On March 31, 2004, the latest venture in liberal talk radio was officially launched. A left-wing radio network called Air America began broadcasting a full day's worth of programming on radio stations in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. Its on-air hosts included comedians Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, rapper Chuck D, and former Walter Mondale speechwriter Marty Kaplan, as well as a sprinkling of more experienced radio performers such as Randi Rhodes and Katherine Lanpher.
Air America is the creation of a group of wealthy entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who, contrary to the usual stereotype, are using their resources to promote a left-wing agenda. As of this writing, it is still a work in progress. The owners, Mark Walsh and Evan Cohen, say that they hope the liberal network will eventually turn a profit, but in the short term they are willing to spend as much as $30 million to get the venture going. As proof of that commitment, the fledgling enterprise already has almost a hundred people working for it, even though its programs are being broadcast on only four stations (Franken's show is being aired on two others). The new network has also had the benefit of receiving a great deal of highly sympathetic coverage from other news media, particularly newspapers and television.
This is not the first attempt that liberals have made to establish a greater presence in talk radio, though it is certainly the most ambitious. In the mid 1990s, Hillary Clinton was reportedly looking for "someone to promote as a counterweight to Rush Limbaugh." Many on the Left thought they had finally found their man in Jim Hightower, an economic populist and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture who launched a nationally syndicated radio talk show in 1994--only to have it canceled just a year and a half later. Mario Cuomo, Gary Hart, and Alan Dershowitz also had their own talk radio programs, each of which proved to be low-rated and short-lived.
All of these initiatives are a recognition of two important realities in contemporary American politics. The first is the stubborn persistence of radio as a significant source of political information for many Americans. When asked where they get most of their news, most Americans today say television; second place has long belonged to newspapers. But a substantial minority--15 to 20 percent in most polls--say that radio is one of their principal sources of news, (the questions generally allow respondents to name more than one medium).
Talk radio, in particular, is bigger than ever. Aided by the growth of satellite technology and some favorable rulings by the Federal Communications Commission, the number of stations devoted exclusively to news and talk shows has grown from about 75 in 1980 to about 1,400 today. In 1993, according to a widely cited study by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, 17 percent of Americans said they "regularly" listened to call-in radio shows that discussed politics and current events, while another 25 percent said they listened "sometimes." In a 2002 Gallup survey, 22 percent of the sample said they listened to "radio talk shows" every day, 10 percent listened several times a week, and 29 percent tuned in "occasionally."
The second and more striking reality is the complete dominance of talk radio by conservatives. Though there is a long-standing dispute about the ideological leanings, if any, of network television and local newspapers, there is scarcely any disagreement about the predominant ideology of talk radio. The most popular radio talk-show hosts in America are either openly and zealously conservative or almost entirely apolitical. There is nary a liberal in the bunch.
Will Air America succeed? The answer to that question almost certainly depends on the answer to another question: Why is talk radio currently so dominated by conservatives?