What Air America Tells Us About the Difference Between Conservative and Liberal Benefactors

Former Air America CEO Danny Goldberg has a must-read on the demise of the radio network and what he believes it tells us about the difference between conservative movement funders and their (supposed) progressive counterparts. Here's the key excerpt:

Conservatives believe in doing whatever it takes to promote their ideas. Richard Viguerie, viewed as one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, wrote a book in 2004 called America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media To Take Power, in which he explains how the right wing used talk radio among other tools. Viguerie stresses that conservatives understand that ideological change does not usually occur overnight; that it takes patience and long-term thinking to build a movement...

The fatal flaw in Air America's genetic code was the pretense that liberal talk radio was a great business opportunity, that progressives could have their cake and eat it too, could do well by doing good, make big salaries and get a great return on investment while also pursuing an ideological agenda. Sure, every once in a while political media like Michael Moore's movies or Rush Limbaugh's radio show will make money, but for those interested in influencing public opinion, media in all venues is vital whether it makes money or not...

Perhaps the major liberal donors are confused because they became accustomed to focus groups and polling, which are useful tools in predicting short-term public reaction to political messages. They can tell you if a particular TV spot will turn off swing voters two weeks before an election. But long-term political ideas have a more complex and uncertain creative path. Conservatives understand the need to focus on both long- and short-term political communication...

Whatever the reasons, the theory of leaving political media to the marketplace has enabled a status quo in which one-third of the American public are never exposed to progressive ideas or even to facts that are incompatible with the right-wing narrative.

Identifying, developing and marketing talent takes a lot of experimentation with a predictable amount of failures in order to establish successes. This is part of the reason it took even an ultimately successful company like Fox News years to turn a profit. Another need for investment was to market a brand-new format with lots of personalities new to radio and to give incentives for radio station owners in smaller markets to give the new format a chance.

Although the earliest and wackiest group of Air America owners overspent on a few items like studios and initial salaries, within months the primary characteristic of Air America was a lack of cash for marketing, affiliate growth and talent development. The pressure from wealthy liberals was not to create a long-term strategy as conservatives had done, but to show a business model that would turn a profit in a year or two.

To his credit, Goldberg acknowledges that he was far from a perfect manager during his tenure at Air America. But he goes on -- rightly, IMHO -- to point out that regardless of management, this key difference between conservative and progressive investors have inherently tilted the scales against Air America and progressive media in general.

What explains this difference? That's a good question. I think it is a mix of starfucker-ism and ideological bankruptcy on the part of major progressive individual and institutional donors.

Starfucker-ism is short for an ideology among rich political donors that says getting face time with famous politicians is far more important than getting politicians to actually pass anything in particular.

This is a much bigger problem among progressive donors than it is among conservative donors, primarily because of self-interest. Whereas the rich right-wing donor is giving to conservative media/politicians in order to legislate policies that protect rich people's wealth, the rich progressive donor is giving to progressive media/politicians not out of such self-interest. At best, they are giving out of true principle and noblesse oblige, but often, they are giving to feel important and special - and in our celebrity obsessed culture, one way to feel that is to get to hang around with famous people. Donor money spent on that, therefore, is not as devoted to any particular principle, much less progressive ones that might undermine the donors' wealth/status and alienate them from famous politicians.

That leads to the second problem -- core principles. Simply put, there are many Democratic Party donors who are just not progressive. This is not shocking -- many wealthy people are just not interested in policies that might change a system of economic inequality that has enriched them. They may give to the Democratic Party perhaps because they are liberal on non-economic social issues, but they aren't exactly interested in the kinds of New Deal economics that built a successful progressive movement in the past.

What you are left with, then, are progressive institutions that rely on a funding base that isn't genuinely committed to anything progressive, especially those that will take years to develop famous people who might at some point at least attract the unabashed starfuckers. Not surprisingly, many of these institutions then become either A) not all that progressive or B) not even minimally financially capitalized.

Although certainly more a victim of the second than the first, Air America was a little bit of both. At times it was far more interested in simply shilling for the Democratic Party rather than discussing a transpartisan progressive agenda, and - as Goldberg says - almost all the time it suffered from a lack of basic resources.

I'll add one other problem that I think Goldberg doesn't fully address, but that is related to this problem in progressive media. As I alluded to in an earlier post, many progressive media suffer from a simple lack of talent and talent incubation.

As many program directors and just casual media consumers will tell you, many progressive media voices don't seem to fully grasp the audience's desire for a mix between "political" and "non-political" content. Some call this an entertainment gap - the idea that progressive writers and talk show hosts just aren't "entertaining." Call it whatever you want, but I do think it is very real.

Too many progressive media voices believe the average media consumer makes a distinction between "political" content and "non-political" content, and that the way to match the right is to simply yell louder. And while volume/capacity is certainly one reason conservative media has done well, so is conservative media's attention to the mass audience's sensibilities.

Here's the truth: The "political"/"non-political" distinction that hard-core progressive activists make is not a distinction that most of the general mass audience makes. The average non-political person out there just wants compelling content - and I'm sorry to say that when you turn on your radio dial or television (as just two examples) you don't get much of that from the progressive voices out there. You certainly get important facts and information, and you are getting some more progressive voices yelling louder...but compelling, entertaining content? It's really rare - and becoming more rare.

Let me end by saying that nobody is perfect, of course. I can speak for myself in saying I'm trying my damndest to learn and implement these lessons on my AM760 morning radio show here in Colorado and in my writing but I'm certainly not perfect - not even close. What I am trying to be, at least, is cognizant - cognizant that if progressive media is going to reach a broader audience than just hard-core progressives, we must understand that audience, and not just scream more loudly at them.

And so I've tried to mix in discussions of policy with discussions of culture, movies, music and all the other forces in society that don't fit neatly into the "political" silo. Sure, I've been predictably criticized by some hard-core progressive activists for this (sidenote: the conservative claim that a portion of the hard-core progressive base is absolutely - and repulsively - humorless has some truth to it). But I think I've started to reach a broader audience.

That will ultimately be the key to success -- not just for me, but for every progressive working in media. To get there, we must understand that we're probably not going to get the kind of financial support that conservatives get, because of the differences in conservative and progressive donors. But I think, despite the odds, we can get there, as long as we understand the challenges ahead.

* It is important to understand that the traits displayed by individual donors are similar to those displayed by institutional donors, because institutional donors are headed by individuals with much the same self-interest. It's not that, say, a union leader is as rich as a Democratic multimillionare Wall Street donor and wants to protect his/her own personal bank account - but it is that the union leader can, individually, be just as much of a politician starfucker and therefore just as uncommitted to genuine progressive principles as that multimillionaire.