Friday, January 22, 2010

What the Hell were the Green brothers thinking?: A post-mortem on the death of Air America

I still listen to commercial AM and FM radio. There’s just about nothing at all of any interest or intelligence on commercial radio stations, but like any other deluded dreamer, I keep thinking there’s a chance that something good will appear on the commercial stations — whereas. as anyone who’s still following the Forgotten Medium knows, the only good programming is on listener-sponsored stations, be they Pacifica, NPR, or college stations. Satellite radio offers terrific specialized programming, but I don’t have the money to subscribe to it, and it was sunk right from the start by its massive investment in shock jockery (which ain’t funny when cursing is actually allowed).

And so, yes folks, I’ve listened to the shipwreck that was Air America for the last six years, from its very first week on the air to this week, when I was still monitoring the snippets of the brilliant Lionel, the one remaining must-hear host on the network. Today the death of the network was announced, and its website was taken down, replaced by a goodbye note.

When it was first announced, it was to be “the alternative” to right-wing talk radio, and the three names that were sought were Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Michael Moore. Moore wisely sidestepped doing a show on the network. Now-Senator Al took the plunge, however, and was stunningly not into the medium. Interestingly, the exceedingly boring Sundance Channel visual presentation of his radio show revealed quite clearly that he was constantly reading from scripts, had no idea how the medium was paced, and never ever would take listener calls, because he couldn’t banter with dissenters.

Ms. Garofalo, once the crush of just about every guy I knew in the mid-'90s, was extremely angry on-air, extraordinarily angry on-air, to the extent that she would brood at odd moments (usually Friday nights) about not being able to indulge in drink anymore, insult her cohost (the very patient Sam Seder), yell about how ridiculously stupid Republicans are for voting Republican (one time she lit into a befuddled Rachel Maddow and David Bender about this — and they are not now, nor have they ever been, Republicans); yet, on the one occasion when a bona fide dickhead conservative was on her show, namely one Sean Hannity, she remained curiously quiet and withdrawn. Her radio appearances thus made for really absorbing listening, if only because the meltdown factor was front and center. For instance, she would come in on a Monday and describe how she cried over the weekend in frustration because her conservative father had fought with her on a political issue. As with Franken, who tormented us on a regular basis (to the point of dial-switching) by pointlessly debating a “dittohead” friend who never changed his opinion that Rush is always right, Janeane had her conservative dad frequently call into the program (she, like Franken, avoided the call-in aspect of talk-radio otherwise), and she enlisted, among others, Howard Zinn and Mario Cuomo to convince Dad that his beliefs were misguided. She failed each and every time.

It’s hard to pick a favorite Janeane meltdown moment, but perhaps the time in November 2004 when Kerry lost the election would suffice. It was a painful moment for every right-thinking person to see Dubya stay President for another term, but only Ms. Garafalo would have to call into her show on the phone because she couldn’t leave her house, having been so unnerved by Kerry’s loss that she had thrown her back out and was lying on the floor to relieve the pain. It was really something to follow Janeane’s travails during her stay on AAR — as with several of her stand-up colleagues, including ones I find extremely funny, one is never sure when watching or hearing her if one is witnessing an act or a real-time therapy session.

Okay, so the original hoped-for trio of hosts were those noted liberals. But what happened once the network went on the air? The shows hosted by seasoned radio hosts turned out to actually be the best-run programs (surprise!).

-Mike Malloy was a late-night barn-burner who was a bit too left-wing for the network and was jettisoned early on; he remains a dynamite host who can be heard here.

-Randi Rhodes became the single biggest radio celebrity to emerge from the network, with her hardcore Brooklyn accent, her very strong traditional liberal values, her commendable emphasis on reading and “finding out the facts,” and her own propensity to melt down on the air. I will always remember her yelling non-stop at Patti Smith about the latter’s affection for Ralph Nader — it was the most out-of-control, ridiculous behavior in a two-person chat on NYC radio I’d heard since veteran Lefty Lynn Samuels (seen in the pic above with Randi, who has noted she can't stand Lynn) spent two entire airshifts (or was it three?) shrieking at her conservative on-air “partner,” Barry Farber, on WABC.

Randi is now back in Florida and a good deal calmer; she can be heard here. She of course was pitched off Air America for publicly calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” at an AAR-sponsored live event. She noted that she had received a letter of thanks from AAR for hosting the event at which she made that lovely remark, but Air America was never a truly radical outfit and decided to oust her — and then, months later, heavily promoted her return to radio through another syndicator on its website! (When the second, AWFUL, daytime airing of Montel was playing on AAR stations around America, the AAR website was streaming Randi, who wasn’t even a part of their network — ah, the Greenery of it all!)

-The breakout star without question, however, was Rachel Maddow, whom I wrote a little paean to here. Rachel was consistently sidelined and minimized by the network, particularly when its ownership was purchased by politician Mark Green and his realtor brother Stephen Green. Initially Rachel cohosted the wonderful “Unfiltered” with Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and Public Enemy founder Chuck D, and was clearly willing to stick by AAR no matter where they placed her on the schedule. As the months went by and she began to develop a following, through positive reviews from people like the very perceptive Richard Corliss, the heads of AAR began to move her to the worst “dayparts” one can imagine, to the point where she was actually on for a single hour in the morning (the ungodly fucking hour of 5:00AM!).

All the while her star kept rising through appearances on MSNBC, and as it became apparent that she might indeed get her own show on that network, AAR finally put her back on at a listenable time — which then, of course, clashed with her MSNBC show (and in the meantime, the Green administration had pink-slipped her essential on-air sidekick Kent Jones — great move, guys! Especially since Kent had stuck with her even through the dim, dark 5:00AM period). Rachel finally, very wisely, chose to not do a daily radio program on AAR — how could it possibly benefit her to prepare a new show every day on a network that has been dying since its inception, and most certainly since the Green takeover? Despite her brilliance and warm radio personality, she also, like Franken, was not used to answering phones or bantering with dissenters.

As the years went by and the network seemed more and more like it was functioning without a rudder (or a map, or a compass, or the *slightest fucking idea how to run a radio network*), other great hosts came and went from the network. Al Franken’s departure brought in Thom Hartmnn, who is incredibly intelligent, if a bit too nice-guy-ish and dull. Sam Seder hosted shows on his own after Janeane departed for the greener pastures of 24, and distinguished himself as a witty, wise-assed host. Stand-up vet Marc Maron hosted a series of shows that were unfairly and moronically bounced off the network one by one — first an incisive morning show co-hosted with the excellent Mark Reilly, and later in highly personalized programs that live on in his current podcast WTF, where he offers his own memorably neurotic insights on pop culture and offers much “shop talk” about comedy with fellow stand-ups. Noted (and notorious) first-amendment lawyer Ron Kuby did a hell of a good afternoon show on AAR for a while, which was tossed off the air in favor of everyone’s favorite charlatan, Montel Williams, who was the “final movement” in the insane saga of the network. The final astounding decision to air Montel twice a day — the second instance being a time-delayed rerun, during afternoon drive time! — was nothing less than a sure-fire way to kill a network. And we now see the results.

I had the opportunity to personally chat with Mark Green sometime in the summer of 2008 when he was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn, asking passersby to sign a petition to allow him to run for Public Advocate. [For those outside of New York, I should note that Mr. Green is a devoted liberal who has done some great work in his years as a politician, but his disagreements with the equally stubborn Fernando Ferrer split the local Democratic Party in two in 2001… and thus was born the never-ending Mayoral term of tiny tyrant Mike “Greedy Rich Bastard” Bloomberg.]

I agreed to sign the petition if I could talk to him about the network, being the wildly disappointed, but also curiously devoted, listener that I was (I guess I can’t look away from shipwrecks — especially if the ships contain talented individuals!). Mr. Green allowed me to comment on the network, and I thus filled his ear for a quick 90 seconds (those who’ve seen the show know I can talk very rapidly and cogently when I need to) with a laundry list that started with making Montel the “face” of the network, after a similar AAR decision to do so with Jerry Springer had died a horrible death years before; mentioned Maron and Seder being reduced to an online-only stint that found them hosting a very funny but barely acknowledged show from the network’s kitchen; Kuby being taken off-air; and the station’s sole remaining brilliant broadcaster, Lionel, being kept off-air for a time (only to be put back on later in the early morning, before-the-dawn slot not carried in NYC and many, many other markets by AAR affiliates). Mr. Green listened to my articulate little laundry list, and responded merely with, “So you don’t like Montel, huh?” When I replied that Montel brought on his favorite psychic-friend, Sylvia, on a weekly basis for more than an hour of air time, and it took AAR completely away from its original progressive message, Green nodded, and clearly wanted to move on to getting his signatures.

So now that the network is dead, those of us who really need to forget commercial radio entirely can bask in the memories of the meltdowns we heard on AAR on a regular basis; the truly golden moments supplied by Lionel, Rachel, Randi, Mike, Marc and Mark, Ron, Sam, even Ron Reagan and weekend host Mike Papantonio; and the fact that the AAR management provided an object lesson in how not to run a progressive network. Or a network of any kind for that matter.

Final message: someone get Lionel a slot quick, the man is brilliant and does a helluva smart, savvy, and very funny radio program. I would even brave the wilds of commercial radio to hear him again… (we all know never to say never….)


Jckinnick said...

Pretty sure Air America went bankrupt years ago and went off the air about two years ago.

Media Funhouse said...

They did have repeated financial troubles in the past, but always were saved at the final moment. They went off the air yesterday, Jan. 21st.


Media glut said...

Thanks for the fine recap of the history of AAR.

I stopped listening when they took Lionel off in the morning and replaced him with Montel.
It said on the site that he would be coming back but I didn't believe it and stopped checking back to see what was going on.

It's a bit of a sad story. I have enjoyed the station from time to time over the years.

richard said...

nary a mention of Stephanie Miller ? Sure at times she was like the cool chick at a frat party, but her humorous approach was built on a foundation of truth...

Media Funhouse said...

Thanks, Larry. Richard, only an hour of Stephanie Miller is played here in NYC, so I haven't heard her all that much -- I did like what I heard (despite the "Morning Zoo" structure of the show), but she also has never been an Air America show. Her show appears on some stations that were airing AAR programming, but she -- like Ed Schultz, and ex-AAR folk Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, and Mike Malloy -- is handed by another distributor. Lucky for her!