Air America: Challenges of Liberal Media

I noticed the news about Air America.

Air America Dies, Failing to Make Transition to Web
By Kate Kaye

In a memo sent to staff today and repeated on the company’s homepage, Air America Media Chair Charlie Kireker wrote, “though Internet/new media revenues are projected to grow, our expanding online efforts face the same monetization and profitability challenges in the short term confronting the Web operations of most media companies.”

The company aired its last live program this afternoon, and plans to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy soon, according to the memo. It blamed a “very difficult economic environment,” along with drastically dropping national and local ad revenues.

I wasn’t a fan of Air America and don’t know much about its history, but I was just now doing a bit of research about it. It seems that it never had much financial backing which is a problem for liberal media. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh became successful because they had massive financial backing to begin with. Both lost money for a long time before making money. Conservative ideology is more welcoming to the interests of big business.  
 
Some think of NPR as being liberal in the way Fox News is conservative, but that isn’t true. NPR is rather moderate and doesn’t have any extremely opinionated talk show hosts. There is no equivalent of Fox News on the left (and certainly no equivalent of talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh). Fox News is successful because it aligns itself both with big business and with the Republican party. Fox News is backed by the largest transnational media corporation in the world and has hired many major Republicans such as Roger Ailes.  
 
I don’t think any liberal equivalent is possible. By definition liberalism isn’t as welcoming of the interests of big business. Also, it goes against liberal ideology to create a network that is the propaganda wing of the Democratic party. Liberals genuinely idealize the notion of media neutrality. You can argue whether they live up to that ideal, but at least they believe in it. Sadly, media neutrality doesn’t make money.

The conservatives are all excited about the demise of Air America. One example is the blog post Air America files for bankruptcy which I responded to.

The failure of Air America isn’t necessarily surprising. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh had major financial backing from the beginning, but Air America didn’t. Fox News was aligned with big business interests as it was created by a big business. Fox News had the financial backing to lose money for years and had the political backing to hire people who worked for the Republican party such as Roger Ailes. As for Limbaugh, his show became popular because it originally was given away for free.

You can only make money if you have money. And you can only get money if you promote the interests of those with the money.

The problem with mainstream media right now is that it’s dominated by corporations, and most of these corporations are transnationals that have no allegiance to any given country. They’re only interest is to make money and not to offer quality news reporting. It’s actually against their interests to offer quality news reporting because that might rock the boat.

I noticed the article Franken’s Time: Why Liberal Talk Radio Fails by Andrew Sullivan. The author starts out with what an appearance of fair analysis but quickly shows he doesn’t have much insight.

“Conservatives, in general, are happy to confess their biases. Liberals like to think their biases are actually reality.”

Close but not quite right. Some liberals may mistake their biases for reality, but there is a strong faction of conservatives that wants to create their own reality. The best evidence of the relationship to reality can be demonstrated by science. Most scientists are liberals and few scientists are conservatives (6% are Republican). Science is the ultimate ideal of factual reality, and it’s a worldview that appeals to liberals more than conservatives.

“So liberal radio – in its purest form – already exists.”

So-called liberal radio is rather moderate in comparison to Fox News. Conservative radio gives voice to ideological extremists with opinions that often aren’t even held by a majority of Americans. The far left progressives don’t have much voice in mainstream media. Mainstream media is mostly pro-war and rarely does investigative journalism about big business. Mainstream media is conservative in supporting the status quo. Read some Chomsky if you want to understand why this is the case.

“And taxpayers subsidize it.”

Public radio actually doesn’t get much public money. It’s mostly funded by donations which is as grassroots as you can get. Fox News, on the other hand, was financed at a loss for years by a transnational corporation. As for NPR, wealthy capitalists have gotten more money from bailouts, tax cuts and government contracts than NPR has ever received from the government.  Heck, even corn farmers probably have been more heavily subsidized than NPR.

“The reason Fox News works is that its anchors and journalists are still obviously angry at being outsiders to the mainstream media culture. So they have an edge. They’re still fighting. They’re still angry.”

Outsiders? That is obviously a joke. Fox News was financed at a loss for years by the largest transnational media corporation in the world. Roger Ailes was hired and he was one of the main spin-meisters for the Republican party. Ailes was known for using race and fake townhall meetings as political tactics in winning presidential campaigns. Besides Ailes, other Republican lackeys were hired.

“And here, of course, is where left-wing populist radio does have a chance. At some point, the media culture may tip in enough of a rightward direction (thanks to Fox, Drudge, talk-radio, etc etc) that the establishment may eventually become conservative.”

The mainstream media has been pro-war and pro-big business for decades. How more conservative can they get? What demographics shows is that the country is finally moving in a liberal direction. The creation of Fox News doesn’t prove that the mainstream media was liberal. What it proves is that moderate conservatism had become so mainstream that extreme conservatism could present itself as something new and different. The only thing that actually changed is that conservatism stopped hiding it’s agenda and became overt in it’s message.

“Al Franken has only really come alive when bashing O’Reilly or Limbaugh. And the reason we listeners or readers or viewers are on his side is because he’s a bit of an underdog up against these multi-millionaire conservative populists.”

If you really want to listen to the underdogs, then pay attention to the socialist libertarians such as Chomsky and Zinn. Even the libertarian movement has been mostly taken over by big business think tanks.

“Alas, the other missing ingredient for liberal media is intellectual firepower. On this, the left has actually gone soft. In academia, left-liberalism is so entrenched its advocates’ debating skills have gone rusty. When you’ve been talking to yourself for decades and imposing speech codes on everyone else, your ability to argue coherently – let alone entertainingly – inevitably wanes. And when you look at the political parties today, it’s only the Republicans who are really still fighting over ideas.”

Well, in academia, most everyone is liberal (except maybe in business management and engineering)… and almost all scientists are liberal. A conservative intellectual is a rare thing. The Republican fight over ideas is in reality a fight over ideology. Republicans deny science when ever they get the chance. What are ideas without facts? The intellectuals who are analyzing our political system are mostly far left liberals who are not included in mainstream media and politics. So, it’s true that the Democratic party isn’t as welcoming to intellectual dissent as it could be… which isn’t to say that the Republican party is welcoming either.

In conclusion, it would be false to call Air America a failure.  Al Franken became more respectable in politics because of his time spent there.  Other people who hosted there such as Rachel Maddow went on to host elsewhere.  Air America had a powerful impact.

Beyond Air America, I was wondering why talk radio is dominated by conservatives. The population in general isn’t dominated by conservatives. And media in general isn’t dominated by the far right that is common on talk radio. So, what is the major malfunction?

One answer given by Nathan Harden (The Death of Air America: Why Liberals Fail at Talk Radio) is the different demographic of radio listeners:

“Conservative talk radio listeners have an average age of 67. Meanwhile, the 65 and over bracket is the Republican party’s strongest demographic. Younger (and typically more liberal) individuals are not as likely to listen to talk radio. […] To find a young audience, you have to turn to television, which offers the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.”

As such, maybe radio is a losing battle for liberals. Then again, maybe traditional talk radio is dying out anyways as it’s audience ages and so maybe it just doesn’t matter in the long run. There is one theory that young liberals become more conservative as they age, but I doubt that is the case. Demographics prove that the young now are more progressive than past generations of youth. The strong opinions of old people aren’t even shared by most middle-aged people. Old people come from a different time in US history and it’s a time that isn’t likely to ever return.

Another answer is that conservative talk radio is just one format. Even though the terrestrial radio waves are dominated by conservatives, satellite radio has many popular liberal talk radio hosts.  Also, liberals in general are doing well on the internet.  One contributing factor to Air America’s failure was because it couldn’t transition to the internet as the internet was already fully of the likes of The Huffington Post and Daily Kos. Newer technologies such as satellite radio and the internet have more future than terrestrial radio. I’ve read that where both conservative and liberal talk show is available, liberal talk shows compete just fine.

Also, the apparent dominance of Fox News is also skewed.  Liberals prefer many sources because liberals prefer multiple perspectives (a liberal would be ashamed to be called a dittohead). If you add all of the liberal audience from all liberal media, there is no reason to think it would be smaller than the conservative audience.

Despite all of that, the conservative slant of traditional radio isn’t to be dismissed.

The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio
By John Halpin, James Heidbreder, Mark Lloyd, Paul Woodhull, Ben Scott, Josh Silver, S. Derek Turner

Despite the dramatic expansion of viewing and listening options for consumers today, traditional radio remains one of the most widely used media formats in America. Arbitron, the national radio ratings company, reports that more than 90 percent of Americans ages 12 or older listen to radio each week, “a higher penetration than television, magazines, newspapers, or the Internet.” Although listening hours have declined slightly in recent years, Americans listened on average to 19 hours of radio per week in 2006.

Among radio formats, the combined news/talk format (which includes news/talk/information and talk/personality) leads all others in terms of the total number of stations per format and trails only country music in terms of national audience share. Through more than 1,700 stations across the nation, the combined news/talk format is estimated to reach more than 50 million listeners each week.

As this report will document in detail, conservative talk radio undeniably dominates the format:

  • Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive.
  • Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.
  • A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such as New York and Chicago.

Those aren’t small numbers. The demographics and the technological landscape is changing, but for now conservative talk radio is still kicking ass and taking numbers.

There are many potential explanations for why this gap exists. The two most frequently cited reasons are the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and simple consumer demand. As this report will detail, neither of these reasons adequately explains why conservative talk radio dominates the airwaves.

Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management.

Ownership diversity is perhaps the single most important variable contributing to the structural imbalance based on the data. Quantitative analysis conducted by Free Press of all 10,506 licensed commercial radio stations reveals that stations owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows.

In contrast, stations controlled by group owners—those with stations in multiple markets or more than three stations in a single market—were statistically more likely to air conservative talk. Furthermore, markets that aired both conservative and progressive programming were statistically less concentrated than the markets that aired only one type of programming and were more likely to be the markets that had female- and minority-owned stations.

Basically, what this means is that deregulation contributed to big business dominating the public airwaves with their conservative ideology. It’s actually more of an issue of diversity, but without regulation there is nothing to ensure diversity.  America is demographically diverse and would choose diverse radio talk shows if they were offered, but it isn’t in the interest of big business to offer diverse programming.

I came across this issue before and wrote about it in an earlier post: Ralph Brauer: Revolutions & Liberal America.

The Strange Death of Liberal America
By Ralph Brauer
pp 32-36

A second decision that became equally important for the Counterrevolution was the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.  First enacted in 1949, the FCC ruling looked into the future and decided that because they operated in the public interest, the mass media should present all sides of controversial questions.  The Supreme Court upheld the Fairness Doctrine in the 1969 Red Lion case, still generally considered as one of the Court’s landmark decisions.

Red Lion  not only involves the Religous Right but also foretells exactly what would happen with repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.  The case began when the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the Jerry Falwell of his day, accused the author of a book on Barry Goldwater of being a communist.  The author sued under the Fairness Doctrine and the Court found in his favor.  In its decision the Court said the Fairness Doctrine serves to “enhance rather than abridge the freedoms of speechand press protected by the First Amendment.”  It also noted that “when a personal attack has been made on a figure involved in a public issue” the doctrine requires that “the individual attacked himself be offered an opportunity to respond.”

In 1987, an FCC packed with commissioners appointed by Ronald Reagan voted to repeal the Fairness Doctrine.  When Congress tried to overrule the decision by passing a law extending the doctrine, Reagan vetoed it.  Just as the Buckley decision opened the door to single-issue PACS, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine opened the door wide for ideologues like Robertson.

I don’t know what this means for the future, but it does explain how conservative ideology has became so dominant in recent decades. I hope it changes as the demographics keep shifting towards the liberal. Conservatives have a tight grip, though, and they’re not going to give up their position of power without a fight. The corporations that fund the conservative media have deep pockets and the Republican party has proven itself savvy in astro-turfing social movements. Conservatives have been able to challenge abortion and public option even though the majority of Americans support them. How can liberals successfully fight such media control. If conservative corporations ever find a way to control the internet, the liberal movement is a lost cause.