Will liberals succeed in talk radio? Air America Radio goes on the air today in an attempt to prove that they can. We are two right-wing media veterans who say to them: Good luck -- you're going to need it!
Talk radio is a medium for expressing clear-cut, black-and-white, passionately articulated views. Nuances don't work. But as Roger Craver, the dean of direct-mail liberal fundraising, told us: Liberals "have this Y chromosome that looks for balance and dignity and decency.... They don't know how to go for the jugular. That's one reason why liberals haven't done well in mass communications."
Will this be a problem for Al Franken, Air America's headliner? In Russell Shorto's recent profile of him in the New York Times Magazine, Franken comes across as a nuanced liberal, much like John F. Kerry. But on talk radio you want to sound like Howard Dean or Ralph Nader, not like Kerry. If Al Franken is going to be the John Kerry of talk radio, Air America is in trouble.
Success in this realm also requires a long-term commitment. Conservatives didn't build their "alternative media" empire overnight. It was the result of decades of hard work -- mastering direct mail in the 1970s, talk radio in the 1980s, and cable television and the Internet in the 1990s. Yet Franken reportedly has signed only a one-year contract and says "I'm doing this because I want to use my energies to get Bush unelected. I'd be happy if the election of a Democrat ended the show."
That attitude doesn't bode well for Air America. If all they want to do is elect Kerry, their money would be better spent buying radio and TV time, not starting a new network.
And about the money. From what we've read, Air America's business plan seems optimistic. Starting a network with clout, and then running it, will cost a lot more than the $20 million to $30 million in capital they've raised so far. And to expect to start making a profit in just four years is unrealistic. Air America is an idea that needs an infusion of $100 million from, say, George Soros. But then, Soros seems to be more interested in defeating Bush than in building a long-term movement, just like Franken.
But let's assume that the network's executives have longer-term aspirations than Franken and Soros. They'd better worry about what happens if Kerry does win in November. Will their liberal audience feel so happy and vindicated that they no longer need solace on the radio dial? Building an alternative media presence works best when the other side is in power and your audience is disgruntled and seeking power.
Air America requires a mass ideological movement to sustain it, and if a robust liberal movement exists today, it can teach the Air Force something about stealth. Calling its potential audience "progressive" -- rather than "liberal" -- fools no one. And the network shouldn't confuse the battles between Democrats and Republicans with building a movement. Partisan fervor lasts for four years max; a movement, as we said, requires decades.
The latest news for liberals in this regard is dismal. Hal Malchow, a leading fundraiser for the Democratic Party, told us: "The size of the donor list on the liberal side has been shrinking. A lot. The basic liberal universe that's available to the DNC [Democratic National Committee] right now is probably around a half-million to 600,000 unique names that we don't have yet as donors. Ten years ago it would have been a million, million-and-a-half names." By way of comparison, the Republican Party solicits new donors from conservative lists totaling 5 million or more names.
Fear of black-and-white positions. Short-term myopia. Inadequate capitalization. A shrinking audience. It doesn't look good for Air America. But if Air America fails, liberals shouldn't despair. Rupert Murdoch may come to their rescue.
You read that right. Murdoch is a capitalist, after all, not an ideologue. He will go where the money is, and a recent venture is the Fox News Radio Service. One of its first stars is Alan Colmes, the liberal foil to Sean Hannity on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes."
Colmes is already carried by 34 stations, which seems to make Fox and Colmes the most successful liberal talk-radio effort in the nation. Now, isn't that a hoot!
Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke are the authors of "America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power" (Bonus Books), to be released in July.