know who claim to listen only to NPR and don't own a TV set?).

Other challenges facing Air America include skepticism about how many advertisers will want to get on a network that might suggest now and then that unfettered capitalism is not necessarily a good idea. And you can bet that the conservative attack machine will whip up mail, fax, and phone campaigns against advertisers who do get on board, and against radio stations daring to carry the network.

Air America is gaining clearances mostly in major markets--it will be on the air on small stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis tomorrow. It will also be on satellite radio from coast to coast. The Air America website makes no mention of streaming audio over the Internet, but let's hope they do, for those of us in places that can't hear it. (No Madison station has plans to carry it at the moment. It's been reported that one of the major investors is a Madisonian, but his/her identity is unknown.)

It's hard to imagine Air America ever gaining much of a foothold outside urban areas, though. By its very nature, it seems unlikely to fly in places like Liberal, Kansas, or Rushville, Illinois, where the number of interested listeners would never reach critical mass. In the end, Air America isn't going to find success by shaving off slices of the conservative-dominated talk-radio pie. Its listeners will have to come from that portion of the population not already listening to talk, or those not listening to the radio at all.

All of us liberal types have a stake in the success of Air America--if it fails, the triumphant chortling from Rush, Liddy, O'Reilly, and the rest will be audible without a radio. As annoying as that would be, what's worse is that the network's failure would be perceived as mass public rejection of liberalism. Even though that's too much to lay on something like a radio network, perception is reality, especially after a trip through the echo chamber.

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