For our Fourth of July vacation, my wife and I traveled through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks -- a welcome respite from Washington, D.C. where we live and work. In between giant geysers, mountain peaks, sulfur pools and buffalo, we listened to a recording of Al Franken reading his latest book, “Giant of the Senate.”
Franken’s account of his early radio show days brought me back to when he and I, along with many others, helped to get Air America Radio off the ground in 2003 against enormous odds. Gazing out the car window at some of the most beautiful land and wildlife in our country, listening to Franken tell his remarkable story, I also thought back to how Air America was driven out of business. We had a massive listening audience, by any measure. We brought entertaining, tough, incisive Progressivism to the commercial airwaves to critical acclaim. Despite our exquisite timing and wide appeal, however, we had one big problem: most advertisers avoided us.
Remember, this was at the height of Iraq War craziness, in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency. We were lampooning, needling, provoking, and criticizing not only President Bush but Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the rest of the conservative bloviators. Al Franken was our flagship but we also featured Randi Rhodes, Janeane Garofalo, and a then-unknown radio news reader from New Hampshire named Rachel Maddow. All the shows, all day long, across the U.S. broadcast an aggressive, anti-Bush, pro-worker, pro-environment, Progressive viewpoint.
So when our advertising sales department called clothing retailers, auto dealerships, or restaurants, they typically heard that our programming was too controversial. In fact, I later learned that some advertisers apparently put us on a boycott list. Moreover, rather than sell ad inventory through the usual radio advertising brokers, who demanded big commissions, we tried to sell directly to businesses and non-profits. This did not endear us to the commercial radio establishment. The combined effect was to choke off our only revenue source, ad sales. As a startup, we weren’t able to scale up to find businesses who would be willing to advertise with us. In effect, the advertising gatekeepers dictated the survival or demise of Air America.
Al Franken became a U.S. Senator, Rachel Maddow is now a star, and Progressive Talk is a bona fide format on Sirius-XM, where I later had my own show, “Left Jab,” on the Sirius Left channel. So in that sense, Air America was a success. But if I learned anything from the eventual bankruptcy of the network, even in light of our record-setting ratings climb, it is that traditional advertising, including its gatekeeper model of doing business, probably is the worst way to fund truly Progressive journalism. Only through innovative digital ad sales platforms that allow smaller, edgier voices like HuffingtonPost to achieve scale, or through new direct-to-consumer subscription models, can new, truly Progressive voices join the media landscape.
As if to punctuate my vacation reminiscences about Air America and Progressive journalism, I came back to Washington, D.C. just in time to witness a new public relations and lobbying effort by the News Media Alliance, primarily representing big, national newspapers like The Wall Street Journal (owned by Rupert Murdoch), purporting to save journalism by asking Congress for an antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers to collude and negotiate as a cartel to get a better deal from tech advertising platforms, like Google and Facebook.
With memories of Elk and Grizzlies quickly fading as I scrolled through my news feed, I then saw another group of news organizations, the Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium, representing smaller local dailies and weeklies, rebut the antitrust exemption idea, saying that they in fact benefit from being able to reach advertisers and audiences through digital platforms that allow worldwide scale and reach to even the smallest rural paper.
There is a connection between my experience at Air America and this latest debate in the world of for-profit journalism. Just as the political and financial whims of gatekeepers in the advertising world ended up killing a Progressive network people really loved, the notion that traditional newspapers can be saved through collusion in the ad-sales market misses the point. We need platforms that allow even the smallest ad seller to reach a broad market, without relying on a few big advertisers and brokers. We also need more direct relationships between journalists and their audience, separate from commercial advertising.
The mediascape is full of successful journalistic enterprises that fund original investigative reporting and offer viewpoints across the political spectrum using a variety of business models. BuzzFeed, which trends Left, experiences solid growth year after year and consistently innovates in the ways it brings news to its loyal readers, as does HuffingtonPost. Newsmax, a conservative media outlet, sells subscriptions to niche news reporting and uses that revenue to fund general reporting. And the list goes on.
To those who argue that Google and Facebook are the enemy of advertising-supported media, I would respond that when those local advertisers were boycotting Air America and the incumbent ad brokers were trying to trip us up, I would have given anything to sell our inventory on a democratized, automated platform, just to bypass the gatekeepers and their biases against our Progressive viewpoints.
Ultimately, the future of Progressive media and all journalism probably lies in being more innovative about business plans and revenue models. Some, like TalkingPointsMemo and Slate, supplement their advertising revenue with premium content for subscribers. The big newspapers calling for an antitrust exemption so that they can legally collude in selling advertising seem to miss this point. We need fewer gatekeepers, not legalized collusion.
And while we’re at it, everyone should visit our National Parks, too. It’s a great way to get away from the news.
David Goodfriend is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. specializing in technology, telecommunications, and media policy. He served as Deputy Staff Secretary to President Bill Clinton, media legal advisor to an FCC commissioner, and on the staff of several congressional committees. He co-founded Air America Radio and Sirius-XM’s “Left Jab” and teaches technology policy at The Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School. Google is one of his clients.