The Astounding Success of Air America Radio

When it comes to Air America Radio, I am hardly a fanboi (I reserve my radio fanboi luv for Robin Ophelia Quivers). I have in fact been often critical of the network and its obsession with one-man-one-mic programming, its abandonment of the Winstead Doctrine, and its baffling programming decision to cast management as talent. And let’s not even get into how the network manhandled The Goddess. For that alone, no liberal listener could be blamed for boycotting Air America Radio for the duration.

However, today I would like to mark a milestone and to discuss the astounding success of Air America Radio:

Fox News Channel said popular cable TV host Bill O’Reilly will step down as the host of his syndicated talk radio show early next year.

“The Radio Factor” — which began in 2002 and runs on more than 400 radio stations, as well as satellite operator Sirius XM Radio Inc. — will end in the first quarter of 2009, Fox said late Thursday.

In a statement, O’Reilly said the workload has become too much, adding, “I can no longer give both TV and radio the time they deserve.”

O’Reilly will continue hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on the Fox News Channel and writing his weekly newspaper column.

I wish I could write that Bill O’Reilly’s departure from the air means abject failure. But I can find no evidence of it. Radio ratings are difficult to track down, and, by what accounts I can find, Bill-O may actually have had some listeners. But, there is victory, regardless: Bill-O will no longer broadcast on the radio, and Air America Radio, which he denegrated mercilessly—though I suspect that was more driven by a personal cock-off with soon-to-be Senator Al Franken—does still broadcast. No matter how the fact comes down, it is: We’re paper, motherfucker, and you’re rock. Take that, you big giant Ted Baxter head.

O’Reilly was among many of conservagoat talkers who premptively predicted and prayed for AAR’s immediate failure. I always thought it was a strange and telling aspect of that mindset. It wasn’t just that they disagreed with the ideas espoused at AAR. It was that they couldn’t even stand the mere thought that AAR was allowed to exist, that its broadcast day, whether they were listening or not, was enough to make the big forehead vein pop out. It was this that led me to one of my most basic dictionary definitions:

A liberal is somebody who, when he first encounters Voltaire’s declaration that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” gets misty-eyed and says, “That’s beautiful.” A conservative is somebody who, when he first encounters the quote, clenches his fist and says, “Who’s this Voltaire faggot?”

They were nearly granted their wish when a month or so in it became apparent that its primary financial backer, Evan Montvel Cohen, didn’t have nearly as much money behind the deal as he said he did. The initial stumble had nothing to do with ratings, content, advertising, or actual success or failure, but these morons were just ass-first in the schadenfreude punch bowl over it nonetheless. The great fear of the liberal listener was that Air America Radio, even with all its good press and all its celebrity power and all of its quality programming (it did have quality programming once) would merely serve to prove the O’Reillys of the universe right, that liberal ideas could not compete in the intellectual marketplace, that liberal talk could not entertain and hold ears, and that it certainly couldn’t sell ads.

It is a shame AAR had to suffer that initial stumble (documented so nicely in the documentary Left Of The Dial) because it immediately stunted the network’s initial creative impulse and made it abandon the directive that the shows needed to be entertaining first and politically biting second (the aforementioned “Winstead Doctrine”). It forced the network to the mantra, “we’re a business, we have to act like a business.” Evan Cohen stole the soul of AAR; he was, most certainly, this tale’s Grinch.

My theory of radio is that there have been three innovative models created in the past 50 years: NPR, Rush Limbaugh, and Howard Stern. I know I sound like a curmudgeon, still today bemoaning the loss of Morning Sedition, but that show understood that you could steal a bit from each of these models and spin radio gold. No show AAR has created since—hell, no show that radio has created since—has even come close to establishing this aesthetic. It’s a damned shame.

AAR’s continued insistence on thrashing and wrecking its best products is nothing new in radio nor in corporate America, and at AAR, it was virulent and chronic no matter who was CEO. Recent examples of this: Its inability to retain funnyman Kent Jones of the The Rachel Maddow Show, who is still missed sorely on that show, and the previously mentioned beat-down of smoky Brooklynite Randi Rhodes. It is this self-destructive tendency through the years that leads me to characterize the network’s continued success as “astounding.”

By my count, Air America Radio currently has 47 affiliates. This is down severely from the network’s heyday, when I think they broadcasted on about 100 affiliates. Yet it survives. It suffered Evan Cohen, who also screwed AAR by embroiling it in a scandal involving the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club, it suffered bankruptcy, it suffered the departure of all of its initial big-name talent. And yet, today, I can still tune in and hear liberal talk. It survives, while Bill-O abandons his air. That is an astounding success.

But, wait. There’s more. Air America Radio has been astoundingly successful in another way entirely, that is, in educating its listeners.

Before AAR went on the air, I knew of one, maybe two liberal talkers. I had always assumed that, if I wanted radio as I drove to New York or Pennsylvania, I’d have to settle for El Rushbo or for WGOD. Now I know differently, and I know that if AAR bites it tomorrow, I can still seek and find liberal talk. I can podcast. I can use satellite and Internet radio, and I know who the talkers are now. AAR has permanently altered the methods by which I consume media. This is a tremendous and lasting success for the network, one that no conservagoat yapper can ever take away.

And I think it’s no coincidence, by the way, that political liberalism is seeing a resurgence. I believe that the resurgence, the election results of 2006 and 2008, are driven partly by the fact that there have been liberals on the radio for five years (in March). I have no empirical evidence of this. But anecdotally, you must admit that we are better represented in the media than we were five years ago or so. You do see Katrina Vanden Heuvel on the TV a lot more often these days, don’t you?

This is due in part to the greatest and most surprising success of Air America Radio, the birth of its ultimate rock star, the disarming, brainy charmer of a woman called Rachel Maddow, who made it to television long before I had predicted in this space. If Air America Radio was solely created for the lone purpose of introducing Maddow to a national audience, if that alone was the network’s deliberate, stated purpose, then it would have been enough. Maddow’s ascendence is the crowning achievement of AAR; its single most important contribution, a rube in experience who held her own fiercely in the marathon of cable news election coverage, a pundit who is so utterly good that Matthews and Gregory and the whole lot of them are pissing themselves. Who knew such a personality could be discovered on a whacky little morning show with Chuck “The Rhyme Animal” D and Lizz Winstead?

Now, I know there are other talkers other than those at the network of the Greens, and I must tip my hat to the likes of Big Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller, and now Randi Rhodes at Nova M, all of who have my ear at some point of every week. But, like it or not, all of them and their independent deals owe quite a lot to Air America Radio, which grabbed the attention and was big enough to convert a couple of random talkers out in outer space into a bona fide genre. And, I have to yet again point out that Bill O’Reilly is quitting radio while Air America Radio continues to broadcast. Nyah.

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