January of 2010 marked a number of anniversaries, ranging from the notable to the negligible. Barack Obama marked one year in office and the deadline he set for closing Guantanamo Bay came and went with a curious lack of closure. The Democratic Senate supermajority expired like milk sitting for too long in the refrigerator. And with far less fanfare, Air America Radio shuttered the windows, turned off the lights, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
The network which had billed itself as the progressive movement’s answer to Rush Limbaugh had gone on the air in early 2004, immediately skyrocketing to previously unseen levels of audience share and cultural influence. Well … at least you’d have thought it did if all you listened to was their promotional spots, which aired constantly in place of advertisement slots that nobody was purchasing. As the New York Post pointed out on the occasion of AA’s demise, their ambitions were probably thwarted from the start by the star power they attracted for their lineup.
Leading them off on the non-hit parade was Al Franken, who the management assumed would come with a built-in audience. Franken had serious name recognition from his days on Saturday Night Live, and while most regular readers of this space will likely disagree, he was — on occasion — a funny guy. But one thing he was not was a radio guy. Following Al they had Janeane Garofalo, who had been a mostly underground success as a stand-up comic in the bigger urban areas. She loved to talk about politics, but she had a screeching, nails-on-blackboard voice and a tendency to fly off into incomprehensible obscenities any time she attempted to discuss George W. Bush. This certainly held some mostly unintentional humorous value, but it didn’t make for very good radio.
One of the real surprises probably turned out to be Rachel Maddow. She had a great voice and a very camera-friendly face for promotional shots and public appearances. While veering about as far to the left as one could imagine, she almost always maintained a steady stream of patter and handled herself quite well. Too well, as it turned out, because she was one of their only serious talents when she walked out the door to take up more fiscally promising digs at MSNBC.
One of the biggest problems for Air America seemed to be that they spent more time fending off rumors of their impending doom than building an audience. That, combined with their inability to pick up national outlets for their feed, made them more a topic of political discussion than a source of it. But given the popular theme of their message, how did it all go so wrong?