Friday, January 22, 2010

Say goodbye to Air America: Why doesn't liberal radio work?

I was beyond thrilled when the liberal radio network Air America debuted in 2004, back in the dark, dark Bush years. At the time, there was no place for a left-leaning political junkie like me to satisfy her jones for progressive opinion. AM talk radio was a swamp of Rush wanna-bes shouting inflammatory rightwing talking points. Mainstream media (despite fantasies about a "liberal media") was genuflecting to President Bush and holding his hand as we marched happily off to war, intolerance and limited freedom. MSNBC's Countdown was in its infancy. Only folks in Massachusetts were fortunate enough to bask in Rachel Maddow's brilliance. But for my subscription to The Nation, I may have starved. But then this new network debuted. Oh, it was amazing! Al Franken had his own show. There was Unfiltered with Maddow and Lizz Winstead and Chuck D. Janeane Garafalo! Mike Malloy! These were smart, funny and fresh voices you didn't hear on mainstream radio or TV and sure as hell didn't hear on conservative talk.

I crossed my fingers that the network would thrive, even when it was abruptly snatched off my local Chicago station. My husband and I subscribed to Sirius satellite radio just to regain access to Air America, though the network soon abandoned Sirius for an exclusive deal with XM. Frankly, the network's financial issues and fickleness --now I have access, now I don't--became wearying. I made do with occasionally streaming my favorite Air America shows online. By then, though, I wasn't feeling so alone as a progressive, even in my new red home of Indiana. MSNBC had picked up the banner for progressive opinion through its evening lineup. More importantly, I had discovered online progressive activism, Daily Kos, Huffington Post and a host of provocative Web sites and blogs run by people whose voices tended to be drowned out even in "mainstream" progressive media (POC, GLBT, feminist).

Talk radio seems to me inherently passive; it's about listening to a personality. But I can participate online. I started blogging about progressive issues that mattered to me and people talked back. And occasionally, I earned a chance to express my opinion in larger mainstream venues. The 'Net lends itself to a sort of grassroots activism. Information and calls to action spread virally. For instance, when I first began to explore the blogosphere, I watched Gina at What About Our Daughters and Symphony at Essential Presence and SheCodes at the seriously-missed Black Women Vote blog raise awareness of the tragedy of Dunbar Village and marshal people to actually help. If you aren't familiar with Dunbar Village, you should read old posts about the issues at the aforementioned sites. You will probably note, as I did, that this problem that centered around crime and poverty and the safety of women--supposedly liberal causes--never gained traction in mainstream media or mainstream liberal media. If talk radio is about big personalities, the Internet is about community. Perhaps this is why progressives seem to own the World Wide Web, but languish on the radio airwaves. And here I shall demonstrate my own liberal bias: Maybe authority-loving conservatives enjoy a Rush or Hannity to tell them what to do, while liberals want the kind of intellectual debate and engagement that doesn't translate well to radio.

Still, it seems odd that a country that a year ago overwhelmingly delivered a Democratic president to the White House cannot support a single progressive network on terrestrial radio. Progressives love the Web, but we like TV okay, too. We dig our Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Bill Moyers. Why no love for radio?

For me, oftentimes, it has seemed that so-called liberal radio is not liberal enough. I compare my local talk station and its local and national talent that seem to adhere to a firmly conservative ideology and, for the most part, traffic in typical rightwing talking points, to Sirius Left, the progressive satellite network, whose mid-day lineup includes unrepentant misogynist Alex Bennett and Lynn Samuels--both of whom sometimes seem as if they belong on another, more conservative, network. Their collective racist ramblings about Obama during the 2008 election could have come straight from Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. Even an ultra-conservative friend of mine, after listening to Bennett, said: "I don't he supposed to be a liberal?" Thank goodness for the marvelous Mark Thompson (aka Matsemela Mapfumo), Mike Malloy, Thom Hartman and "Big Ed" Shultz. My impression is that rather than listen to Sirius Left all day, other listeners, like me, select the host(s) that best represent their flavor of progressiveness and leave the rest. Does the lack of an agreed-upon progressive platform doom us in radio (and, frankly, in politics)? Are there too many sorts of liberal for a Rush-type figure to emerge in media (Believe me, this ain't a bad thing, though my team can wear me down with its infighting and arguing.)?

Whatever the reason, Air America Media shut down today--done in probably as much by its own poor management as liberals' preference for other forms of media. And it is a loss in a landscape where mainstream media increasingly takes the corporate (read conservative) point of view, both in its presentation of opinion and in supposedly based-in-fact news. There is now one less place to find progressive news and opinion. In some markets, "one less place" means there is no place to find liberal talk on the radio.

Is there a future for national or local progressive radio? If there is no future, will the absence of liberal voices on the radio hurt "the cause?"


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