Bill O'Reilly is beside himself with glee: Air America has filed for bankruptcy.
I once applied for a job at Air America, the lefty radio talk network featuring the likes of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. The guy in charge of hiring liked my stuff. Then he got fired. (That happens a lot in broadcasting.) Afterward, the guy told me that not getting hired by Air America might have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I thought maybe it was just sour grapes because they just canned him, but he was right: Not only has Air America gone bankrupt, but Al Franken is complaining publicly that he isn't always getting paid. Apparently, Air America owes him a lot of money.
When KDKA approached me about a possible job, I was flabbergasted. Listening to them over the years, and being the kind of lefty who wanted to work at Air America, I never thought I'd work there. The country's first commercial radio station has evolved into a rather conservative talk outlet. Not all the hosts are conservative, but none of them -- with the exception of weekend host Chris Moore -- are going to call for the impeachment of George W. Bush.
When I filled in for Lynn Cullen, the notoriously liberal local radio host, on other stations over the years, I threw her audience the Bush-bashing red meat they were craving. But at KDKA, it was explained to me early on that, while I would have the freedom to say pretty much whatever I wanted, it would be a bad strategy to dwell on how incompetent the president is.
Censorship? No, they explained, common sense. First, no one wants to listen to a Johnny One Note. And it is true that during my old cable-TV show, NightTalk, even Bush-haters of the highest order would occasionally come up and ask me to give the Bush piñata bit a rest.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the conventional wisdom in talk radio is that for some reason, conservatives listen more regularly than liberals. Why? Theories range from "the liberals are all listening to NPR" to "the liberals are all in an art gallery on their way to Starbucks" to "the liberals are too scatter-brained to focus on some white guy yelling a lot."
At first I thought these radio execs must be crazy. It's just that liberal talk radio hasn't been done on a regular basis across the country, I thought. Plus, some of the liberal hosts over time have been dry as dirt: earnest, factual, well-informed -- and really freaking boring. But Air America's afternoon chick, the tart-tongued Randy Rhodes, would change all that, I reasoned. Air America will prove the executives wrong.
Well, Randy's good, and a lot of people like Al Franken. But Air America isn't getting enough listeners to attract enough advertisers to avoid bankruptcy and to pay Franken all the money he says it owes him. And I have come around to my bosses' way of thinking.
I don't know why lefties aren't attracted to talk radio like flies to excrement. Maybe they will be someday, when someone finds the right programming formula. But for now, to survive in radio, you need a mass audience. And the niche of lefties ain't gonna cut it.
By not obsessing on Bush-bashing, by accepting guests and callers of all stripes when I am Bush-bashing, and by using humor to criticize, rather than angry rants, I believe I've begun to attract a more disparate audience. I'll need more time to have ratings that prove my thesis. But more and more I get comments like, "I don't agree with a word you say, but you crack me up."
In radio, you need people like that. I'm also not dwelling on politics, and I'm doing topics as diverse and silly as: Who's worse, the customers or the restaurant servers? And, do we really need a singles convention at the convention center? Can't ya just meet people the old-fashioned way?
Frankly, Mr. Franken, I'm enjoying not being Johnny One Note. Even a political junkie doesn't want to yap about politics every day. And I'm one lefty who's enjoying not always obsessing on what's wrong with the right.