By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Air America ≠ liberal talk

The Boston Herald’s Jesse Noyes today makes the mistake of confusing Air America with liberal talk radio, and of concluding that because Air America is (once again) in trouble, liberal talk must therefore be dead.

I’ve also got my doubts about liberal talk. But you can’t think this through without acknowledging the success of liberal hosts who aren’t with Air America — principally Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller, both of whom are on the Jones Radio Networks. According to this Jones press release, Schultz is doing especially well against the likes of Sean Hannity.

Clear Channel’s weak-signal “Progressive Talk” outlets in Boston, at AM 1200 and 1430, are often described as Air America outlets. In fact, the stations broadcast Miller from 9 a.m. to noon and Schultz during the afternoon drive, from 3 to 6 p.m. (Air America’s Al Franken is on from noon to 3 p.m.) And they’re pretty good.

Now, granted, we’re not talking Rush Limbaugh numbers. According to Talkers Magazine, Schultz has more than 2.25 million listeners, Franken more than 1.5 million and Miller more than 1 million, well behind Limbaugh’s 13.5 million-plus listeners. But their audiences are, nevertheless, large, and they’re not the only liberal hosts in that category: Air America’s Randi Rhodes (who’s well to the left of liberal) and Fox’s Alan Colmes make the cut as well. (Note: The Talkers numbers are out of date, but Schultz regularly asserts that his audience is growing. I assume he’s telling the truth.)

As for my reservations about liberal talk — I think liberals already have the radio they want, and it’s called National Public Radio. Please note what I am not saying: I don’t believe NPR has a liberal bias in the way it covers news. But you can detect something of a liberal cultural orientation to NPR, and I think NPR’s mix of news, commentary and the arts is good enough that the typical liberal listener is not going to be all that tempted to change the dial.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a few strong liberal talk hosts. And it doesn’t mean that Air America’s woes say anything all that significant about the state of liberal talk.

Update: Jesse Noyes writes:

Thanks for weighing in on my story today. I always enjoy lively debate.

There was one thing I wanted to bring to you attention. I disagree with the line at the top of your post: “The Boston Herald’s Jesse Noyes today makes the mistake of confusing Air America with liberal talk radio, and of concluding that because Air America is (once again) in trouble, liberal talk must therefore be dead.”

While I do deal with the subject of whether there is a market for liberal radio, I far from conclude that Air America’s problems signal the death of liberal talk radio. I deal with a number of issues for Air America in the story. For one, that Air America just isn’t using a good business model as these lines attest. “But Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, said Air America’s woes have little to do with its political bent and everything to do with the company’s business sense. ‘Somehow they have created the impression that they are the lone voice of liberalism in a dark sea of conservatism,’ Harrison said. ‘It’s not that they’re liberal, it’s that it’s radio and radio is very, very competitive.’ The network’s main problem is that it spends more time trying to affect elections than it does concentrating on the bottom line, Harrison said. ‘The ultimate business plan is to generate ratings and revenue, not to get anybody elected,’ he added.”

Then I address an issue of whether its just a talent problem and if there’s enough experienced hands on deck over there. Quote: “A shortage of real radio talent might also be keeping Air America in the red. When the company launched, it nabbed some recognizable figures, like Franken and actress Janeane Garofalo. But radio can have a way of breaking down some uninitiated celebrities, as David Lee Roth’s disastrous stint replacing jock Howard Stern for CBS Radio demonstrated.”

Finally, I deal with weak signals. Quote: “Meanwhile, the network suffers from serious signal deficiencies. Most of its affiliated stations are found on weak AM frequencies. In Boston, Air America programming is broadcast on WKOX-AM (1200) and WXKS-AM (1430), which barely register a blip on Arbitron ratings figures.”

In conclusion, Air America’s problems are myriad. One problem might not sink the ship, but taken together its doesn’t look good. To say that I’m making one argument, that there isn’t room for liberal talk, is a rather simplistic reading of the article.

To which I say:

  1. OK, point taken.
  2. But you could have mentioned that the most popular liberal host in the country isn’t even on Air America.
  3. I didn’t say you ignored the weak-signal problem. But since you mention it, why not mention that AM 1200 and 1430 actually broadcast Jones shows, not Air America, during the majority of the daylight hours, when their signals are the strongest?
  4. Thanks for writing.

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  1. mike from norwell

    Air America’s problems locally are much more a function of their incredibly weak radio signals in the Boston area than anything else. Let’s face it: there’s probably a bigger market around here than say Waco Texas. But it takes money to play in the big leagues (ie 50,000 watt stations). If I have to jump between two signals and put with an insane amount of static, forget it. I did try listening when it first came on the air, but once you hit Braintree going south it was unlistenable in my car. And we won’t even talk about when the sun goes down; hard to draw ratings that way.I remember when the Celtics decided in the 90s to jump ship from WEEI and ended up over at 1510am. At the time I was living in Westwood; once you got to Medfield, might as well been listening to a white noise machine. I could actually get the FAN in from New York better than that signal.To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if they can’t listen, they won’t come…

  2. Don

    Isn’t it interesting that Jesse Noyes enjoys a lively debate, but Katie Couric wants to censor Bill Maher?

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    Dan,Thanks for the measured comment on NPR. Well put. Also, the NPR outlets have had their locations on the dial forever, usually strong signals on the left (ahem!)side of the dial. Inertia is powerful.

  4. Donna Halper

    And just to show how rumours start, I tracked back the (alleged) quote from Al Franken about Air America’s finances and his paycheck being late– he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that yes his paycheck was late– one week late. Not exactly a major critis, but certainly an inconvenience. Too many people on the right seem all to eager to see progressive radio fail. I find that a puzzling attitude, given that our democracy depends on having BOTH sides of issues available. Oh and much as I love Dan’s columns, I disagree about NPR being a substitute for liberal radio. Thanks to pressure from the Bush Administration, NPR has gotten much more pro-Bush and much less confrontational over this administration’s policies over the past several years. We DO need a truly progressive voice, whether it comes from AAR, Jones, or whoever.

  5. Steve

    NPR an equal for left wing talk? For me, sometimes yes, sometimes no. On balance, I’d miss Boston progressive talk (which does NOT equal “Air America”) if it were gone.I enjoy the whole discussion – you both have good points, and the question is one of focus rather than fact. I’m sorry Herald readers are only seeing the initial article, though.Since the whole argument revolves around the audience, the only thing I can contribute is my experience. The question for me (a card-carrying Democratic left of centerish sort of person) is, what do I – as a Boston area liberal listener – listen to?Point for Dan – Boston Progressive Talk is NOT Air America. Almost all of what I like is covered by Jones network, not “Air America” proper.At morning drive time, I *loved* Rachel Maddow for her wit and Kent Jones, but now they’re not there. I mourn. Grrr. Now, I guess I’ll listen to ‘BUR or ‘ERS, and podcast Rachel from last night. I can’t stomach Stephanie Miller. Or whatever 680 has on. Or whatever 850 has on. Or 1030 – not entertaining.In the morning, I can’t stand Stephanie Miller (Jones network). I’d try to listen to a Lydon show. Or I’d listen to On Point (it’s ASHBROOK I hate interrupting, not Lydon, as I opined before). Springer was a distant third, so I’m not sorry to see him go. (My prior favorite in this time slot is Gene Burns, BTW – I still miss him.) ‘BUR wins this with me.Franken is entertaining. Well sometimes not – a lot of the humor doesn’t translate to radio or interview formats (but some of it does). But the guests he has are first-rate, and his interviewing is, on-balance, positive. And I prefer him to my previous fave in this time slot, Jerry Williams, may he rest in peace. There may yet be a fair amount of similarity between these two, by the way.I usually don’t change to Talk of the Nation (an interim favorite). So progressive talk wins.After Franken, well, it’s endure Randi for an hour (she’s usually got too much demagogic mixed in with the funny) until ATC.In evening drive time, I’ll prefer Schultz over ATC a lot of the time. Or even – guilty pleasure – the Whiner Line! There – my liberal cred is shot. But only during baseball and football season.

  6. Brian Maloney

    The Air America bankruptcy report came from Think Progress, a left-wing website. The call to retract the false story came from my (conservative) site. And yet I’ve seen many liberal blogs blame the bankruptcy story on the right over the past few days. But it just isn’t true. And yes, MOST liberal talk shows do come from Air America. Only a few do not, and of those, only two could be called even moderately successful: Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller. Both are fairly middle-of-the-road and are syndicated by Jones instead of AAR.We’re not against the idea of liberal talk, the point of my site’s coverage is to refute the constant cheerleading and inaccurate reporting on the subject by the Globe, NYT, WaPo, and others.Blaming Air America’s clearly inept management alone isn’t going to cover for the fact that left-wing talk radio just doesn’t have mass appeal. Many other liberals attempted libtalk before Air America and not one could pull it off. AAR has tried a number of people and poured at least $60 – 80 million into this effort so far.Blaming the coverage doesn’t work either- some conservative stations do well with weak signals, while others are lucky enough to have strong ones.

  7. raccoonradio

    Maybe it doesn’t reach the suburbs too well, but doesn’t WXKS at least reachmuch of Boston/Cambridge/Somervillefrom that stick nr Kiss-108?If the likes of WRKO felt they could get good ratings with Steph Miller instead of John DePetro, Franken instead ofRush, and Schulz instead of Howie they could have changed to prog-talk (offering to put those shows on a better signal). Steph actually used to be on ‘RKO awhile back. Instead, Entercom chooses to make money.Say! Doesn’t the Boston Phoenixown a radio station? Why not runFranken on…Air America 101.7! 🙂

  8. tony schinella

    The flip of all this would be to look at all the conservative talkers who fail. There are a slew of them in the dump heap of “former talk show host …” even though they had big money backing them or a big network backing them. Oliver North and Alan Keyes come to mind right away. There are a slew of other wannabes over the years who thought they could just come up with $50k to buy some bird time and then, poof, they would be Limboob. Thought wrong.

  9. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    Miller is the best hope for a liberal host. liberal outrage doesn’t work like conservative outrage works, since the right-wingers sound like a parody when they get worked up — they’re entertaining, to a degree, in their venom. Liberals getting worked sounds like policy wonks on speed..

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Brian — Ed Schultz (Jones) is the #1 liberal talk-show host, by quite a lot. Stephanie Miller (Jones) is #3. So when you say “most” liberal talk shows come from Air America, that’s really an irrelevant observation.Raccoon — AM 1200 and 1430 have a relatively decent signal in Greater Boston during the daylight hours, but their licenses require them to cut back their power at night. You can barely get it on Route 128, where I live. So when Clear Channel finally drops “Progressive Talk,” we can look forward to stories about how liberal talk didnt work in Boston, even though it was never given a realistic chance.WRKO management is extremely unhappy with ratings. I have no idea whether ‘RKO would succeed with liberal talk, but it ain’t succeeding with conservative talk. What matters in this town is *sports* talk.Steve brings up a good point. I mentioned NPR specifically, but what about public radio in general? In Boston, we can listen to talk shows hosted by Christopher Lydon on WGBH and Tom Ashbrook on WBUR. I would not be surprised if ‘BUR at some point added a local talk show to its lineup. Robin Young hosts a news-and-interview show as well. Lydon’s show is pretty frankly liberal (although conservatives are certainly heard), and Ashbrook’s is basically moderate to liberal.What may be the real fallacy here is the notion that liberals want talk radio that is a mirror image of conservative talk. That’s certainly not what I want, which is why I was initially put off by Ed Schultz, whose voice and speaking style bear a superficial resemblance to Rush Limbaugh’s. (I’ve since learned to like him more.)

  11. Anonymous

    WRKO’s problem is deeper than ratings. The people I know who listen to it blame all of the world’s problems on Bill Clinton and the Liberals in Congress. Unfortunately for them (and the WRKO hosts) the Republican party controls all branches of government. They’re as much dinosaurs as the “out of touch liberals” they mock. Times have changed; they haven’t. It’s BORING.See Hatlo’s “commentary” for more examples.

  12. mike from norwell

    I still remember National Lampoon’s parody site (which has now disappeared). They had a “click” button to listen to Air America that started out with garbled clips from the actual station, then a bunch of static, then marachi music. Anyone dismissing coverage and weak signal problems doesn’t get it (unless you’re focusing your efforts on that all-important drive time area comprising Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston proper – loads of car commuters in that area – unless you think that someone driving into the city will change over for the last few minutes of their commute when they get in range). If I can’t listen to a reasonably strong signal in my car AND not have to jump to two different weak AM stations in the course of commute, why bother? Air America isn’t commercially viable right now given what most folks in the area can receive (and I in Norwell, nor Rick in Duxbury have no shot of getting any sort of legible signal from their station).

  13. raccoonradio

    Yes I have heard that WRKO doesn’t do well in the 25-54 ratings (which I have no direct access to), but they do well in the 12 +…WTKK does half-decently with mostly conservative talk on a fairly-easy-to-receive FM signal. As forAAR, most people listen to talk shows during the day anyway, though certainly the next few months will be tough for libtalk fans, given the sunset power-downs and even shutoffs mandated by the FCC. (Which is what listeners in Burlington VT have to now endure, since AAR is now on a “daytimer” signal there).And yes there have been some conservative talkers who have failed and the Salem stations (like WTTT)traditionally don’t do well with it.Psst: WWZN 1510 and WILD 1090 (daytime only) are both for sale. Maybe AARcould wind up there (but again, signal problems…)

  14. John Galt

    Air America Radio has, from its inception, suffered from a terminal intellectual vacancy in the executive suite. The idea was rich in possibilities, but sank like a stone under exceptionally poor management.I doubt talk radio serves any purpose whatever other than feeding the mental masturbation of the feeble.

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