Billed as the new “liberal” network, Air America Radio began airing on stations in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland on March 31, 2004. Pundits claimed that it would offer an alternative to the views of talk radio conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh.
Air America Radio was designed and built to advance the Democratic Party. However, in the event that it proved unprofitable, preparations were in place, from its inception, for this network’s lucrative dismemberment shortly after the November 2004 election.”I’d be happy if the election of a Democrat [for President] ended the show,” said the network’s biggest star, Al Franken, who signed a contract to do a weekday three-hour show opposite Limbaugh. “I’m doing this because I want to use my energies to get [President] Bush unelected.”
The idea to create a “liberal” radio network came from Chicago businessman Sheldon Drobny, who said he was willing to invest $10 million in the venture. In 2003 he created AnShell Media as home for this enterprise and hired Atlanta broadcast veteran Jon Sinton as its chief executive officer, but Drobny became controversial after National Review‘s Byron York reported on Drobny’s writings for the small website MakeThemAccountable.com. In those writings, Drobny likened President Bush to Adolf Hitler and accused the Bush family of having links to Nazi Germany. These notions, Drobny acknowledged, came from his readings of conspiracy theories published by former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche’s organization. Drobny defended his potential role as owner of this “liberal” network. “As a venture capitalist, I’m not the one who does the programming,” he said, “nor would I interject my own opinion into programming.”
In 2003 Drobny and his wife sold “much” (but not all) of their ownership of AnShell to a group formed by New York investor Evan Cohen, an entrepreneur “who at the time was developing a pan-Asian radio network,” and his classmate at Beloit College in Wisconsin, David Goodfriend, a former Clinton White House staffer. The new holding company, with Drobny as part owner, is named Progress Media, and its President is Jon Sinton. What it holds are two separate entities, Air America Radio, which produces programs, and Equal Time Media, which buys, leases, and manages radio stations. As of its March 31, 2004 launch date, no stations had been purchased. (By contrast, Clear Channel, Rush Limbaugh’s partner, owns more than 1,200 radio stations that broadcast various kinds of music and talk.)
Two of the stations carrying Air America Radio — 50,000 watt KBLA 1580 in Santa Monica, and 5,000 watt WNTD 950 in Chicago — were both previously Spanish-language and are both being provided by the same company, Multicultural Radio Broadcasting Licensee LLC in Miami, Florida. In the radio business, companies frequently “rent” stations through an LMA, or lease-manage agreement. But much is kept vague about how Progress Media does business. The arrangement with station owner Multicultural Radio is described as “a radio network distribution deal” or “leasing time,” a bit like a radio evangelist buying hours of airtime from a station owner. Depending on the terms of such secret deals, they could be little different from a campaign contribution to allies of the Democratic Party in the form of cheap or free air time, which can be entirely legal under the new campaign finance laws.
The third affiliate carrying Air America Radio, WLIB 1190 in New York City, until this change a Caribbean music station with occasional black-targeted talk shows, is via a “partnership” with owner Inner City Broadcasting Corporation (ICBC). Conditions of the deal apparently involved Air America Radio hiring WLIB host Mark Riley and altering the content of its programming. The chairman of ICBC is Pierre Sutton, son of part owner and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. Air America moved into WLIB’s 40th floor offices at 3 Park Avenue.
“This is really a neat [corporate] structure,” said Madison, Wisconsin businessman Terry Kelly, one of the investors that Progressive Media tried to keep under wraps. Another such investor was Rex Sorensen, a Democratic donor who owned five radio stations on Saipan and Guam, and who was a friend of Pacific broadcast maven Evan Cohen.) “Equal Time was formed to buy and hold radio stations,” said Kelly. “The reason to have these companies separate is that investment in Equal Time can be attractive to different kinds of investors. Owning radio stations means you have physical assets and therefore you can get investment groups who have owned broadcast properties before and know what the returns are likely to be,” continued Kelly.
A former Madison TV weatherman who co-founded successful Weather Central, Inc., Kelly became wealthy by supplying a large share of the weather and other graphics programs used by television networks and stations across America. “Equal Time,” said Kelly, “is a nonpartisan investment group.”
Air America Radio’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Walsh was more blunt. He compared owning or leasing radio stations to controlling valuable beachfront property. If the liberal radio network were to fail or go bankrupt, noted National Review‘s Byron York, “the group will still own the stations, which will still be worth a lot of money, and can still be reprogrammed with something more popular.” Or as Walsh put it, “If people don’t like the way you decorate the house, you can change it.”
That is why Progress Media was divided into two bankruptcy-bulwarked separate entities, the radio network and the holding company for the radio stations. Prior to taking the helm at Air America, Mark Walsh was the top Internet advisor to Senator John F. Kerry‘s campaign. Prior to that, he was the first Internet Chief Technology Adviser of the Democratic National Committee, as well as a donor of $250,000 in 2000 to the Democratic Party, making him one of the top 400 political party donors in America. During his career, Walsh has been a TV newsman in West Virginia and a highly paid executive at Home Box Office, General Electric, America Online, VerticalNet, the New York Times Digital Company, Impulse Radio, and several other enterprises. “I am a lifelong Democrat,” Walsh told Business Week in 2002. “My mother took me to a rally for then-candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. Hubert Humphrey was a family friend. I’ve just always been a DNA-level Democrat and love the party.”
From the beginning of Air America, Walsh believed that a sugar coating of comedy would help to sell his political views. He decided, therefore, that the network would “nuggetize” news and opinion into entertaining programming. As Walsh explained, this process will work “the way that you have a dog, you crush up the vitamin pill into the dog food.”
When it launched its operation, Air America’s staff of nearly 100 included 11 full-time writers, most of whose work was to produce jokes and comic bits. They were recruited from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Court TV, Oprah Winfrey‘s cable channel Oxygen, and elsewhere.
The aim, said President Jon Sinton, was not to sound like a liberal version of Rush, but more like the repertory companies of Don Imus or Howard Stern. Directing the network’s entertainment programming is Lizz Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. At her urging, nearly every program on Air America would have at least two hosts. Each program should sound like a dialogue, not a monologue, said Winstead. And any one host could take days off while the co-host maintained continuity. “There will be a woman on every show,” predicted the feminist Winstead. “That’s important.”
As time passed, however, Air America Radio moved away from its aforementioned intent to have two co-hosts for each program. As of March 2006, the station’s program lineup included Mark Riley hosting in the early morning, followed by Rachel Maddow, Jerry Springer, Al Franken, Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Janeane Garofalo, and Mike Malloy. Other program hosts include Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Mike Papantonio, who co-host a weekend program called “Ring of Fire”; Laura Flanders; Marc Maron; David Bender; Welton Gaddy; and the rapper Chuck D, who co-hosts a weekend program with a woman known simply as Gia’na.
In the Winter 2006 Arbitron ratings, Air America registered a lowly 1.0 share in Los Angeles, an even smaller share in Chicago, and a 0.8 share in New York; the latter figure represented a loss of nearly half the station’s listenership since the previous ratings period.
Air America Radio was a member of the so-called Democratic “Shadow Party,” identified by Discover The Networks as a nationwide network of activist groups whose agendas were ideologically to the left, and which were engaged in campaigning for the Democrats.
Ultimately, however, Air America’s low ratings and financial insolvency caused it to declare bankruptcy and cease operations on January 21, 2010.
Much of this profile is adapted from the article The “Liberal” Network, written by Lowell Ponte and published by FrontPageMag.com on March 31, 2004.