THEY SAY THAT timing is everything. So if youíre one of the folks involved with Central Air ó that rather secretive group seeking to start a liberal radio network sometime next spring ó youíve got to love what was on Rush Limbaughís Web site earlier this week.
With one easy click, you could watch a clip of the right-wing blowhardís lawyer, Roy Black, being interviewed on NBCís Today show. The subject: the ongoing investigation into Limbaughís drug problems. The spin: Rush is not a criminal! The subliminal message: the Excellence in Broadcasting Network sure isnít what it used to be.
But if Limbaugh, the long-time king of conservative talk, sits on an uneasy throne these days, it is nevertheless by no means certain that the public is clamoring for a liberal alternative. Conservative talk succeeds because the hosts ó whether they be Sean Hannity and Bill OíReilly on the national scene or Jay Severin and Howie Carr locally ó manage to create a sense of grievance, an atmosphere that it is they and their listeners who are the outsiders, and the liberals who control everything else.
It is an entirely unproven supposition that liberal hosts can take advantage of a similar sense of alienation and isolation on the left. Yes, liberals are profoundly alienated from the presidency of George W. Bush. And, increasingly, they understand how partisan conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel and Limbaughís show shape and warp the national conversation. But there is little sign that liberals looking for something to listen to in their cars will abandon their current programming of choice: National Public Radio, which claims a weekly audience of 22 million ó some seven million more than Limbaugh.
And no, NPR isnít really liberal, not the way Fox or Rush is conservative. That is, NPR is not a partisan Democratic outlet, and it does not take sides when covering political or economic issues. But NPR is imbued with a liberal cultural sensibility, and its tone of civility and moderation, in many respects, is the perfect counterbalance to the right-wing shouters.
Sure, liberal listeners might be willing to switch from All Things Considered to The Liberal Show (the tongue-in-cheek name suggested by Al Franken for a program heís in line to host) just to see what itís like. But to abandon NPR for Central Air on a more or less permanent basis? Sorry. Thatís not going to happen.
On the other hand, liberals do not live by NPR alone. Central Airís best bet is to establish itself as the second spot on the dial, for the times when NPR is doing a 12-minute audio diary on the fig groves of Morocco.
As we shall see, the formula it seems to be moving toward ó fast and funny ó may turn out to be just right.
OF COURSE, even the best programming canít be heard if there are no stations to broadcast it. And here is where Central Air may have a problem. Last week, the New York Times quoted Central Air executives as saying that they would soon acquire stations in five of the nationís 10 largest media markets: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston. Not a single one of those stations, though, has been identified. For that matter, not a word was spoken about smaller urban markets such as Providence and Portland. That, presumably, will come later.
In Boston, it is natural to speculate about small and/or independent stations such as WWZN Radio (AM 1510), a/k/a "The Zone," a sports-talk station with mediocre ratings, and WBIX Radio (AM 1060), a business station in the process of upgrading its signal and moving to 24-hour broadcasting.
Scott Fybush, editor of the online Northeast Radio Watch (www.fybush.com), says WWZN may be a natural for Central Air. Its sister stations in New York City and Chicago recently leased their facilities (for Russian-language and Catholic programming, respectively), leaving only Boston and Los Angeles as part of what had been intended as a national sports network. WWZN general manager Bill Flaherty, reached by e-mail, declined to comment.
As for WBIX, Fybush notes that there are "always rumors" surrounding the station. Earlier this year, íBIX CEO Brad Bleidt told me he wanted to bring in a media partner such as the Boston Herald (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, June 20). But any such move will have to wait until the Federal Communications Commissionís decision to loosen cross-ownership requirements passes muster with Congress. And that may not happen anytime soon, given that elected officials seem finally to have woken up to the dangers of corporate media concentration.
But Bleidt now says his station is doing well without a partner, adding, "Boston does need a business station, and weíre proving it can work." He says that he might be willing to sell his evening and overnight hours once WBIX expands beyond daytime operations. But he adds that he has not had any communication with Central Air.
Another possibility, Fybush says, is that Central Air will cut a deal with a company called Multicultural Broadcasting, whose nationwide chain includes two small stations in Greater Boston ó WAZN (AM 1470), which is in the process of moving from Marlborough to Watertown, and WLYN (AM 1360), which is located in Lynn. Indeed, the New York Post reported last August that Multicultural owner Arthur Liu was talking with the group that has evolved into Central Air.
But Liu told me this week that his conversations with Central Air are now over, explaining that though heís willing to lease the airtime on his stations, heís not willing to sell them outright, which is the current strategy that Central Air is pursuing. "Weíre not in that game," Liu says.
Conservative talk host Howie Carr, of WRKO, dismisses the idea of liberal talk radio for predictable reasons. ("Theyíve already got their own network. Itís NPR.") But he also makes a cogent business argument.
With major-market AM stations costing somewhere between $20 million to $30 million (an FM station with a strong signal can cost at least double that), Carr thinks Central Air should concentrate on developing a line-up of syndicated programming that it can sell to existing radio stations rather than putting together its own network.
"If theyíre going to buy decent stations in those five cities, youíre talking about $100 million," Carr says. "They could do a lot of programming development for $5 million."
GIVE CENTRAL Air credit for this much: its executives are smart enough to have figured out that the last thing the public wants is a liberal version of Rush Limbaugh, with or without OxyContin. For instance, Lizz Winstead, who helped invent Comedy Centralís The Daily Show, has been brought in as the networkís creative director. That is precisely the right approach.
Though a deal hasnít been signed yet, it appears that the star of the new network will be Al Franken, a liberal who manages the difficult feat of being funny, substantive, and self-deprecating all at the same time. Actress Janeane Garofalo may do a program. Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, will host a media show.
A local voice will be heard from as well. Barry Crimmins, a well-known Boston humorist who now lives in the New York area, has signed on to write and to do on-air commentary. His involvement was disclosed last Friday by the Boston Heraldís respected radio reporter, Dean Johnson.
"I think itís going to be great," Crimmins told me when I reached him by phone. "And I donít think itís going to be any of these things that people are presupposing it to be. I think itís going to be entertaining, witty, informative, and vital."
Crimmins adds: "The format is still being developed, and Iím not privy to everything thatís gone on thus far. Youíll hear some stuff that sounds like talk radio and youíll hear some other stuff. Thereíll be a lot of innovation."
Veteran media activist Al Giordano, a former Boston Phoenix reporter, former talk-show host, and the author of "Talk Radio Manifesto" (follow the links from his weblog, www.bigleftoutside.com), told me by e-mail that he compares the network to "a great new war toy heading onto an uncharted battlefield. There is going to be, in my opinion, a lot of trial and error. Some things will work right away. Others may not. I think this dream team is going to be flexible enough to self-correct any weak links in the experiment as it evolves, and all of us who root for them should cut them some slack as the network grows into itself."
As for more details, those will have to wait. When I reached Winstead by e-mail, she declined to comment, explaining that she is "keeping a low profile" for now. Nor did I succeed before deadline in reaching Mark Walsh, the chief executive of New YorkĖbased Central Airís parent company, Progress Media. The Web site (www.centralairmedia.com) offers slim pickings at this point.
Oddly enough, the best source turns out to be a hostile witness: Byron York, of the conservative National Review, who recently interviewed Walsh, a former Internet executive and past adviser to both the Democratic National Committee and to Senator John Kerry.
Walsh told York he wants his network to be known as "centrist" rather than "liberal." (Hmm ... isnít this why Alan Colmes loses every argument to Sean Hannity?) More promisingly, as the possible Crimmins/Franken/Garofalo troika suggests, Walsh appears to understand the value of humor.
"On the progressive side, weíre often accused of having radio or entertainment that sounds like eat-your-vegetables scolding," Walsh said. "Itís got a slight air of education, of ĎIím right, and youíre going to learn why.í And we just concluded that thatís not a winner."
Then, too, Limbaugh was hilarious when he started out. It was only after he began to perceive himself as powerful that the laughs were replaced by pompous hectoring. Walsh sounds like heís determined to avoid making the same mistake. But first, heís got to find an audience.
COUNT MICHAEL Harrison as a skeptic. The editor of Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio, says heís tired of reading about liberal radio without seeing an actual plan.
"Iíll believe it when I see it," he says. "They get a tremendous amount of publicity for so far talking about nothing but their intentions. Major stations cannot be acquired and programmed in a couple of months, as they claim they are going to do. As far as Iím concerned itís the most publicized nonexistent project Iíve ever seen."
Yet a would-be competitor thinks otherwise. Michael Elder, program director of WRKO Radio (AM 680), which has a nearly all-conservative line-up of local hosts such as Howie Carr, Pat Whitley, and Peter Blute, as well as nationally syndicated right-wing ranter Michael Savage, says a liberal alternative could very well succeed. (Disclosure: Iím paid to talk about the media on Whitleyís show every Friday morning.)
"I actually think liberal talk radio would be a good thing," Elder told me by e-mail. "The conservative talkers have gone virtually unchallenged for such a long time. A liberal counterbalance might make them ... a little more honest."
And hereís a counterintuitive bit of reasoning. More than a few skeptics have pointed out that several liberal talk-show hosts have failed, most prominently former New York governor Mario Cuomo and Texas populist Jim Hightower.
But Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman ó himself a talk-show host for Bloomberg Radio ó says it may turn out that the surest way to kill a liberal talk show is to place it in an otherwise conservative line-up: you alienate your conservative audience without attracting a liberal one.
If Goldman is right, then the fact that Central Air executives are thinking so big may be exactly why they have a chance of succeeding. After all, you wouldnít program three hours of alterna-rock on a country station. Why would anyone think you could stick a liberal talk show on a conservative station?
Nevertheless, this remains a huge gamble. If Central Air can get up and running this spring, in time for the presidential campaign; if it can hit the ground running with both substance and humor; and if it can put together a network of stations that listeners can actually hear above the static, then this could be the biggest success since ó well, since before Rush Limbaugh discovered hillbilly heroin.
But thatís a lot of ifs. Until it happens, this is something to be hoped for, and not much else.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.
Issue Date: December 12 - 18, 2003
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