Reclaiming the Air

This spring, if all goes according to plan, a new radio network with programs modeled after Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will make its debut. The viewpoint of the venture is the big news. Air America Radio, as it's now being called, promises to be the first commercial network with a liberal political outlook in a medium that for years has been dominated by conservatives.

Of all the media, radio has undergone the most decisive shift to the right during the past two decades. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative talk-show hosts do not merely outdraw and outnumber liberals; they have hardly any progressive competition at the national level. Although public-radio stations broadcast liberal voices, they do not offer a counterweight to the hard-right slant of talk radio and the express support that its biggest stars provide the Republican Party. Limbaugh played a critical role in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and in George W. Bush's defeat of John McCain and Al Gore in 2000. The Democrats have no one on the air who can rally their troops.

Two aspects of radio make it difficult today to redress the political balance. People generally listen to stations for their format -- Top 40, country, rock, news, talk -- rather than a specific program. Radio stations are "mood buttons," as Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications, calls them. Once Limbaugh and others established the conservative talk format, other shows along similar lines fit readily into that model and mood. But liberal talk shows on the same buttons haven't succeeded -- the audience wasn't theirs. A serious liberal enterprise in radio now faces the challenge of creating an entire lineup for a new format -- a far more expensive proposition than producing a few hours of programming.

But getting this new lineup on the air is also harder today than it was even a decade ago because of the changed structure of the industry. Since Congress eliminated limits on station ownership in 1996, large chains with centralized decision making have taken over a growing share of commercial stations, including many of the strongest and most desirable ones in top markets. "You can't rely on a syndication strategy because of central decisions about programming," argues Kaplan, who has been involved in Air America's development. National distribution, in this view, requires full control of a network's major-market stations by leasing them or buying them outright. That means a liberal network has to jump over an even higher investment hurdle.

Conservative domination of talk radio seems so well entrenched that many take it as an unalterable part of the political landscape. To conservatives themselves, it's proof of popular support, as if the country weren't split nearly down the middle in elections and opinion surveys. And even some liberals wonder whether there isn't something about radio as a medium that lends itself to the right.

History doesn't support that interpretation. In the United States, radio has twice served as a critical medium of progressive change. During the 1930s and '40s, when conservative publishers dominated the press, Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal agencies reached the public directly through the airwaves. Although right-wing figures also got on the air, radio was a political equalizer for liberals. Surveys from the period show that Democrats were more oriented to radio, Republicans to newspapers. Radio, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld wrote in 1941, "is probably at this moment the most neutral and fairest institution in the country" because of the balance between "the businessmen who own it" and the New Dealers who regulate it.

During the 1950s and '60s, radio played a key role in progressive change for a second time, even as the medium underwent a transformation after the advent of television. Previously, radio stations had offered a variety of entertainment programs, broadcasting the most popular network shows in the prime-time evening hours. When TV took over that role in family entertainment, radio stations switched to particular formats, beginning with Top 40. FM, though invented three decades earlier, finally took off in the 1960s, increasing the number of channels, and public radio began to develop. Growing concentration of ownership and control has been the dominant trend in much of the media in the 20th century, but the postwar decades in radio were the opposite. Federal Communications Commission regulations limited the number of stations any corporation could own, the networks declined, and radio actually became more local and decentralized than during its golden age. It was in this new context that rock 'n' roll, alternative radio, and black stations took off. Though seemingly eclipsed by television, radio was arguably more important than TV in the cultural and political upheaval of the '60s.

Two decades later, political change contributed to the rise of right-wing talk shows. In 1987, Ronald Reagan's appointees to the FCC abandoned the fairness doctrine, which had required broadcast stations to maintain editorial balance and to offer reply time to those who were personally attacked on the air. As a result of deregulation, talk stations could cater to a particular ideological audience, just as music stations adopted a single style. By the 1980s, satellite technology was also making it cheaper to transmit talk shows and other programs nationwide and creating the basis for new radio networks to expand.

In the same period, as a white male backlash developed against feminism and affirmative action, a gender gap emerged in voter preferences -- and a corresponding gap emerged between daytime television and radio. The contrast between Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh epitomizes the difference. While the daytime TV audience is primarily female, the radio audience, especially during the crucial drive-time hours, is disproportionately male. Drivers also typically listen to the radio alone, uninhibited by the presence of other members of their families. Thus, both the demographic profile of drive-time listeners and the mode of reception lent itself to a macho brand of talk that repudiated liberalism and the social changes it had championed since the '60s.

Although talk-show hosts such as Howard Stern and Don Imus also exemplified a macho, anti-feminist style, Limbaugh played the primary role in creating a model for right-wing radio entertainment. After going national in 1988 -- he had previously been a DJ in Sacramento -- Limbaugh helped to assemble the national audience for the conservative talk format and served as the link between the Republican Party and much of its base constituency. In 1990, according to the trade publication Inside Radio, there were 360 news-talk stations; by 1994, the number had risen to 1,197 -- and, according to Inside Radio Editor Tom Taylor, Limbaugh was the catalyst. Of course, Limbaugh didn't come up with three hours of material a day on his own. During the previous two decades, conservative donors had built up think tanks, publishing houses, and a new generation of conservative intellectuals. Limbaugh retailed their work, amplifying its impact.

Air America Radio has the potential to serve the same function for liberals. But the model is entertainment, particularly satire, rather than the kind of sober talk listeners can already get on National Public Radio. Two earlier efforts to put liberal Limbaughs on the air -- Texas populist Jim Hightower and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo -- have served as cautionary experiences. Before they were canceled, their shows ran on talk stations dominated by conservative hosts, violating what Air America's president, Jon Sinton, calls the rule of "formatic purity" in radio. Just as you wouldn't tune in to a country station to hear jazz, so you wouldn't turn to a conservative talk station to get a liberal show. Plus, Hightower and Cuomo weren't funny enough -- well, Cuomo wasn't funny at all. Which is why Air America is creating an entire format rather than isolated programs and, for two of its main shows, has signed up comedians rather than politicians as hosts: Al Franken, perhaps the single most talented liberal satirist at work today, and Lizz Winstead, a producer of The Daily Show.

Mark Walsh, CEO of Air America's parent company Progress Media, told me in early February that the network would begin broadcasting in four or five of the biggest metropolitan areas this April and add two or three more major markets by summer. The company wants to start with a "self-contained" network that is independent of any other organization's decisions and will therefore either purchase the initial stations or lease them full time. But later expansion, Walsh said, will likely involve syndication or affiliation deals to put Air America programs on stations not under its control. Some of those might be underperforming stations that belong to the major chains.

According to Taylor of Inside Radio, Air America will necessarily have to "take what they can get," which will be lesser facilities; "the big groups already have the space they have" and are not going to part with their successful stations. Any new network would face this obstacle, says another industry observer, Mark Fratrik of BIA, a company that does economic analysis of stations. Fratrik insists that stations are available and that the fate of Air America will depend on the ratings it draws.

As Sinton and Walsh see it, their network is responding to a business opportunity. According to a calculation by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, each week the 44 highest-rated talk stations carry 312 hours of conservative shows compared with just five hours from the other side. That ratio suggests there is a "format hole" that a liberal network could fill. What's especially striking is that the imbalance exists even in some of the most liberal parts of the country. San Francisco now has two conservative talk stations (KSFO and KNEW), as does Seattle (KVI and KTTH). In an ideal free market, there ought to be plenty of opportunity to offer more liberal programming. But it's not so simple. The barriers to entry -- to starting up a new format -- are formidable. Let's hope that even with the formidable challenges the structure of radio now presents, it's not too late for a liberal network to succeed. Whatever happens, Air America will send an important signal. We'll be listening.

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