You want to know about the sorry state of talk radio in America -- and Atlanta? Consider the fates of two homeboys, Neal Boortz and Mike Malloy.
They used to do the right-left gig when both aired on WSB radio and CNN. That was when broadcasting had balance, when Malloy and Boortz defined the limits of debate. And when there were 400 owners of stations. Now, there are a half-dozen mega-corporations.
"Malloy and I were a good example of how two people can disagree so harshly on matters, yet still get along in the real world," Boortz recalls.
Their fates since those halcyon days tell a lot about American media, as well as our disintegrating political culture. And two anecdotes illustrate how right-wing media have captured unparalleled access to power, in return for whoring themselves out as propagandists, while left radio is all but DOA.
On Sept. 15, five members of the Vast Right-Wing Radio Conspiracy were summoned for a private soiree with George Bush. The topic was hush-hush. Gee, I wonder if the quintet was being given its pre-election marching orders to ratchet up fear and defame Democrats. Or to create smoke screens to protect Republicans from criticism about the rich-win-poor-lose economy, their inattention to America's critical needs, their attacks on liberty, and that awful, bloody disaster deceitfully spun as Bush's "war on terror."
The secrecy was undone by Boortz, however. On Sept. 16, he breathlessly proclaimed on his website how he, Sean Hannity, Mike Gallagher, Michael Medved and Laura Ingraham -- a group that has amassed an incredible record of lies, distortion and bigotry -- had the day before been allowed to grovel at Fearless Leader's feet.
Keep that picture in mind.
About two weeks earlier, on Aug. 30, Malloy, who had a daily late-evening gig on the liberal Air America network, was driving to a studio to substitute for another host. En route, he got a call from Jon Sinton, an Atlanta radio veteran who had been, at Air America's birth in March 2004, the network's main man for programming. Sinton describes his current role as "very informally involved."
Despite Sinton's exile, he'd been tapped to deliver bad news to his old pal Malloy: The ax had already fallen, with money as the excuse.
Booting Malloy "was very stupid," Sinton says. "Malloy in many ways was the heart and soul of Air America."
Malloy, who was denied a goodbye broadcast, says: "Even WSB didn't dump me as unceremoniously as Air America did. They didn't notify me or the affiliates. Hell, the affiliates went berserk. 'Where's Malloy?' they demanded."
That might be a question for the whole country: Where are all the talk-show hosts who aren't ultra-reich hacks? The Coxopoly a decade ago cleansed WSB of Malloy and other liberals, preferring delusional racists (Michael Savage) and Bush shills (Hannity).
Malloy had lost other jobs because of his politics, including a highly rated show at Chicago's WLS-AM (890). Blogosphere babble has it that Malloy's often-heated criticism of Israel, especially during its disastrous adventure in Lebanon, prompted pressure from Jewish groups. Malloy doesn't discount his detractors, but blames his demise on Air America management. "They're liars, cheats and thugs," he says. "They have no intention of keeping the original mission of progressive radio."
Tom Taylor, editor of the Inside Radio newsletter, says the near extinction of left talk radio coincides with deregulation. "In 15 years, the national limit on ownership has gone from 14 stations to no limit," Taylor says, "while the local limit has gone from two stations to eight in large markets." In other words, a few conservative, corporate honchos decide what's heard.
Air America was born to give progressive talk a home. Earlier attempts, including one by a union-owned network where Malloy worked, had failed to gain traction. Air America immediately ran into big trouble. Investors and management were replaced and replaced again. Ex-CEO Evan Cohen, a Republican activist, created a scandal by diverting money from a youth club to Air America. The network's star, Al Franken, called Cohen a "crook."
Last spring, Air America lost its full-time Atlanta affiliate (full disclosure: CL hosted a show on that station). Then, in August, the network went from its New York flagship, WLIB, to a lower-power station. Air America is now under the control of Rob Glaser, who founded the RealPlayer software company. Glaser has brought in an odd duo of bosses: CEO Jim Wiggett, who has no broadcasting experience, and CFO Bob Ennis, who previously worked for Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp.
Wiggett concedes severe financial problems, but says, "We're still broadcasting." Ennis says Malloy's suggestion that he's Murdoch's stealth saboteur is a "clever conspiracy story. It shows the depth of Mike's delusion."
For the last month, there's been speculation -- fueled by right-wing blogger Brian Maloney, who is patronized by Fox News chief prevaricator Bill O'Reilly -- that Air America is headed for bankruptcy court. Ennis admits that's a possibility, but one "we're trying to avoid."
With Air America at best limping, Boortz, Hannity, O'Reilly and rest of the GOP echo chamber tout that there's no commercial viability for progressive radio. Not so, says Inside Radio's Taylor, pointing to success at stations such as WINZ-AM (940) in Miami and KPOJ-AM (620) in Portland, Ore.
"It's easier to do conservative radio," Taylor says. "Rush Limbaugh says, 'Cut taxes.' A liberal host has to explain there are better ways to spend money, and that takes more time. Air America is struggling to identify a vocabulary as well as a business structure. In the end, clearly liberal radio works, despite foes who want to deny that."
Malloy's trademark signature is: "Have I mentioned yet tonight how much I hate these people?" Usually, he says, "I mean Bush. Sadly, today I'm talking about people I once worked with."
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