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?
AA would never be expected to hit it big in the Bible Belt, but they were launching in an era when the popularity of the Iraq war and the Bush administration in general was beginning to seriously plummet. Given that the entirety of their programming schedule was a drumbeat of criticism on those subjects, one would expect that the listeners would have come flocking, even if the talent of the on air personalities wasn’t exactly up to Jim White standards.
Some of their defenders claimed that it simply came down to generational and societal differences in their target audience as compared to the well established conservative talk radio giants. Conservatives, they reasoned, listened to the radio as they sat in their cars, chomping on cigars, and shouting at the hippies on the sidewalk. Liberals were the MTV generation, more into video — and increasingly the internet — for both their entertainment and news. The market, they reasoned, simply didn’t exist.
Before we dismiss such a claim, it’s worth noting that the example could be carried over to traditional news and opinion television. When thinking of potential audience share, progressives mustered enough people to carry more than 50% of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. That should translate into a fairly big listener base if we look at nothing more than ideological preferences. And yet Fox News Channel continues to be one of the most successful outlets while MSNBC struggles to maintain an audience larger than reruns of Iron Chef America on the Food Network. So where were progressives going for their news and political entertainment? You can only fill up so many hours of the day reading Daily Kos and Democratic Underground.
In the end, perhaps Rush Limbaugh was right after all when he diagnosed Air America shortly after their launch. He declared that before you could build and hold an audience you had to entertain them. Air America had the right message for the audience they were trying to reach. They ranted and raved, screeched and bellowed. They put a name to the demons they viewed as destroying the country they loved and waited for an audience to sing along and advertisers to pour in their dollars as a show of unity. But they didn’t entertain. They didn’t engage. There was no progressive field of dreams waiting for them in radioland. The owners did not build it, and they did not come.