I do think the liberal programming that has occurred here has been far too extremist… It's not our job to get a Democrat elected to Congress. We need to be funny, we need to be enjoyable, and I don't think that existed at this company three years ago.The person who said it? Air America VP of Programming David Bernstein, in a conversation about the new direction the network is heading in.
What's going on? I spoke with Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine -- the self-described "Bible of Talk Radio" – about the radio network's new approach. What is someone to make of the fact that a VP is being so critical of the network's early days?
His response? "I think Bernstein was smart to say it. As a broadcasting company, it was a total failure. It was an interesting item in the news, but as a broadcasting company it went bankrupt. So these other people buy it at a bargain price and realize that it has negative brand identification," Harrison noted. "Saying Air America Radio doesn't get you anywhere – it actually hurts you. So it's smart of Bernstein to say what he's saying, that they're going to run an entertaining and progressive programming schedule that fits in more with the mainstream audience.
"It was far too politically motivated and not motivated to gather an audience and generate revenue. It just wasn't a good business plan. They ran it like a campaign, rather than a broadcasting company."
I mentioned an article I wrote a few years ago talking about unlocking the secrets of successful talk radio, and he nodded ... or as least as close as someone can get to nodding over the phone.
"It's not about party politics or electoral politics," Harrison agreed. "It's about entertainment. It's about being a compelling speaker and attracting people to listen. Some political content, sure. And some story telling. Along with charisma. It's an elusive mix of traits that makes for good radio."
I asked Harrison if there was a fatal flaw he could put his finger on in the previous formula, and he responded. "The biggest problem that the original Air America had was that it was trying to knock off conservative talk show hosts, when they should have presented their own vision of America. That would be like watching HBO's "Inside the NFL" and seeing them talked about what's wrong with baseball, or why you shouldn't watch baseball."
As far as this writer is concerned, the new direction at Air America is a good call, if for no other reason than business sense. The old way clearly didn't work. The people who call themselves 'liberal' or 'progressive' are not one audience block. Just as there are many shades of red in conservative America, liberals are a diverse group of people whose world view leads them to identify with the blue staters.
The audience that Air America originally catered to – as far as this writer could tell from occasional listens — were predominantly engaged (enraged?) and activist liberals. In other words, the true believers, the pamphlet-pushers. By focusing their content on this audience, Air America ended up turning off other liberals searching for left-oriented content, sure, but also entertaining material .. not the strident stuff they got with the original regime.
Strident? That's what blogs are for – and many of them on both sides are darn good at it. But when it comes to something you want to tune into in the car on the way to or from work, many want something a little less vitriolic.
So the left now has different media gradations. Like the right, they have their Red Bull energized media options like "Democracy Now" and countless blogs – or they can have the decaffeinated version. Air America Radio is shifting to a lower gear.