After a recent auction of the intellectual and real assets of Air America, which went silent early this year, veteran radio suit and Air America founding president, Jon Sinton and others are writing about the rise and fall of the progressive network.
We were interested in his remarks about radio’s meta problemos.
It’s easy to dismiss as failures people who take big public risks and try to do things differently. Most of the criticism typically comes from people who honor the status quo at the expense of their own future. “That’s the way things are done in radio,” isn’t just a sad commentary on the state of an industry, it is a death sentence.
He writes that progressive talk “leap-frogged” over radio onto the Internet and cable television.
“Unfortunately, due perhaps to the parochial nature of the radio industry, progressive talk is a better business on television and online with Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, The Huffington Post and The Daily Kos. (We'd add Ed Schultz to that list, and hell, Al Franken made it to one of the most coveted platforms on earth: the US Senate).
That it jumped to those platforms shows “a larger lack of imagination, innovation, and sense of history within the ranks of radio’s leadership.”
We must ask ourselves why as an industry radio waited so long to engage a robust multi-platform strategy. We must ask why the best and brightest are not drawn to radio, but choose to ply their art online. It is true that new media always steal the content of the legacy medium they supersede. Books supplanted oral storytelling. Hollywood supplanted vaudeville. Television supplanted radio. But in each instance, the legacy medium reinvented itself. Radio, for instance, started playing records only when television stole its dramas and comedies. Unfortunately, that was one of radio’s last innovative moves as a medium.The last innovative move, of course, was Rush Limbaugh, an AM Top 40 jock who used AM Top 40 sensibilities and edgy production to make (his own) politics into AM radio entertainment for his own Boomer demographic. He saved AM's bacon after FM took the music way, but 20 years of Limbaugh and 10,000 clones has run its course and his mighty audiences are now weighing Medicare plans and the Great Abyss. But that's not the only problem, says Sinton.
Restricted competition and high gross profit margins robbed the industry of its creative hunger, and over the decades it became staid and predictable. That was fine until the law of supply and demand kicked in. Government-enforced scarcity of radio signals held down the supply of content, and allowed stations to sell ads at high prices.(We must note here before you go blaming the gubmint for everything: the piggish radio industry lobbied, pressured and bought off the regulators to create and enforce those scarcities of signals. O those free market forces...).
Then came the Internet, which, famously, destroys scarcity. Content exploded. Suddenly there were commercial-free music competitors at every turn of the browser. The conservatism—and, frankly, downright cheapness of the powers-that-be allowed them to bury their heads in the sand as the industry stagnated and the online world grew bold, omnipresent, and powerful.
We couldn't have said it better, though we've been stabbing at it for lo, these many...
A footnote to the dearly departed Air America was reader Jerry DeMink’s response to a Radio-Info.com Tom Taylor column about the auction:
“Yes, Air America did fail. So its detractors won the battle. But who won the war? And why the animus against Air America, anyway? Is this a business or an ideology? Talk radio is a business. Any good host or exec will tell you that they are in the audience acquisition, retention and expansion business, to maximize the value of their spots. How does attracting listeners with a political perspective opposite of the majority of stations hurt the industry? Sure, Air America came on the scene with a lot of hype, bluster and attitude. They got noticed. The talk establishment, though, was almost universally negative. Why? To protect existing franchises, stations, hosts and business models? Obama won the election (like it or not). Why shouldn’t radio go after his voters? Why not go after an under-served audience? There are more visible liberal talk hosts now than ever before. Air America may be a memory, but its legacy lives on.”