One of the big stories in the radio industry on Friday was that Air America has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. That doesn’t mean they’re going off the air, but it certainly isn’t good.
I’ve known all along that Air America wasn’t going to succeed, and it has nothing to do with it being liberal. The problem was that its first priority was its political agenda, instead of good broadcasting.
Most of the people they hired to do shows had very little (if any) radio experience. You don’t start what you hope will be a national network by putting on hosts who have never had any success in the medium. You’d think was an easy mistake to avoid, but failures through the years from Mario Cuomo to David Lee Roth prove that Air America was not the only company making it.
Radio is not a starter kit.
I know a little something about this, because it’s what I’ve been doing for a living my entire adult life. Most people don’t consider us very far up the show business ladder (on a good day, we get slightly more respect than carnies and circus clowns), but that doesn’t mean that anyone with a mouth is qualified to be on the air. Just because you can talk cleverly at cocktail parties, or in speeches, or in the guest chair on someone else’s show for a few minutes, does not mean you’ll be able to handle the pressure of coming up with several hours of entertainment and information every day, five days a week.
When Air America started, they hired all sorts of writers and producers and political insiders — they thought they could fill the air time with wacky sketches. One of the people involved in that, and on the air, was Lizz Winstead. She’s known for exactly one successful thing, “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central — and it didn’t become a major success until long after she’d left (following a run-in with then-host Craig Kilborn), and it morphed into its current buzz-creating version thanks to Jon Stewart. On Air America, Winstead bombed.
So did most of the other hosts, with the exception of Al Franken and Randi Rhodes. Franken won’t be there much longer, having moved to Minnesota to start running for the Senate in 2008. That won’t be a major loss, because even my most liberal friends find his Air America show exceedingly boring and have already given up on it.
Does this mean that liberal radio hosts can’t succeed? Not at all. There are a couple out there who are slowly developing an audience, including Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller, neither of whom is on Air America. And then there are those wacky morning shows all across the country that aren’t obsessed with political firefights, but who probably tilt a little more to the left than to the right, particularly on social issues. The difference is that they’re more concerned with entertainment than propaganda.
If you were starting a new restaurant chain, and hoping to have outlets in every major city in America, you probably wouldn’t hire a staff of people whose only experience was eating out on a regular basis. You’d want chefs and waiters who had not only worked in the food service business before, but were good at it. So why would anyone believe that model could work in radio?
Air America isn’t alone in traveling this woeful path. There’s a new group called Greenstone Media that’s trying to develop radio that will appeal to a female demographic. It’s backed by an all-star group of rich and famous women who, again, have no idea what makes good radio, but they’ll pony up millions of dollars nonetheless.
Meanwhile, there are dozens of successful radio hosts on the air right now — getting ratings, creating buzz in their towns, making the phones ring and hitting the target demo — who would love to have the opportunity to take their shows national (please note that this is not my way of begging for a syndicated show, as I’m very happy doing what I do every afternoon), but there’s no one offering them anything.
Instead, that deal was given to Whoopi Goldberg. I rest my case.