While everyone was still yammering about the significance of Republican Scott Brown's remarkable victory in Massachusetts, another significant defeat for the American left went virtually unnoticed as Air America Radio shut down forever on Thursday. After trying to operate on a model which was clearly incapable of attracting affiliates, listeners or advertisers and without further infusions of cash from wealthy sympathizers, the management faced up to economic reality and finally gave up.
Air America was founded in 2004 and struggled for years with defining its purpose and finding an audience. Some shows enjoyed moderate success, but their most successful hosts, like Rachel Maddow, Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes, found that they could be more successful on competing networks which were better managed, paid regularly and appealed to a broader audience. After a financial scandal and massive losses Air America declared bankruptcy in 2006 and was taken over by Green Family Media who attempted to make the network more professional and attract major-name hosts like Montel Williams and Ariana Huffington. In 2007 they attempted to expand syndication through a partnership with the Westwood One radio network.
Despite all these efforts, Air America continued to lose money and could not attract advertisers, with 10 consecutive quarters in the red through 2008 and 2009. Their best talent kept drifting away and they finally lost their longest-running show when Thom Hartmann left to join the Dial Global Network in 2009. In addition, very few stations were willing to carry their full schedule of programming, with most affiliates only picking up a few of the most popular shows. With an average 1.3 share for the network there just didn't appear to be a market for Air America anywhere but in a few very left-leaning cities like Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin.
At the end there were fewer than 20 stations nationwide carrying the full Air America lineup, a dismayingly low number for what started as an ambitious attempt to challenge the domination of the talk radio airwaves by the political right. Rush Limbaugh is currently carried on over 500 stations. In six years on the air the total revenue earned by Air America was less than Rush Limbaugh's salary for a single year.
Critics attribute the failure of Air America to many contributing causes. Obviously top among them is the ongoing history of financial mismanagement, but ironically the political dominance of Democrats in Congress and the White House also played a large role. It is much easier to play the role of political critic and gadfly when your enemies are in power. In addition, the shrill and unpleasant tone of the much of the programming on Air America may have alienated many potential listeners, an increasing problem as their best personalities left for bigger and better things, with Al Franken serving in the Senate and Rachel Maddow hosting on MSNBC.