Hillary’s Slide and Air America’s Rage Against the Machine
Hllary Clinton’s nomination is perhaps not inevitable after all, but while we wait to find out, it’s worth contemplating the possible role of progressive talk radio in creating the tide that may now suck her under.
Air America Radio was developed to counter the dominant conservative brand of AM talk radio. In recognition that Rush Limbaugh had been influential in fomenting the Republican Revolution of 1994, and that Rush and dozens of Rush emulators made up a conservative spin industry, 19 hours a day across the nation, Democrats wanted a similar venue.
Clinton is said to have been among those who conceived the progressive talk product, and to have tried without success to introduce large investors to Air America’s wealthy founder. The network got off the ground in 2004, and bumped along for a while with marquee talent famous for other show business accomplishments, but uninitiated to radio and badly suited to the business. These personalities had been recruited for their celebrity names and their political outspokenness.
The hosts were hampered not only by their ineptitude with the medium, but by Air America’s apparent mission, which was nonstop excoriation of George W. Bush and Republicans. There were regular guest slots, for instance, featuring wonks from the Center for American Progress, a think tank run by former members of the Clinton administration, to dissect the internal workings of the Bush administration. (From a Clintonian point of view, one presumes, but it was so boring, who could pay attention?)
It’s a tough trick for the most seasoned personalities to deliver policy details in a crisp and entertaining fashion. Beyond that, such content simply isn’t interesting enough by itself to sustain mass listenership. There’s so much more going on in the nation that could be discussed in politically progressive terms, but the hosts were either confined by management, or it didn’t occur to them to wander farther afield.
Air America had to be financially rescued with new ownership. The high-profile radio rookies were replaced with radio professionals. Air America’s prime dayparts were staffed at last with real talk radio hosts, rather than actors who love politics. They dance to their own drummers.
This was great for Air America, which sounds a lot more polished these days. But it may have been bad for Hillary. Air America has settled into its rightful niche, which is on the bleeding edge of progressive politics. What was perhaps unanticipated at its conception, (oddly enough) was that if progressive talk radio could survive, it would survive because of its very progressiveness. Being wildly moderate does not breed passion or success. Successful branding would necessarily place the product well outside the territory occupied by mainstream Democrats.
The audience would largely consist of political junkies and well-educated liberals who want to drill deeper into events than does the mainstream media. They would also want to hear something more in-your-face than than public broadcasting can provide.
Deep drilling automatically penetrates the protective bubble where mainstream politicians live. If done in earnest, it doesn’t spare the mushy middle. This puts Air America not on the Hillary Track, but on the Kucinich-Edwards-Obama track. An sampling of Air America during a typical week offers a whole lot of criticism of Hillary Clinton. She’s not sufficiently anti-war. Her experience is regularly called into question. She gets criticism for everything from the Iranian Red Guard vote to her defense of lobbying, to her status as a Clinton in the Bush-Clinton 20-year White House dynasty.
While the hosts regularly say they’ll support her if she’s the nominee, she doesn’t seem to be anyone’s preference. Be Careful what you wish for.
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