(Excerpted in this week's Philadelphia Inquirer
For those of you that hadn't known the liberal talk radio network, Air America, was actually broadcasting for the past six years, it won't do you any good to start looking. Recently, facing what seems to be its umpteenth bankruptcy filing, it closed its mouths for good.
While liberal talk continues, listeners in many parts of the country can't hear those left of center voices without a good helping of Internet. Sure, there's some talented progressive talkers. I challenge you to name one. In Philadelphia, other than a short and scattered stint on WHAT, Air America talkers had no footing in the Delaware Valley.
There have been assorted explanations for Air America Radio's failure. "Air America was undercapitalized and overmanaged - new money came with strings," said Jon Sinton, AAR's first President and COO. "There was no stability in programming and weak distribution made it tough to compete with 50,000 watt Clear Channel stations as well as a right wing that had a twenty-five year head start." Some attribute it to attitude. "Most of liberal talk has been angry and agenda driven, not entertainment driven," said WPHT program director, Andy Bloom. "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. If it were the other way around they wouldn't get ratings."
Whether true or not, the one element that may just be the crux of the liberal's inability to match up to the power of the right talk as entertainment or political soap box doesn't lie in business plan nor lack of a Limbaugh. The inability to gain audience comes from a general lack of understanding of their audience. Sure there's those out there who will buy into 24/7 we're right, they're wrong snake oil that push righteous anger right into the voting booth. But what the right calls entertainment - like Limbaugh's repeated play of "Obama, the Magic Negro" - doesn't exactly resonate with the left's entertainment ear. The right's political comedy has failed both on small (Fox News' Half Hour Comedy Hour - featuring Limbaugh and the hilarious Ann Coulter) and large (An American Carol, featuring O'Reilly) screen.
It's the same over on the picture box. Oh, they may appreciate the intellect of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow or the near-Shakespearean pique of a Keith Olbermann, but certainly not anywhere near the numbers that drive the conservative audience to the crocodile tears and demagoguery of a Beck or the deceitful scolding of an O'Reilly. "On Fox you hear both sides," said a displeased O'Reilly, upset with an Inquirer editorial, "but you don't hear both sides in the Philadelphia Inquirer." I guess to Bill, the Inquirer's regular liberal contributors like Rick Santorum, John Yoo, Kevin Ferris and Charles Krauthammer bear no evidence of balance. The left would roll their eyes at that misinformation, but it's gospel to O'Reilly's number-one-audience-in-cable Folks.
Before Limbaugh, talk radio was about hosts wanting to know what you think. Today it's hosts telling you what you should think. The progressive audience wants to figure that out itself. While successful conservative talk radio thrives on an audience in near full agreement with the host, gathering a consensus from the left is like herding cats. So, what is the food bag you need to shake to attract left's attention? If entertainment is the number one draw for political talk radio, don't you first have to figure out what entertains listeners on the left?
One possibility, of course, is that there is none, certainly not that will draw the numbers that will compete with the right, but then again 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 pure numbers of Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck, but they have cornered the market on TV political satire and there's no denying their influence.
About the only progressive radio voice who seems to understand that message is Dial Media's syndicated, Stephanie Miller. A radio veteran and former standup she understands political satire and uses it expertly (and sometimes not so expertly) to make political points. Her comic point of view has made her the newest darling of Larry King and the rest of the cable TV news circuit. It's worked on the radio dial with Miller landing top ratings in major cities like L.A. and Chicago.
Of course, the great talk divide is far more than just an infotainment advantage. Conservative talkers impact elections and if we're talking political clout the left needs to look at the big picture. Instead of going toe to toe with a knockout puncher wouldn't it make sense to use all your skills to counter, jab and box: new technology, Internet, Iphones, satellite. It's more talk media than talk radio. Radio needs only to be one part. But if the left wants to play in that arena, it won't be Hannitizing as much as satirizing.
A former liberal radio talk show host and political editor of National Lampoon, Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful...Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Steppingstones to Success. www.(greatfailure.com) and blogs at steveyoungonpolitics.com