Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Air America, r.i.p.

Once in Philadelphia there was a 24-hour all-classical music station, and my hearing was still good enough to enjoy it wherever I drove, especially during the interminable traffic jams on a dreadful road called the Schuylkill Expressway.

Advertisers abandoned it because its audience shrank; older people, its largest listener segment, died off and younger ones preferred to listen to rock. Especially to listen to rock.  Or to listen to Rush Limbaugh telling them what to think.  WFLN went the way of the eight-track tape.

Why, I often wondered, when Limblow's shouts about feminazis and Bill Clinton's sexual proclivities could be heard through an adjoining motorist's open window, was there not a talk-show antidote to Rush and his right wing fellow air polluters?

And then one day there was.  It was called Air America and it gave us such intelligent, witty and perceptive commentators as Al Franken and Rachel Maddow -- thinking people's talk radio.  Some real and excellent journalism was committed on its wavelength.

Air America folded last week, for want of advertising revenue and other sources of funding.

I join the progressive punditry in lamenting its death, which many commentators with far more knowledge of radio than I possess have called a "suicide."  Others say the death was inevitable because there is no audience for progressive talk radiio -- it is by nature too open to dissenting views, too willing to consider nuance and subtle differences in priorioty, to appeal to a mass audience.  On the one hand this, and on the other hand that.  What with cell phones,  GPS  and a steering wheel, today's motorist doesn't have enough hands for progressive talk radio.

A friend who is a prize-winning veteran of public and progressive radio, falls in the "suicide" group.

"Air America was atrociously run from the gitgo," she told me. "I’ve seen it previously in lefty radio start ups: terrible business model, no adults in the room, doomed. Most radio shows take decades to find an audience. In Rush’s early days, accommodation was made for such a build up. These days there’s practically no room for that anymore, and A.A. really tried to rush things.  Besides, the right has so dominated the AM airwaves for so long that they pull all sorts of stunts to keep the lefties away, and AA wasn't wise to the stunts.

"But if it's done right, there really is a lib radio audience  -- and some of the the shows have found their way onto the same networks as Limbaugh, and (infamously right-wing) Clear channel etc.  Take Randi Rhodes, for example, or Tom Hartman, Stephanie Miller -- their shows are surviving. Hartman is the anti-Limbaugh, a self-infatuated pontificator of the left.  Miller is very funny. Rhodes  is actually a serious student of politics with a flair for realpolitik."

I note that she said they're "surviving."  Limblow and his clones are thriving.  A clever entertainer can do that in talk radio. Ken Hamblin, a onetime civil rights marcher and newspaper photographer, reinvented himself as a right-wing black radio personality and thrived in Denver for years.  He became wealthy, the act palled and now he's retired and jet-setting around from San Francisco. 

But someone else always comes along to take up the bleat and get rich doing so.  There's a big, deep, angry pool of haters out there, ripe to hear the message. Makes 'em feel, y' know, powerful.


  1. True. Someone once advised me that the best way to get grossly rich is to invent a religion. Maybe because religious rhetoric is at least as good a way to incite (and exploit) hatred as politics.

  2. Pardon the intrusion...just want to anonymously express on a stranger's blog how much I miss WFLN. Do you recall the nightime show called "Sleeper's Awake" in the 80's, maybe into the 90's? Can't remember the announcer's name - loved the way he pronounced Jean-Pierre Rampal - and the theme music which wasn't Bach's Sleeper's Awake. Do you know?

    On the other topic you opine upon so candidly above, I'd like to make a deal with you. I'll forgive the slights and acusation you hurl at me and my fellow Rush listeners if you'll believe me when I swear I don't get my thinking from Rush. Believe me, truly, I'm capable of forming my own thought, and even paid to do so. My taste for Rush Limbaugh is a product of listening to NPR, network news, reading the NY Times and weekly news and cultural magazines, going to college and professional school, attending church and having co-workers, patronizing coffee shops and book stores, etc. where the same old constant and predictable politics permeates the news, expertise, inspiration, support and products I seek. It gets wearying questioning the political and ideological assumptions that have fouled our culture and citizenry so thoroughly. Rush is the bold and clear voice we wish we possessed just to peacefully get through our daily encounters. So, in the most loving and earnest spirit I can conjure, trust that I don't hate that much - yes, once in a while I do my husband, but he's the only one that comes to mind - and I wish no one bad things. In fact, I'm very fond of most people and find them quite fascinating, especially when we think differently and can still be kind.

    P.S. I'm not so sure WFLN was sold because of diminishing audience. Maybe it ran the course of any creative endeavor - and it couldn't maintain it's quality and originality. Blessedly it didn't turn into a commodity just to survive. That's why I miss it so and remember it fondly.

    Thanks for your time.

  3. Two radio voices struck me as absolutely perfect for their programs: the host of "Sleepers Awake" on WFLN and "The Lonesome Gal," hostess of a midnight to dawn jazz program on a Chicago station in the Fifties. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of either. I always thought I remembered the "Sleepers" theme as being the andante movement from Prince Igor by Borodin. But someone with more expertise and a better memory insists it was the Pavane for a Dead Princess by Ravel. Not even that someone could come up with the host's name, however. Perhaps our name- recall cells have been numbed by too many hours of exposure to, oh, what's his name?, Rush something.

  4. I thought it was "Sleeper's Wake" but correct me if I am wrong. BTW, I prefer Glenn Beck to Rush. I used to like Howard Stern until he went to Sirius and dumped his first wife. My memory sucks. It is probably because I listen to both Glenn Beck and Rush and dullards such as myself are attractive to these more simplistic thinkers but I do like classical music.

  5. So then, chime in the theme question! Borodin or Ravel? Pavane or Andante? Glenn does not approve of fence-straddlers.

  6. Hi, first Anonymous here
    found the theme - brings me back to phila circa end of Carter Administration. Gloomy days indeed. But nighttime brought us Sleepers Awake and the soothing sound of .... Faure! Like a light massage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpgyTl8yqbw
    Still can't remember the host's name. I've written Jill Pasternek at WRTI to see if she remembers.

  7. Bingo! You've done it. And in Jill Pasternak, a longtime WFLNer, you have the ket to the second mystery, the name of the host. Your mention of Jill shook loose some other WFLN names -- Dave Conant, Dick James, Ralph Collier, Terry Payton -- but not the one we're searching for. I'll never forget Collier's masterly, one sentence lecture on everything you need to know to be a photographer: "Big hole, fast shutter; little hole, slow shutter."

  8. Are you a Philadelphian? If so are you fabulous? Did you perhaps live in West Mount Airy at sometime?

    Other Anonymous

  9. We are both women who stumbled upon your blog when reminiscing about wFLN WHEN WE WERE YOUNG NUBILE CICKS IN THE 80'S. YOU SEEM TO BE A NICE MAN. WHEN DID YOU WRITE FOR "THE GREY LADY"?

  10. Mr. Ward -
    We anonymouses are coming clean -
    Anonymous the first is me, hereafter "L" as in Laura. Anonymous #2 is "J" as in Judith - I sent her to you blog after my 1st comment. Felt compelled to clue ya in. L.

  11. TWO annonymi are better than one! Which of you is getting the I.D. Of the mystery host from Jill P? Please share it with me and my legion of blog readers.

    Yes, I did time in Fluffia, living and dying with the Iggles Phillies, Flyers and Sixers. I was with the Old Grey in the 70s, came to Broad St in the 80s.

  12. No reply from Jill Pasternek nor anyone at WRTI. Some people. I even sent a contribution. Tomorrow I'll try the reference desk at Logan Library. They have magical powers.

  13. Keep on the case, Madam Detective. Y ou do great work. Does a name sort of like "Varlick" ring any bells?

  14. The Sleepers Awake theme was Faure's Pavane.

  15. The WFLN Sleepers Awake theme was Faure's Pavane.