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The Fire Unreined

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When James Taylor wrote “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”, had he Air America in mind?

In a press release Piquant LLC, which does business as Air America Radio, announced that it has filed for Chapter 11 protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York after “good faith efforts to resolve outstanding debt with a creditor from the company’s earliest days broke down.” Court documents showed that MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting Inc., a creditor with whom the network had tussled in its early days, had Air America’s bank accounts frozen.

You could hear the chortling from the wrong-wingers. The only rational and objective statement made by one such went: “There have been hints of impropriety and suggestions that money was not spent correctly and this bankruptcy filing confirms their dire situation.”

To be fair, there is evidence to support this assertion. Recently, Al Franken, owed $360,749 by Piquant, complained publicly that his paychecks had stopped. Mike Malloy, whose contract was not renewed, is owed over $100,000 in back pay. The 25 page bankruptcy filing, reprinted at thesmokinggun.com, lists RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser as the single largest creditor who is owed more than $10 million.

These instances alone demonstrate that the operators of Air America didn’t know how to handle money. One can only assert that for a shoestring operation just getting up off the ground, an awful lot of vital Air America Radio lifeblood flowed out through self-opened veins. This financial irresponsibility makes no sense when those who started Air America were themselves entrepreneurs, people who are supposed to know something about money management.

Said Rush Limbaugh, “They’ve never had any idea how radio works.”

According to real radio professionals, the problem with the management of Air America was much more basic. Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers Magazine, a talk-radio industry trade magazine, said, “By running such a poor business they did a disservice to liberal talk radio by making it seem like the problem was that they were liberal.”

You mean, Rush isn’t Right? I’m shocked! What’s the real problem, Mr. Harrison?

“Before you change the world, make sure you pay your bills.”

Yeah, that would help. Rob Kall of opednews.com gets reality back on track, reminding us that even Rush was once in Air America’s holey soles:

The right wing media, like FOX News and the Rush Limbaugh show, ran for long periods of time, in the red, but were able to survive through those times because they had funders– it’s hard to call them investors, since there were political payoffs and motivations rather than conventional profit motives– who carried the money-losing media for long periods of time.

Such is expected by Air America insiders to happen for them. According to insideradio.com, “Air talent Al Franken joked several weeks ago that he’s flown on airlines that are in bankruptcy – anticipating that this day might come [to Air America Radio], and that operations would continue.”

While that may merely be brave talk, other progressive talkers are still on the air:

“Ed Schultz says his “independently-owned and operated show is in no danger of bankruptcy or other financial obstacles.” ‘Big Eddie’ says he now clears in over 100 markets – and there are other progressive talkers like Stephanie Miller adding stations.”

Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice adds support:

It’s important to note that two of the best progressive talk shows are hosted by Schultz and Stephanie Miller, who also isn’t with Air America.

“Schultz opened his [Friday] show talking about his appearance on Larry King Live and addressing the Air America bankruptcy [mp3].

Gandelman points out that Schultz seems to understand “how radio works”:

I heard [Schultz]’s show when he had Stu Kane on [mp3]. Kane was instrumental in helping launch Rush Limbaugh. Kane made it clear on Schultz show today that Product 1st’s bottom line is “the bottom line.” They want to produce a show that’s good radio, good entertainment, that gets listeners and makes money. [Emphasis added]

Rob Kall almost stumbles over the solution to Air America’s money troubles. He just didn’t take his thought far enough: “If the money powers on the left are wise — the unions, George Soros, progressive foundations, even the smallest $5 dollar contributors — they will do all in their power to get Air America back on track.” [Emphasis added]

Leave it to very conservative National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg to point to the real savior for Air America, even though he doesn’t realize it as such and would never admit it: “The problem? Pacifica Radio already exists.”

Pacifica Radio, founded in 1949 by Louis Hill, is a financially-struggling network which regularly broadcasts the kind of programming that Air America sought to air, and more. While many people pay the full subscription rate Pacifica asks, it survives on those as-little-as $5 contributions that Rob Kall mentioned above.

Pacifica founder Hill saw an opportunity, and took it in the true entrepreneur spirit. He just chose to allow the wealth of the airwaves to belong to the people rather than keep it for himself.

But with privilege comes responsibility. It is entirely up to the listeners to keep Pacifica Radio going, as Hill asserts in his 1951 The Theory of Listener-Sponsored Radio.

It may well be that this is the philosophy by which Air America can break through the Wall Street Profit Barrier and reach the American people with an alternative to Rush & Company, Inc. The management just has to open their eyes – and their closed, corporately-trained minds. They also have to stop giving away the store to celebrities who have every right to expect to get paid large sums for their services when the management has other, less-expensive options available.

All across America, as we bloggers of all political stripes attest by our very existence, there are talented people who can do the job of a Franken or a Malloy, or even a Limbaugh, on the radio and be just as effective, provided they get the chance to do so.

There is thus no good reason for Air America not to emulate Pacifica’s practice of auditioning producers’ shows for broadcast, allowing those that are successful to remain on the air while those which are not are replaced by those of newer applicants. Eventually, one would have a full roster of successful broadcasters who aren’t expecting huge paychecks, and who are grateful for the chance to be on the air with their programming. All it takes is managing expertise, and Pacifica has been doing it for over 50 years, no matter what the government or the corporate sector throws at them.

That alone is itself a lesson that Air America needs to learn. Let’s hope that they do – along with all the other experienced wisdom Pacifica can offer them concerning how to keep those transmitters humming on a relatively small budget.

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  • Jason B.

    No, that didn’t happen with Rush. I have no idea about Fox News, but I did a paper last year for my 10th grade social sciences class, and that’s totally wrong about Rush Limbaugh. He never had donors, he wasn’t backed by anything political, and he started out doing 2 shows both of which were successful quickly, and the national one grew in affiliates as success grew, not before. Rush Limbaugh didn’t go into radio to be political- he went into it because he loved it and wanted to be a broadcaster, and picked politics to do his show on because he’d always had an interst in it, not vice versa. That’s what he was saying in the article you cited (I read the whole thing). He was saying exactly what the subsequent gentleman was saying: that they did not know how to run their network as a business, and that’s what the point of radio is, to make money, like any other business, not to affect elctions. So, I’m not really sure what all else you’re saying, but I did need to correct you where you got it totally wrong. If you want, I can email a copy of my paper for you to learn from; it’s pretty thorough and I got an A on it.

  • ken ohlman

    Ed Schultz has peaked out and on the way out.

    He is down to about 98 stations from a high of about 105. Ed has so lost it that he ridicules military officers that call and try to explain to him why it is necessary to have a victory in Iraq. Radio will be much better when Schultz is off the air; and it appears that will not be long down the road.