The Lessons of Air America.

Danny Goldberg, a music-industry veteran and prominent progressive donor who spent what he describes as "one unhappy year midway through Air America's life as its CEO" has an interesting piece on Alternet about the radio network's demise. While it's true that there was terrible mismanagement over the course of Air America's existence, Goldberg argues that the whole idea of an ideologically driven radio network that could generate profits was probably misguided:

The fatal flaw in Air America's genetic code was the pretense that liberal talk radio was a great business opportunity, that progressives could have their cake and eat it too, could do well by doing good, make big salaries and get a great return on investment while also pursuing an ideological agenda. Sure, every once in a while political media like Michael Moore's movies or Rush Limbaugh's radio show will make money, but for those interested in influencing public opinion, media in all venues is vital whether it makes money or not.

Air America's lesser-known competitor, Democracy Radio, had a more coherent rationale. Set up as a non-profit it spawned the Ed Schultz Show and the Stephanie Miller show, both of which survive but would never have been launched were it not for Democracy Radio's initial funding. (Democracy Radio folded in 2006 as a result of a lack of financial support from progressive donors.)

Fox News is just about the only profitable ideological media outlet in existence -- and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has sunk millions into money-losing ventures like the New York Post and the Weekly Standard (which he recently sold to Philip Anschutz, another conservative mogul willing to support it). It's true that people like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage generate large profits, but they are individual hosts who worked their way up through the existing radio infrastructure. They got hired or added to a station only when they could be profitable. They weren't part of a conservative radio network created by conservative businesspeople hoping to turn a profit while furthering their ideology.

Likewise, there are no profitable political magazines.  Some, like the Weekly Standard or the New Republic, have a wealthy benefactor who doesn't mind losing millions of dollars to support what he thinks is a worthy endeavor. Others, like TAP, are nonprofit organizations that receive donations. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but it's just the reality of magazine publishing (all the more reason why you should donate).

This all applies to "old" media, but not new. On the Internet, where costs are minimal, lots of ideologically driven sites make money. But in retrospect, it appears that for all its avoidable missteps, Air America may have been doomed from the start.

Though it was unsustainable as a profit-making venture, during its tenure Air America did spread a progressive message to millions of Americans. It also gave Al Franken the platform that ended up lifting him to the Senate, and perhaps most visibly, gave the world Rachel Maddow.

If profits aren't the point, where should progressive media go now? I'm glad you asked, because Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke have an article right here on TAP today, in which they lay out some of the strategic advice in their new book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media. Check it out.

-- Paul Waldman

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