A year ago March, Air America, the liberal/progressive talk-radio network, took off from New York into the wild blue yonder with an HBO documentary film crew in the cockpit and a mighty blast of publicity acting as a tail wind. The craft was barely airborne before it hit turbulence. Its Los Angeles and Chicago outlets pulled the plug on the fledgling network over money squabbles. Paychecks were late, rumors abounded, the original set of pilots left, to be replaced by others. The plane, it turned out, had been allowed to take off with an insufficient fuel load–meaning working capital–and was going to have to be refueled in midflight, never an easy operation.
The frail craft, though buffeted by violent winds and sudden air pockets, stayed aloft. Now flying into its second year, Air America says it has enough new investor money to stay airborne at least until we hear otherwise. Stations in some fifty cities are broadcasting the network’s programming nineteen hours every weekday with repeats and additional programming on the weekends.
As of this writing Air America is still not yet back on the air in Chicago, but it has returned to Los Angeles, where, given the number of very rich, very liberal people, silence would have been next to fatal. When asked about what it cost to return to Los Angeles, Danny Goldberg, Air America’s new CEO, did a small leap over the question and replied, “We’re certainly going to spend a lot less money to get profitability than Rupert Murdoch spent to launch Fox News or the New York Post. It’s not going to cost as much money to get a self-sustaining vehicle on the left as it did on the right, but it costs some money to start a new business, whether it’s ideological or nonideological.”
Goldberg, who comes to the network after a long career in the music business, predicts Air America will start taking in more than it’s paying out by the end of 2006, a tall order if it has to buy its way onto stations in other major metro areas. The most common arrangement in the industry is that a syndicator or, in this instance, a network supplies the programming in return for which a station allots it a certain amount of air time for broadcasting whatever ads it can sell. However, Air America is half business, half crusade and thus cannot be judged by conventional measures.
Goldberg himself is part businessman and part red-hot. He is not one of your modern mumbling liberals who isn’t sure he wants people to know what his opinions are. He shouts them with a self-assured truculence. “To some establishment Democrats, it is people like me who have screwed up the party,” he says. “I was against the war in Iraq, and I met with and supported Howard Dean in the early stages of the primary campaign. I have been involved with political fundraising concerts, I’m an ACLU board member and I’m a friend of Michael Moore. To me, it is the conventional wisdom prevailing in Washington that has screwed up the party.”
Regardless of who screwed up what, Air America has some building to do before it becomes a business success or a political force. Before April, when Jerry Springer, the redoubtable TV personality, became one of Air America’s barking seals, Al Franken, the network’s star personality, had been on fewer than 10 percent of the number of stations carrying Rush Limbaugh. Springer could cause the number of network affiliates to jump, but some think Air America will still struggle as long as it tries to be a lefty network instead of a lefty syndicator. “Ultimately syndicating individual shows is the way it works. Networks are not a viable method of dealing in the radio broadcasting industry with talk shows,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine and the wise old owl of the business.