A second wind for left-wing radio channel Air America
Saving Air America
This week: Mark Green, the new president of Air America, tells Truthdig why it didn’t work, what he’s going to do to fix it and what you can expect in the future from America’s largest progressive radio network. At right, Al Franken, who was an Air America host.
Correction: As some readers correctly noted, Air America is not the nation’s only progressive radio network. Pacifica has been around since 1949, and they do a fantastic job!
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris on one side and Josh Scheer on the other, and on the phone, Mark Green. He’s been involved in several political races. He ran a recent mayoral race in ’01 against [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. He has been outspoken in his effort to smote racial profiling thus. And he has now taken a new job as the president of the Air America radio, the liberal talk network, and they’re calling it “Air America 2.0.” First of all, Mark Green, how are you doing today?
Mark Green: I couldn’t be better.
Harris: I want to start kind of on a somber note ... you lost [the] ’06 race for New York state attorney general and you released a comment saying, “I won’t be running for office again, but I’ll continue to advocate and teach.” I want to know, quite seriously, how has your work continued since the election, and has the acquisition of Air America helped you to effect change?
Green: Picking up from that, the day after I lost the primary, I was scheduled to and did teach my class in government, a freshman honors seminar at NYU. I love teaching, have been doing it four years at NYU, went back to running the New Democracy Project, a public policy progressive institute, and [have] done a ton of—I think—leading work on campaign finance reform, or what I call “democracy funding,” for example.
... What happened in December and January is that Air America radio, the first and only progressive radio talk network, founded in 2004 by, among others, Alan Franken—. Well, it had gone bankrupt in October. It was a big idea that often had misspending and mismanagement. And what happened is, my family bought it in January/February, and I’m now the president of it. It’s very important because, was it Lincoln who said, “You can’t do anything without public opinion and you can do anything with it”? Well, what’s public opinion? It’s the education system plus the media. And so I’ve written a lot of books, which I love doing, and now I have the opportunity to be running a radio network that has great progressive talent with two and half million people listening, streaming on satellite, for example. It’s a very important vehicle, especially in this ’07-08 political cycle. But before we can be influential, we have to be profitable, so we’re trying to stem the losses and make it grow.
Harris: What are some changes you’re going to make to address profit? The common doubts among liberal talk networks are that they don’t sound like Rush and they’re not upset like Rush and they’re pretty monotonous in their content. What programming will you change and what marketing will you adjust to try to turn this into a cash cow, or at least something that gives you money instead of taking money?
Green: Cash cow. That’s a nice dream. I’d be happy with stability. Look, the country is roughly split between B and R, blue and red states. It’s crazy to think that right-wing talk radio can make money but progressive talk radio can’t. That’s obviously a fallacy. The only one difference is—. Neither side is smarter than the other, although my wife would persuasively argue that liberals are smarter than conservatives. But let’s say intelligence is equally distributed. One of the problems is that businesses are owned, I would say, more by Republicans than Democrats. It’s just the way it goes. And they’re more likely to advertise on conservative talk radio than on progressive talk radio. With that built in, first, what we’re doing—. When you say it can be monotonous, boy, I don’t think you’ve listened to Al Franken, originally, and now Thom Hartmann, who broadcasts out of Oregon, is amazingly knowledgeable, interesting and popular. Randi Rhodes, who’s on from 3 to 6 on Air America. Very opinionated and entertaining. She’s followed by Rachel Maddow, who reads and comments on and makes fun of the news. I think we have a very strong lineup. We will be making changes, inevitably, because you never know who the next—. Well, take him: Rush Limbaugh was just a local guy who went national, not because of his beliefs but because of his skills.
The second thing we’ll be doing is being very smart about new media, digital media, Internet media because, while it costs X dollars to have good hosts on a box called radio, we’ve got to think outside the radio box and distribute that same content—it already exists—on the Internet by people streaming, download it onto iPods, satellite it around, videocast it so it’s on cable or your cell phone next. So we’re going to be working very aggressively to distribute our wonderful programming in a way that can make money in these other platforms. We have, now, new capital, new owner, new management, a new group selling it and getting affiliates. In a political season where, obviously, I think progressives are on the rise and Republicans are on the defensive.
Josh Scheer: This is Josh, Mark. Are you going to try to reach out to them or are you going to try to find other advertising? How are you going to turn this into something that makes money?
Green: There are some advertisers who are liberal or who are controversy-averse. And they don’t want to advertise on Rush Limbaugh. And you know what? Under the First Amendment they have the right to speech or not advertise, and they can do that. The First Amendment about impinging on speech applies to government, and not business. And on the other side, as I indicated, there are some conservative businesses—. I haven’t gotten a lot of Halliburton advertising yet on Air America. We don’t know. We’ll see. What we’re going to try to do is grow the audience, because, ultimately, because a lot of our affiliates are owned by Clear Channel. They have over a thousand stations around the country. They are GM, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler combined. But some of them are Air America affiliates because they can make money. The color that counts to them is green—no pun intended. And so we will be going to businesses and saying, “You can make money by advertising with us because we have two and a half million listeners.” We’ve got to be creative. We’ll go into a community and ask, “Gee, who are the Democratic donors? Are they businessmen? Oh, are you a businessman who gives money to candidates who are a little more liberal? How about advertising on Air America? You can help the progressive platform at the same time as selling products.” There’s no easy answer. It’s what’s called blocking and tackling. And we’re going to beef up our sales force, because without advertising, commercial radio can’t exist.
Scheer: My partner here said it was a little bit monotonous, and I’ve heard that elsewhere, but conservative radio can be—is—more monotonous, more angry. Why is conservative radio so successful and liberal radio—? I know we talked about this a little bit, but I want to hark on this a little bit. Even with the liberal community, why is liberal radio considered [to have] a distant, not really good, future?
Green: That’s a good question. First of all, often “first in” initially wins. For example, Time magazine preceded Newsweek. People developed a habit for Time and—you know what?—over the next 50 years Time always sold a third more than Newsweek. Well, talk radio itself is somewhat new. Radio is 70 years old, talk radio maybe 15 years old. And the first were people who are—. Give him his due. Rush Limbaugh is very entertaining. He’s unconstrained by the facts. He slanders people left and right. He makes fun of people all the time. ... Air America Radio is three years old. You know, when Fox cable news—I use news in quotations—was three years old, they were massively losing money until [Rupert] Murdoch kept subsidizing them and then they found their audience or their audience found them. Well, a liberal talk radio is a start-up business and Air America Radio reflects that. The first new radio network in 30 years, but the virtue is that everybody knows its name. I don’t know if for good or bad reasons. And so we now have this great brand that everybody knows, and our job is to better program it, convince advertisers to get on it, cut expenses—which we’ve done by half. And I’m telling you we’re going to start making a profit in 2008.
Scheer: How long will your family stick with Air America? Are you going to wait until it makes a profit? You said [that] in 2008 you’re pretty sure it’s going to make a profit.
Green: Yeah, the goal is to stabilize in 2007, start earning a profit in 2008. Look, we’re devoted to this; we want to make it work. But we’re not a charity. We don’t intend to spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing it. We don’t have that kind of money like Rupert Murdoch did and does, to the New York Post, for example. I’m a public Democrat. As you said, I lost the mayoral to Mike Bloomberg by a couple of points in 2001. I’ve spent half my life writing or editing a couple of dozen books, and I’ve held public office in New York City. So I’m devoted to public policy and reform. My brother is a very skilled businessman. And then Scott Elberg is a radio expert who’s there. And the three of us will be overseeing Air America. I think it’s a very strong combination, and when you put together new capital, new management and better programming in this time where I think, speaking metaphorically, if progressive values are a stock, now’s the time to buy. I once asked Bernard Baruch, “Gee, how’d you get so rich?” And he said, “When everyone else was buying, I was selling. When everyone else was selling, I was buying.” So we bought Air America because it was in distress. And I think it’s now the view, right, left and center, that we’ve given it new life, and now it has the chance to survive and thrive.
Scheer: Why did management do so poorly in the previous incarnation, before you bought it? What was it like? Can you pinpoint one major reason why it was such an un-success?
Green: Mistakes were made. [Laughs.]
Harris: [Laughs.] What kind of mistakes?
Green: You know, I’m making fun of Alberto Gonzales. Air America first was afflicted by—to quote Alan Greenspan—irrational exuberance. It was, like, “If we thought of it, it will work.” Well, it doesn’t work like that in the real world. You know how people say no military plan survives its first battle? So they had a concept, started strong. A: One of the initial investors was a fraud. He said he’d give 30 million and he gave zero million, which is a lot less than 30. So there was a stumble at the start just due to individual malfeasance. Second, they didn’t know the market and they overpaid people in the beginning. There were six executives running around, running into each other, each thinking they were the CEO. And so, like anybody, from a stumbling marriage to a stumbling restaurant, you have trial and error, you learn from your mistakes, and you get better. We now are the beneficiaries of all the mistakes in the past, so we’ve cut expenses and we’ve got a very clean management structure. Scott Elberg and I run it. So, we’ll make mistakes, but it won’t be the same mistakes as the people over the last three years. And, finally, you kind of know who the best talents are, so we’re building a lineup that is really going to be strong from morning to late night. And I think affiliates, when they see that the bankruptcy is over, we’re approaching profitability, we have a very, very strong lineup—. Here’s what I mean by strong: It has to have three elements or else it can’t work. It has to be informative, so you learn something when you listen. It has to be opinionated: You want news and views. And it has to be entertaining, it has to be fun to listen to. I could ask someone to read you the dictionary. That’s informational, but—.
Harris: [Chuckles.] There is some competition out there. What do you think about networks like the Nova M?
Green: Sure, there’s competition. My goodness.
Harris: What’s your strategy going to be?
Green: If there’s room for Hannity and Limbaugh, and O’Reilly and Savage—what a perfect name—and others, Laura Ingraham, of course there’s room on the other side. They don’t hate each other; they’re just robust rivals. Think Army/Navy. And there’s other liberal talk that’s not on Air America Radio. In fact, on some of our affiliates where you cannot force a distributor, an affiliate, to run all your programs, they may have a competitive liberal program on. This is a real bottom-line business. [Unintelligible] doesn’t win all the tournaments because he cheats; he’s just better. And if you have ratings—. These stations, whether they’re owned by Clear Channel or by Barbra Streisand, they’ll put on that programming which gets the biggest audience.
Scheer: Are you guys going to get back on Sirius or are you guys sticking with XM right now?
Green: We have a contract with XM. Of course everyone knows that XM and Sirius are trying to merge. That’s outside my pay grade. We’ll know within a year. But of course we want as good a deal as we can for satellite. That’s a new way of distributing radio content. There’re barely Arbitron ratings yet for satellite. We know numbers on terrestrial radio, but, boy, we have to think outside that. I would guess that 10 percent of our audience now stream it live. My son has no habit of listening to radio unless we force him to—he’s 22—in the car. But of course he goes online, is digitally sophisticated and streams. I bet you in five years—and no one can know this—half the audience will be on computers, probably a significant percentage on cell phones and television when a lot of these technologies merge. Of course there’s mobile. You’ve heard of podcasting, I think? Which is what we’re doing. So we have to be alert to all of that. We’re going to have a very substantial new media strategy to complement what is called “old media strategy.”
Harris: And you raise a very valid issue. I’m one that always says, In 10 years terrestrial radio will probably depend only on AM. Nobody will listen to FM. And Internet is definitely the way of the world. At least in my mind. You seem to agree with that idea. But you’ve bought a network that caters to terrestrial form. There’s a bit of irony in that.
Green: No. The technology is just starting. We bought it because we bought a content company. We’re going to be called Air America Media because it’s not going to be just radio. If we can’t, as they say, monetize this over these other ... if we can’t be a multimedia company across these many platforms, I don’t think we’ll exist. This technology is blossoming now. Look at even the campaigns. From 2000 to 2008 is just two election cycles, and someone running in 2000 would not recognize—. When Obama reports his fundraising, I bet you half of it will be online fundraising at 25 bucks a piece. In 2000 George Bush raised 100 percent of his $26 million in the first quarter of ’99 just from fat cats and bundlers. Well, politics is changing, communications is changing, and radio is changing, and if you don’t become multimedia, you just won’t exist as terrestrial radio.
Harris: Let me twist pages a little bit. There was a lot of talk about the Democratic debate appearing on Fox, and you came back with what I thought was a funny reply. You offered the Republicans a chance to air their debates and carry out their debates on Air America Radio. First of all, how funny was that? Have you heard any response from any Republicans, and why do you think the media matters so much, seeing it on Fox or hearing it on Air America?
Green: You’re asking me how funny it was. You can’t ask Jon Stewart how funny his sarcastic jokes are; you let the audience—. So was I deadpan and/or tongue-in-cheek when I wrote the Republican chairs of the four earliest primary and caucus states to have Air America host and air their debate in the same fair and balanced way that Fox wanted to and almost did air the Nevada debate? I think it was pretty funny. They didn’t respond. Here’s my point. Fox can exist. God bless them. But they should be honest. And I believe in truth in advertising. When they say they’re fair and balanced, of course everyone understands the inside joke. Air America is fair but unbalanced. We’re factual. Most of the people who listen to Fox still think Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and ... was behind 9/11. They intentionally mislead their listeners to cater to their clientele and profit from it. And when Nevada Democrats asked Fox to host their debate, I don’t know what the hell they were thinking. Because Fox has a built-in bias and cannot cover Democrats with a straight face. Since Fox complained when Nevada Democrats dropped them, eventually, that it was—I’m quoting—Stalinist and anti-speech for the Nevada Democrats to drop them, I said, “OK, Republicans, have Air America host your debate, and you can be pro-speech and anti-Stalin in one swoop. And I haven’t heard back.
Harris: [Laughs.] Well that’s one way. I certainly enjoy your humor, Mark Green, and look forward to the changes, the coming changes in Air America.
Green: Thank you.
Harris: And, definitely, we are of the same fabric, talking about Truthdig and Air America, so there’s definitely opportunity for partnership in the future because, after all, we are just trying to tell the truth, right?
Green: Well, the three of us believe in truth, justice and the Air American way. And Air America 2.0 wants to convey that we’re not your father’s Oldsmobile, and watch us. I think people will be happy with what we come out with.
Harris: There you have it from Mark Green, the new president of Air America Media. For Josh Scheer, for Mark Green, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.