Dead Air (America)

Air America, the much-ballyhooed Liberal radio alternative to Rush and Sean and all the other Righties who are successfully dominating our airwaves, doesn’t appear to be gaining much traction. It’s on the air in only about 50 markets and, even in the “blue” states, its ratings are generally paltry despite reams of free publicity and plenty of financial backers who want this enterprise to succeed. Meantime, Bill Bennett, former Drug Czar and Education Secretary, can be heard in over 100 markets, with a show that launched about the same time as Air America with virtually no mainstream press notice. How do these things happen? Isn’t AA’s Al Franken at least as funny as Bill Bennett? (Although, to tell you the truth, when Al was part of the team of Franken & Davis on Saturday Night Live, I wondered how a comedy duo could survive with two straight men.) Don’t Liberals listen to the radio? Why isn’t anybody out there? As someone who has been involved in a TV project or two which went largely unnoticed, I think I can answer the question. Conservative radio succeeds, in great measure, because a major segment of the population perceives a need for it. There is no need for mass media with a Liberal slant, because it is already all around us. When I did a late-night talk show on CBS more than 15 years ago, we modeled it after Johnny Carson’s show on the supposition that he was about to retire. He didn’t, and people went right on watching him. Heck, I watched him. Putting aside any talent deficiencies I might have had, there was no need for Pat Sajak when Johnny Carson was there. If history had been different and the media centers of the country had been located in Nebraska and Georgia instead of New York and California, they would likely have taken on a more Conservative look over the years. Liberals would have been screaming about the lack of balance when it came to coverage of news, politics and social issues. In that atmosphere, a dozen Air America-type programs would have sprung up by now, and Conservatives would be bemoaning their success and looking for alternatives. If Rush Limbaugh went on the air in that “alternate universe,” he might very well have failed. Who would have needed him? Conservative thought would have already controlled most of what we were watching, reading and hearing. In short, what Air America is selling is available in too many other places. It’s the same dynamic that made a success of Fox News Channel and a failure of Phil Donahue’s attempted comeback on cable TV a few years ago. What will eventually kill Air America is its redundancy.