Readers of this blog know that I've been a big booster of progressive talk radio ever since March 31, 2004, when an unemployed Mr. Brilliant sat in his man cave at noon-oh-six to hear the first words out of Al Franken's mouth on the very first O'Franken Factor
on the new Air America Radio's New York affiliate, WLIB. The next day we discovered the great Morning Sedition
, and for a few brief and wondrous months, there was nonstop progressive talk radio in New York City. We all know about the financing fiasco, with Evan Cohen turning out to be a crook, and general mismanagement by just about all involved
Air America burned brightly on the airwaves for a very short time, and then crashed and burned with the help of some of the most astonishingly bad upper management not named "Carly Fiorina." From The Lionel Show
to The Satellite Sisters
to Springer on the Radio
, the name Air America is now remembered only for schlocky programming and ineptitude. But in its heyday, when one could sit with the dial or button tuned to WLIB from 6 AM, when Morning Sedition came on with Marc Maron exhorting, "Good morning, geniuses...philosopher kings and queens...working class heroes...progressive utopians with no sense of humor..." until one went to sleep at night, there was something brilliant happening out there in the airwaves, something that promised to be a very real alternative to the bellowings of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Mark Levin and Michael Savage and the other hatemongers of right-wing talk. One of its rising stars was a young broadcaster from Massachusetts who had a show with Chuck D and Lizz Winstead. Her name was Rachel Maddow. You may have heard of her.
I was no stranger to prog-talk. I'd stumbled upon the IE America stream about a year or so earlier, when I'd listen to Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes and the few other voices of progressive talk out there. But to have them right there for the taking on terrestrial radio was like finding an oasis in a desert. But in 2006, the contract with WLIB ended, the station went "praise and inspiration" and Air America moved from its 1190 spot on the AM dial, to the much weaker signal of WWRL at 1600, where after 5 PM you can't hear a thing out here in the hinterlands of New Jersey. And that was the beginning of the end for Air America. Today, WWRL has up until now been a home for the last vestiges of talk radio, with the intrepid Mark Riley, late of Morning Sedition
fame, running a polyglot call-in show mixing local issues with national ones; syndication of Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, and Randi Rhodes in between African-American interest broadcasting and infomercials for nutritional supplements.
But as of the end of the year, these last traces of prog-talk will be gone, as WWRL is going Spanish
. Aside from the final nail in the coffin of prog-talk on AM radio in New York, this now means that there are basically only three genres on terrestrial AM radio now: Spanish, sports talk, and news, plus the AM public radio affiliate, just to make you think you have a choice. It may be that the last generation of AM radio listeners is dying out, and future generations will be all about internet radio, which could give podcasters like Air America veteran Sam Seder a larger voice (at no pay other than donations). But there is a loss when the most accessible PUBLIC airwaves only feature one point of view, and it is one of nonstop hate shouted by people with no sense of obligation to reality.
Before Air America began, my afternoon drive time choice was an odd one, and it was on the home of wingnut talk in New York, WABC. At afternoon drive time, the soft-spoken, mainstream liberal, Richard Bey (known best for a trash-TV show in the 1980s) went head-to-head with hysterical right-winger Steve Malzberg. It was engaging programming which gave me the opportunity to yell at the radio and work off the frustrations of the day. Bey was fired in 2003 for opposing the Iraq War and hasn't worked steadily in radio since. Today is his last day subbing for Mark Riley from 6-9 AM. You might want to give him a listen.
Oh, there are those who will say that there's still liberal radio, after all there's NPR (largely corporate-funded, and increasingly showing it), and WBAI, the endlessly-struggling Pacifica station. But Pacifica has always seemed kind of stuck in 1968 and its impotent sloganeering has long since grown tiresome. The early Air America programming was lively, if uneven, and had the gonzo energy of pirate radio, a sense of fun, of "Hey, kids, let's put on a radio show!", of throwing shit up against the wall to see what sticks. It was exhilirating and infuriating and perfect for the Bush years. Maybe as the Bush years settled into the perennial disappointment of the Obama years, we all just grew tired of the whole thing, tired of fighting a battle in which our own side couldn't be bothered to join us, instead preferring to take the scraps from the Koch brothers' table after the Republicans got done gorging themselves. Or maybe because unlike the right, we just don't draw our life energy from rage and fear and loathing 24 hours a day. What I do know is that as of January 1, New York will have its most progressive mayor in a generation, and no real radio voice for those who want to support him. WBAI is still going to be focused on freeing Mumia, the sports talkers will be screeching about how awful the Knicks are, and you'll be able to hear all the salsa you want.
Elvis Costello was on to something back in 1977 when he defied Lorne Michaels and insisted on playing his scathing ode to corporate radio on Saturday Night Live
I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
doing anything my radio advised
with every one of those late night stations
playing songs bringing tears to me eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
when the switch broke 'cause it's old
They're saying things that I can hardly believe.
They really think we're getting out of control.
Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice
'cause they think that it's treason.
So you had better do as you are told.
You better listen to the radio.
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.
I wanna bite that hand so badly.
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me.
Some of my friends sit around every evening
and they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
and the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up;
they don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel
Labels: Air America, Morning Sedition, Rachel Maddow, talk radio