Those of you who didn't know the liberal talk-radio network Air America was actually broadcasting for the past six years shouldn't start looking for it now. Last month, it filed for bankruptcy (again) and closed its mouths for good.
While liberal talk continues, listeners in many parts of the country can't hear left-of-center voices without a good helping of Internet. Air America's talkers had no foothold in the Delaware Valley other than a short, scattered stint on WHAT-AM (1340). Sure, there are some talented progressive talkers, but I challenge you to name one.
There have been assorted explanations for Air America's failure. It "was undercapitalized and overmanaged," said Jon Sinton, the network's first president and COO. "New money came with strings. There was no stability in programming, and weak distribution made it tough to compete."
Some attribute it to attitude. "Most of liberal talk has been angry and agenda-driven, not entertainment-driven," said Andy Bloom, program director at WPHT-AM (1210), the broadcast home of conservative talk superstars. "Despite what most liberals think, the truth about Rush Limbaugh and the conservative talkers with large audiences is that they are entertainers first and conservatives second."
All that may be, but the crux of liberal talk's inability to match up to right-wing talk isn't the business plan or the lack of a Limbaugh. It's a failure to understand its audience.
Sure, there are those on the left who will buy 24 hours a day of "we're right, they're wrong." They may appreciate the intellect and snark of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow or the near-Shakespearean pique of a Keith Olbermann. But they don't come anywhere near the number that tune in for Glenn Beck's weepy demagoguery or Bill O'Reilly's deceitful scolding.
Before Limbaugh, talk radio was about wanting to know what you think. Today, it's telling you what you should think. The liberal audience doesn't work that way; reaching a consensus on the left is like herding cats.
Wouldn't it make sense to go to your strength, not try to mimic your opponent's? The left needs to pay attention to the success of Comedy Central's one-two punch of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don't necessarily reach the numbers of Limbaugh, Beck, or Sean Hannity, but they have cornered the market on political satire, and there's no denying their influence.
About the only progressive radio voice who seems to understand that is Dial Global's Stephanie Miller. A radio veteran and former standup comedian, Miller understands political satire and uses it. Her comic point of view has made her a darling of the cable news circuit. It's also gotten good ratings in major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.
Of course, the left also has to use the Internet and other new media. But if it wants to compete in radio, it's more likely to succeed by satirizing rather than Hannitizing.