Ego, Power, Money and Progressive Elites

About a month ago I asked Arianna Huffington to allow me to write on The Huffington Post. I submitted a few articles and in my BIO I disclosed that I was the co-founder of Air America Radio. Three years ago my wife Anita and I started the project because there was not a single rich progressive that was willing to put any money into a liberal radio network. So Anita and I invested most of our liquid assets that amounted to a few million dollars to start up what became Air America Radio.

As I wrote in my book, Road to Air America, Anita and I were initially encouraged about raising the necessary funds for the network. Bill Clinton and Al Gore gave us amazing contacts in Hollywood, Washington, and New York and we visited with almost all of the important rich liberals either directly or through their “gate keepers.” To our surprise, we did not get a single dollar from any of these people. So we had only our own money and some of our traditional investors to start up Air America Radio. We ultimately had to sell the company reluctantly in November, 2003 because we could not raise the 40-50 million dollars necessary to complete the funding. The buyers actually did get the network on the air but they also ran out of money. Perhaps the buyers thought that they could do better with some of the Hollywood mega-millionaires. Although they got a lot of promises, they also were unable to raise money from the progressive elites. We unfortunately realized that ego and power are not limited to the right wing.

In May of 2004, after the buyers defaulted on their commitments to us and other investors, Anita and I were called upon to help reorganize and save Air America Radio. We were the first ones to loan $500,000 to the company to pay for back salaries and health insurance. We were fortunate enough to have co-investors that were willing to keep funding the reorganized company and now Air America Radio is in 72 cities reaching almost 70% of the radio audience. And these listeners are not just progressives. They are people who while driving their cars want to hear discourse other than Rush Limbaugh and his clones.

That project was necessary to reach people that are not just committed to the progressive cause. The problem with blogs and progressive web sites is that generally people who go to these sites are already in the progressive camp. The way to get people to go to the blogs is to have traditional free broadcast media as an echo chamber so that progressives can do what the right wing has done for the last 30 years. They have controlled both the broadcast media and used this echo chamber to publicize their right wing sites. The best example of this is the Drudge Report. There is not a single progressive site that has become as popular as the Drudge Report. And the reason is that rich progressives generally invest in projects that are only their ideas. I call this “the not invented here syndrome.”

I want to quote from an article written by Bob Parry written on April 29, 2005 entitled THE LEFT’S MEDIA MISCALCULATION. I have worked very hard with Bob on projects that we hoped would be funded by the Hollywood elites to no avail. Here is some of what he wrote about in the aforementioned article posted at http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Media_Reform/Left's_MediaMiscalculation.html:

“To understand how the United States got into today's political predicament - where even fundamental principles like the separation of church and state are under attack - one has to look back at strategic choices made by the Right and the Left three decades ago.

Conservatives felt out-muscled on a wide range of public-policy fronts, blaming the media not only for the twin debacles of Watergate and Vietnam but also for contributing to the Right's defeat on issues such as civil rights and the environment

Fateful Choices

At this key juncture, leaders of the Right and the Left made fateful choices that have shaped today's political world. Though both sides had access to similar amounts of money from wealthy individuals and like-minded foundations, the two sides chose to invest that money in very different ways.
The Right concentrated on gaining control of the information flows in Washington and on building a media infrastructure that would put out a consistent conservative message across the country. As part of this strategy, the Right also funded attack groups to target mainstream journalists who got in the way of the conservative agenda.

The Left largely forsook media in favor of "grassroots organizing." As many of the Left's flagship media outlets foundered, the "progressive community" reorganized under the slogan - "think globally, act locally" - and increasingly put its available money into well-intentioned projects, such as buying endangered wetlands or feeding the poor.

So, while the Right waged what it called "the war of ideas" and expanded the reach of conservative media to every corner of the nation, the Left trusted that local political action would reenergize American democracy.

Some wealthy progressives also apparently bought into the conservative notion of a "liberal bias" in the media and thus saw no real need to invest significantly in information or to defend embattled journalists under conservative attack. After all, over the years, many mainstream journalists did appear allied with liberal priorities.

Brock/Coulter

Meanwhile, through the 1990s, the conservatives poured billions of dollars into their media apparatus, which rose like a vertically integrated machine incorporating newspapers, magazines, book publishing, radio stations, TV networks and Internet sites.
Young conservative writers - such as David Brock and Ann Coulter - soon found they could make fortunes working within this structure. Magazine articles by star conservatives earned top dollar. Their books - promoted on conservative talk radio and favorably reviewed in right-wing publications - jumped to the top of the best-seller lists.

While progressives starved freelancers who wrote for left-of-center publications like The Nation or In These Times, conservatives made sure that writers for the American Spectator or the Wall Street Journal's editorial page had plenty of money to dine at Washington's finest restaurants.
As the 1990s wore on, mainstream journalists adapted to the new media environment by trying not to offend the conservatives. Working journalists knew that the Right could damage or destroy their careers by attaching the "liberal" label. There was no comparable danger from the Left.

Smart Investment

Over those three decades, by investing smartly in media infrastructure, the Right had succeeded in reversing the media dynamic of the Watergate-Vietnam era. Instead of a tough skeptical press corps-challenging war claims on Iraq and exposing political dirty tricks in Florida, most national journalists knew better than to risk losing their careers.

Many on the Left began acknowledging the danger caused by this media imbalance. But even as the Iraq War disaster worsened, the "progressive establishment" continued spurning proposals for building a media counter-infrastructure that could challenge the "group think" of Washington journalism.

One of the new excuses became that the task was too daunting. When proposals were on the table in 2003 for a progressive AM talk radio network, for example, many wealthy liberals shunned the plan as certain to fail, an attitude that nearly became a self-fulfilling prophecy as an under-funded Air America Radio almost crashed and burned on take-off in March 2004.

Indeed, one point many on the Left still fail to appreciate is how much easier it would be to convince a politician to take a courageous stand - as Gore did in those speeches - if the politician didn't have to face such a hostile media reaction. Already the growth of "progressive talk radio" - on the AM dial in more than 50 cities - appears to have boosted the fighting spirit of some congressional Democrats. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Mystery of the Democrats' New Spine."]

Which leads to another myth among some on the Left: that the media problem will somehow solve itself, that the pendulum will swing back when the national crisis gets worse and the conservatives finally go too far.

But there is really no reason to think that some imaginary mechanism will reverse the trends. Indeed, the opposite seems more likely. The gravitational pull of the Right's expanding media galaxy keeps dragging the mainstream press in that direction. Look what's happening at major news outlets from CBS to PBS, all are drifting to the right.

Many progressives miss this media point when they cite the rise of Christian Right churches as validation of a grassroots organizing strategy. What that analysis leaves out is the fact that the Christian Right originally built its strength through media, particularly the work of televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. What the Right has demonstrated is that media is not the enemy of grassroots organizing but its ally.

The hard truth for the Left is that the media imbalance in the United States could very easily get much worse. The difficult answer for the progressive community is to come to grips with this major strategic weakness, apply the Left's organizing talents, and finally make a balanced national media a top priority.”

Anita and I have been traveling throughout the country visiting the local affiliates of Air America Radio and have been received by literally thousands of appreciative people in our presentations. Almost everyone thanks us for having the courage to take a chance with almost all our resources to change the media direction of this country. And yet almost no one in Hollywood knows about who we are and what we have done that could have easily been done by the billionaires and millionaires in Hollywood who could have funded the project without making a dent in their life styles or fortunes. Instead they invested their tens of millions of dollars in lost campaigns to get on stage with the prominent Democratic candidates. A small fraction of those campaign contributions could have helped Air America Radio and other projects like Democracy Radio. And despite what we have started, Anita and I can only get on TV with C-SPAN. I have asked to be on Bill Maher’s show and other progressive shows, but to no avail. They like the so-called Main Stream Media only like to hear the same voices over and over again. Bill Maher would rather have Ann Coulter on his show than the founders of Air America Radio. Bill is feeding the very monster he is complaining about. Bill’s show does not need to hear from crackpots like Coulter to allow her and the right wing publishers make more money. No, balance is not what is needed, Bill. It is new voices and ideas that will change the face of media in this country.

My message to all the rich and powerful on the progressive side is to put your money where your mouth is even if it is not your idea or does not put you on stage with a prominent candidate. Anita and I will be glad to let you know how you can help with this David and Goliath battle to take back broadcast media. We can be reached at sdrobny@paradigmventure.com