How The Conservative/Big Business Alliance Bankrupted Air America

Few things raised joyfull cackles among Republicans in the waning days of 2006. Many, however regarded the bankruptcy of Air America as a bright spot in an otherwise dismal fall. Talk radio, it appeared, remained part of the conservative “heartland” where such liberal voices as Al Franken meet a resounding silence.

However, as reported by the New York Times, the story may have a lot more to it then a tale of silly liberals who can’t run a business and have nothing interesting to say. It appears that 90 major national advertisers engaged in a boycott of Air America programming, to the extent that they wanted their advertising stripped out of syndicated material from other sources (here, ABC Radio Network). The interesting question, of course, is why would supposedly dissinterested companies with no motivation to interefere with domestic politics want to drive Air America out of business?

Hahahahaha…..I love it when I ask silly rhetorical questions like that. For a further specualtion on what apparently went on and why I think the new, Democratic Congress might want to do a little investigatin’ into the Case of Secret Boycott, see below….

Josh Silver and Bob McChesney of Free Press wrote this up On Huffington Post Blog over a month ago. But their quick piece does not give this the analysis it deserves.

To review: Some years back, various liberal types upset with the total dominance of talk radio by conservatives launched Air America. Air America had a variety of problems, both internal and external. Internally, like any new business, it had to figure out how to make its ideal programming pay. Externally, Air America faced the fact that terrestrial radio is dominated by a handful of chains that like conservative radio and do not like potential competitors. This reflects both political ideology (the good folks in Clear Channel management are well-known for their support for George W. Bush and other conservative candidates and causes) and partly economic incentive (Clear Channel owns a chunk of Rush Limbaugh’s syndication, and sees no reason to promote a rival it does not own).

Happily, political pressures began to force the radio chains to at least look like they cared about diversity of programming. So Air America started to muscle its way on to the air waves, where it has continued to struggle to grow listeners. Unsurprisingly, ratings vary between o.k. in liberal Madison to downright crappy in some other places.

In October, Air America announced it would declare bankruptcy and seek a buyer in the hopes of staving off liquidation. Conservatives in all media rejoiced. Here at least was confirmation that namby-pamby liberals could not run a business and compete with true blue conservatives for the hearts and minds of “the heartland,” whatever the majority of voters might say.

Certainly Air America faced problems that any such venture would face — getting distribution, persuading liberals and progressives who long ago turned their radios off to turn their radios back on again, geting a new high-pressure business to jell without the support of a major corporate distributor. That might explain the bankruptcy. Or it might be that there is geneally no interest in liberal talk radio, although the decline in radio ratings overall suggests that terrestrial programmers are having a tough time figuring out what sells. But Air America also faced a daunting problem that only recently came to light: a secret boycott by major advertisers.

News of the boycott came from a memo leaked from ABC Radio. In addition to owning radio stations and producing radio programming, Disney/ABC Radio produces segments for radio stations to play for “top of the hour” news updates and so forth. Advertisers buy time on these nationally syndicated strips which often play within or just before other programming.

The ABC Radio Memo alerts the operators of station that both carry the Disney Radio Network content and Air America programming that Hewllet-Packet (HP) purchased advertising on the ABC Radio Networks and to “Please make sure you black out this advertiser on your station, as they do not wish to air on any Air America affiliates.” (Emphasis added)

The memo then reminds the station that over 90 advertisers (listed, some owned by the same company) “requesting that NONE of their commercials air within AIR AMERICA programming.” (caps, underscore and bold in original). The list included such major advertisers as Cingular and Wal-Mart, the US Post Office and U.S. Navy, and — oddly enough — the American Heart Association. (may I sugest that Air America fans show their distress with this decision by reciprocating the boycott and giving to some other charity this year?)

It is unclear whether the 90 Advertisers merely boycotted Air America programming, or actively refused to advertise on any station that carried Air America programming. The former is, of course, bad enough to cripple Air America by depriving it of major advertising bucks and making Air America less attractive to the companies that place radio advertising generally. The later would constitute a major disincentive for any station to carry Air America, further cutting them off from air play. But at the least, these 90 advertisiers felt so strongly about boycotting Air America that they demanded ABC Radio Network strip the advertising out of syndicated programming that runs during an Air America segment — another disincentive for any radio station to carry Air America.

Now advertiser boycotts are nothing new. But you don’t usually see them in secret. Usually, groups pushing advertiser boycotts on the mass media are actively trying to demonstrate theri huge influence. When the Society Against Fruity Tooties calls on advertisers to boycott a radio program because they think it furthers the dreaded “Fruity Tootie agenda,” they shout to the skies and crow with glee if the show gets cancelled.

But this boycott has taken place entirely in secret. No one wants to step up and take credit for killing the liberal wussies at Air America by driving off a collection of the biggest advertisers in the market. Surely the responsible party would like to step up and claim credit for their enormous clout? Anyone?

In 2003, during a Senate hearing on media consolidation, Senator Dorgan asked Rupert Murdoch why the radio dial remains crowded with conservatives while no liberal voices appear. “Apparently conservative talk is more popular.” Responded Murdoch.

Possibly. But the revalation that companies actively organized a boycott of Air America programming, with the suggestion that it was organized by someone with enough clout that companies like Hewlett-Packard actually demanded that ABC Radio Network strip the advertising out of syndicated programming that would play during Air America segments, suggests other possibilities. It also raises some disturbing questions. For example, why did both the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Navy decline to have their advertising associated with Air America content? Not just decline to do an ad buy, mind; actually join the list of people who wanted advertising stripped out of unrelated syndicated programming. That reflects more than a value judgment that liberals don’t send letters. It reflects a decision that it is somehow inappropriate to have anyone even think that the U.S. Post Office would advertise on Air America. Why?

Unfortunately, recent history makes it hard to rule out interference by the Administration or its allies. In 2005, I blogged about a Time Magazine article describing that the Administration excluded from international delegations corporate representatives that had donated to Democratic candidates. The November 20, 2006 Communications Daily (sadly no link) reports that, as election rancor heated up, the Administration began to once again aggressively exclude (some of us might say “punish”) industry representatives that contributed to Democrates or otherwise gave cause to question their loyalty to the Bush administration or (then) Republican majority. As for the Republican Congress, it’s efforts to prevent industry from giving to Democratic candidates and the Democratic party, all part of the infamous K Street Project are both well known and resulted in a huge fundraising advantage for Republicans.

I wish it were harder to imagine that these same people also indicated that advertising on Air America would not be a “corporate agenda advancing move.” I also wish it were not so easy to suspect that the good folks at places like Clear Channel — who also own one of the largest radio advertising placement firms — casually mentioned to advertisiers that anyone buying time on Air America might find it harder to get ad time on rival (and better rated) conservative talk. But the events of the last six years have transported such speculation from the realm of paranoid fantasy to the realm of possible reality.

Happily, a new Democratic Congress can step in and remove all lingering doubt. A letter from Chairman Inouye or Chairman Dingell or Chairman Markey to the companies on the ABC Radio Networks list asking why they so emphatically wished to avoid even the appearance of advertising on Air America would do a lot to clear the air.

And perhaps Congress should hold a few hearings on this and media consolidation generally. Perhaps Mr. Dorgan will have the opportunity to once again ask Mr. Murdoch (or Mr. Mays of Clear Channel) why conservative talk dominates the radio dial. Perhaps they can shed some light on ABC Radio Network’s little boycott list.

Stay tuned. . . .


  1. So, the advertisers announced they did not wish their ads associated with Air America in any way, and the radio network decided that the people paying the freight would be listened to. And they chose not to post a press release about it. I don’t understand what the problem is. Walmart also refuses to advertise in <i>In These Times</i> and <i>Hustler</i>. Shall we hold hearings about that?

  2. Harold, can you make the full list of 90 boycott supporters available here? Progressive citizens (usually known to corporate-owned media only as “consumers”) can appropriate action in the marketplace against those firms?

    BTW … the most immediate way to turn the tide on Clear Channel and their ilk is to get the FCC’s recent FM Allotments streamlining decision reversed on appeal. Anyone care to help me do that? I’ve got an application for review in the pipeline that has that potential to do that, but few resources to pursue it agressively.

  3. Bill, there are links is in the article to the list of advertisers.

    I never discuss litigation strategy on an open channel.

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