** Note to everyone ?tuning in? to this website? In response to the daily questions I get via e-mail, I am definitely retired from WBAI. Putting it very briefly, 25 years of angst-filled intensity, no matter how occasionally informative or entertaining it might have been, it enough for yours truly.
I may show up on another station, and when I do, I will announce it here. Meanwhile? the following piece was written in early to mid-March, and is followed by an addendum just penned this afternoon (5/12/04?
Out of the formless void that exists beyond the known radio universe of shock-jock profiteering and right wing bellowing, Air America has been created. The question is, Why has it been created; who is it for and will it succeed in its mission?
Air America?s main purpose is easily stated: They are here to kick George, Dick, Rummy and Condi out of the White House this fall. Along the way, Air America has the notion of creating a permanent nation-wide liberal voice?adding more stations as they succeed in attracting listeners and sponsors.
At the present moment, a handful of large corporations, like Clear Channel and Viacom, own thousands of radio stations. You turn on the radio almost anywhere in the country and you are going to hear what a dozen or so rich men deem acceptable for you to hear?and that includes political content. Coupled with this alarming situation, the Republican (corporate-controlled) FCC has managed to trash almost all the rules protecting real public interest and station accountability. In such fertile soil, pro-corporate right-wing radio has flourished. Limbaugh, O?Reilly, Hannity, and their horde of imitators are not just tapping into the irrational fears and depressing ignorance of the American public?they are also reflecting the conservative, anti-democratic biases of their bosses. Also, an additional need for something like Air America has been created by the apparent desire of left-wing Pacifica radio to represent only the most marginal of political and social viewpoints, and the increasingly corporate underwritten, moderate to neutral stance of National Public Radio.
What Air America obviously intends to do is to speak to and for a disenfranchised group of Americans; the millions of Democrats, Liberals and Undecideds who are desperately looking for an antidote to the goose-stepping arrogance of Right-wing radio and the absence of a genuine liberal voice on the other side of the radio dial.
I?ve been listening to Air America virtually non-stop since they went on the air about ten days ago. Herewith, some random thoughts?and a kind of report card on their debut?
Clearly, their main goal is to rally the troops?to speak to people who feel the way they do. Well, you say, that?s just preaching to the choir. True. But I?d say the great choir of Liberals and Democrats needs some serious inspiration these days after taking such a bashing for the last couple of years. Air America has decided to go on the offfense. Up until now Liberals and Democrats have been in the position of a boxer who has taken a pounding for nine straight rounds and has gotten used to backpedaling and covering up. Air America has come out punching and that can?t be bad.
Also, Air America feels, and with this I wholeheartedly agree, that people need to be reminded that being a liberal is an honorable thing. It was liberals who saved this country during the depression and liberals who beat Nazi Germany. It was liberals who created and enforced laws to fight racism, sexism, and poverty, and provided security for people?s old age. Right-wingers have dumped on liberals for too long?time to set things straight.
Another important job that Air America is doing is trying to convince certain key groups of voters that poor old Ralph Nader is caught in some personal delusion that could inflict some real damage on Kerry, the Democrats, and the country?s future.
That?s the good news about Air America. What?s the down-side?
As might be expected from people like Al Franken and Liz Winstead (an ex-writer-performer for The Daily Show) and the several other comedian-performers on the air, there?s a lot of parody, satire and sarcasm. Nothing wrong with that, of course. God knows Limbaugh, O?Reilly and company?not to mention Cheney, Ashcroft, et. al.?are notoriously humorless. They exist to have pins stuck in them. The danger that Air America runs is overdoing sophomoric, even puerile humor (the other night Jeananne Garafolo used a fart-machine for about ten minutes). Even the name of shows, ?Morning Sedition? and ?The O?Franken Factor? are unconsciously granting the objects of the parody an undeserved authority. It?s as if a bunch of teenagers were making fun of their parents.
Then there are the commercials?for McDonald?s, pharmaceutical companies, fat-burning supplements; the list goes on and on and on?
No matter what their message is, Air America is also, perforce, a business?and therein lies a problem. Fighting a Right-wing, corporate oligarchy by selling large chunks of air-time to giant corporations might seem hypocritical to some listeners, leaving the network open to charges of not being much different than their opponents?the same problem they faced in 2000.
As far as specific target demographics, Latinos are conspicuously missing from Air America. Could this have been a conscious choice on the network?s part or just a slip up?
They do have lots of women hosts?and that?s a good counter to the juiceless machoness of right-wing talk. They have a black presence too?especially important in the case of their New York station, since Air America is being broadcast over WLIB, a former bastion of black-talk radio. There have been complaints from a small group of black activists in New York that bumping a black station to put on mostly white broadcasters is white liberal racism. But I don?t think that dog hunts?as old Ross Perot might say. The owners of WLIB, who leased the airtime to Air America, are black and they have been losing money on WLIB for years. Besides, the greater goal of defeating Bush more than makes up for the possibly only temporary replacement of a couple of black talk shows?most of which are well represented elsewhere on the New York dial.
So, women and blacks, but no Latinos. There is a huge swing vote here (especially in some key states) that the Bush camp figures it has wrapped up. Air America needs to address this problem.
The last problem the network has is the unevenness of their hosts and programming. There are too many hosts on some of the shows, which make for a kind of morning zoo cacophony that sometimes drowns out any meaningful message. Some of them are radio neophytes and just can?t get the hang of broadcasting; particularly Jeanane Garafolo (a smart, funny woman who I?ve always liked) and her co-host, Sam Seder. They stumble, hesitate?go in circles?
Back on the plus side, Randi Rhodes, a long-time commercial talk-radio host, handles the afternoon drive slot, and she is definitely their best broadcaster. She?s amazingly well-informed, funny, and has a good every-man/woman touch?much like New York radio perennial, Lynn Samuels. And their weekend host, Laura Flanders, brings solid Leftist broadcasting credentials to the network
As for their big gun, Al Franken? The network has obviously decided he needed some pro radio help, so they have matched him up with a long-time broadcaster from Minnesota public radio, Katherine Lanpher. She?s smooth and sharp, but too obviously a watchdog. She often sounds like a kind of irritating schoolmarm to Franken?s bad-boy. Worse?Franken occasionally treats her a bit like his own personal Robin Quivers?and this may not play too well with women. Franken has the ever-threatening potential to go too far, to lose control; and that?s always something (witness the success of shock-jock radio) that is exciting to listeners. I say, dump the co-host and let Al off the leash.
Well, that?s my intitial take
on Air America. Whatever their faults, I?m glad they?ve joined the political radio wars. Between the preachy and offensive excesses of the extremes of Left and Right talk radio, and the neutered ambivalence of NPR, we truly needed some good, aggressive American Liberalism.
The reason this original piece sounds like it was written for a newspaper or a magazine is because it was? An editor at Newsday called me and asked me to write something about Air America during its first week of broadcast. He and I originally agreed that the station/network had quite a few faults but, when I gave it a good listen, I discovered that I thought, on balance, it was worth having on the air. When the editor got my finished piece, he decided that he wanted something more critical and negative, so we parted friends and the piece never got published.
Now even though I originally felt that the network?and some of the programs were good enough, even necessary, for political reasons, that doesn?t mean I would listen to it?and I haven?t since that time.
I haven?t listened for the reasons mentioned above; One of the main reasons was simply mechanical? I could barely receive the signal on my radio; it was thin, intermittent and full of static. Also, the general tone or sound of the programming was too typically AM-radio to suit my taste?by which I mean the usual dumbed-down noise-all-the-time AM sound and the typical loud, repetitive and nonsensical commercials. Also, a lot of the shows were, again?as I mention above?hosted by people who have little or no sense of radio. Listening to them is boring or irritating. If I want to be bored or irritated I can just tune back in to WBAI or WNYC?as least their signal comes in clearly.
Now, since the time I finished writing the above piece, I?ve read that the station/network has run into some very serious difficulties. Most of the top management has resigned or moved on to other jobs, and the network has lost what appeared to be at best a tenuous grasp on two of its other major market signals?in Chicago and L.A. I don?t remember what the exact problem was with the stations they had leased in those cities, but whatever they were, they seem to be serious because they still haven?t been resolved and the election clock is ticking? Last, and most ominous an omen for the whole undertaking is that I read (in the Daily News) just yesterday that the network didn?t issue paychecks last week. Naturally, if all this keeps up, they will go out of business faster than you can say ?Mission Accomplished? ? and that will be a shame because the concept of a liberal talk-radio network was wonderful in its conception and filled (see my original piece) a great void in the radio galaxy in this country.
Of course, if the network does fail and fail dramatically in its toddler-hood? way short of election time?it will be taken as loud and clear signal that liberals and Democrats have little or no legitimacy among the ?common? folk/voters?the regular radio listeners who otherwise generally manage?in some miraculous way unknown to science?to digest huge chunks of brainless media garbage on a daily basis.
Air America?s failure would leave air-brushed, timid and arbitron-hungry old NPR and anti-white, politically correct, marginal Pacifica Radio to provide what little juice remains in the political left in this country. A sad, sad thing. Sadder even, when I think of WBAI and Pacifica once were…
As I mentioned in my original piece, WBAI (I?ll contain my comments to WBAI because I really never had access to the other Pacifica stations during the sixties and seventies), once provided such a high and wide level of intelligent, entertaining programming that Air America would have been almost redundant. The inclusive and wide-ranging humanism of WBAI (and, from what I?ve been told, the two Pacifica California stations) covered most of the political spectrum that ran from very liberal Democrat to rabid, revolutionary left. NPR, when it first came on the scene, was basically a government agency imbued with the tenets of established Democratic Liberalism?a kind of Middle to Upper-Middle Class New York Timesy Liberalism; that was something Pacifica/WBAI only catered to in a minor way, so it (NPR) filled a necessary political/cultural niche.
Now, since humorless zealots and anti-white (not to mention anti-Semitic) racists have taken over WBAI, the politics are so narrow that only a very small group of loyal Stalinists and anti-white ranters could be comfortable with its radio boundaries.
WBAI has become?and this is a long story that I can, and will, get into in another essay?mostly ?information? and talk radio. Its music, drama, literature, and entertainment programming has shriveled to almost nothing; and what remains?aside from a few gems that are not reproduced on any other network?are very narrowly construed programs mostly by, for and about a certain small portion of the Black demographic in and around New York City. The great former audience of whites and liberals, and for that matter, while we?re at it, Jews, Seniors, Gays, the Disabled, Asians, Indians, Eastern Europeans, and?last but not least?Latinos, have either been chased away from WBAI or have never adequately represented in the first place.
WBAI is, essentially?again, with a bunch of really glorious exceptions?an racist radio station; one that?s exclusive, dumbed down and based on racial ideologies–though that is too polite a term for the “thinking” on WBAI. WBAI?s sad and massive failures have, as I said in my original piece, helped to create the vacuum into which Air America stepped. Nothing wrong with that of course, the wheel turns and things fall off and jump on? Sometimes though, I do miss the old WBAI which wasn?t just limited to a tiny margin of the listening public?a WBAI that was bursting with brains and talent and a kind of utopian inclusivity?a place where listeners were welcome and generally treated as more part of a family than just some arbitron statistic or a specific unit of demographic just meant to contribute money and shut up.
As for Air America, It?s too bad that it seems to have gotten off to such a poor start. I wish the planners had had more sense, especially in terms of who they chose to put on the air. Obviously they went with big names and proven talents (unfortunately, they were/are proven talents in television writing, television, music and movies), instead of real radio professionals. In fact the couple of radio professionals at Air America really stand way far out among that crowd– so much so, that it?s embarrassing.
I wonder if it?s too late to save Air America? I hope not. What they desparately need to do is find a few ex-WBAI talents who were chased out of, or tired of the current WBAI, and maybe a few NPR types who have become semi-comatose working within the stultifying CNN-like political atmosphere of NPR and want to rekindle the passion of their early days in radio.
Well, who knows?or, as they still say on radio, stay tuned?
** More on WBAI as the mood (mania) strikes me…
– Mike Feder (New York City – May 12, 2004)