The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Sunday, May 02, 2004

What is Air America for?

The novelty value - which was considerable - has now worn off [1]. All of the shows I dip into (Randi Rhodes makes my ears bleed - I stay away) are hard work - in the worst way: some interesting stuff, a few laughs, a mountain of dross.

Very much like sheafing through the product of Big Media and the blogosphere. Except that - blissfully - you can usually evaluate a page in a second or two, and consign the unwanted to oblivion with a simple Ctrl + W. With radio, you have to hang around on the off chance, wasting precious minutes of undivided attention that could have been devoted to something worthwhile. Not to mention - for those of us in Dialup Hell - equally precious bandwidth.

Let's Do The Show Right Here is great when Judy Garland is telling Mickey Rooney. But - compared with radio - they have one inestimable advantage: American montage. Over a soundtrack of busy music, you get to see (mercifully, not to hear - mostly) snippets of the rehearsals as they stumble two paces forward and one back (or vice versa!), intercut with the leaves of a calendar mysteriously floating out into the ether to indicate the passage of time. And, a few weeks later, the show is ready.

Great. But, with the magic of Hollywood, the audience is spared actually watching the excruciating process in real time.

Not so with Air America.

I like comedy and satire; and I like political analysis. Originating around 14 hours of material each weekday, there's plenty of time for both on AAR. What we get far too much of is wall-to-wall free-form chat. Shows that are supposed to fire up water-cooler chat themselves sound like water-cooler chat.. And water-cooler chat is not a spectator sport: it's boring if you you're not taking part.

The marquee show of Franken's I see criticised for being too wonk-y and aimed at initiates in the liberal freemasonry. There certainly is content; but
  1. there is too much repetitious talking-point stuff (Paul Wolfowitz's inability to recall before a Congressional committee how many US forces had died in Iraq, for instance);

  2. the serious politics is sacrificed to the need for Franken to do his comedy: like Bob Newhart (USS Codfish, Walter Raleigh, Abraham Lincoln, etc), he works the audience with hesitation and pauses. Great for stand-up. But the radio listeners get the point, and want to move on: but Franken is contractually entitled (or behaves as if he is) to tiptoe through treacle to his punchline, and the listeners just damned well have to wait;

  3. the material is in dire need of editing at all levels.

As I mentioned on April 24, he makes no effort to cloak his loathing for his sidekick Katherine Lanpher who makes next to no positive contribution to the show. And his two-way with David Sirota from the Center for American Progress has also become distinctly uncomfortable: the poor quality of the phone line [1], the emphasis on gotchas rather than issues, the need to accommodate Franken's uncongenial comedy stylings make it usually a train wreck.

Garofalo at least has some minimal chemistry with her sidekick, and some interesting guests; but the repetitious - and LOUD! - rants that - again, a contractual requirement? - intrude even on the more gripping conversations just get too much.

Three hours is a hell of long time to fill - on BBC radio, for instance, a series of six half-hour documentaries is not uncommon - and would fit into one Franken show. His salary aside, the production costs of the BBC shows would, I suspect, be several times that of the Franken show. And it - well, shows.

On the comedy side, how many man-hours go into the writing of the average 22 minute Hollywood-produced sitcom episode? And how many go into scripting Franken's comedy, the sketches (like the Oy, Oy, Oy Show) and the free-form stuff?

Franken running on fumes is neither informative nor funny. (Ditto for Garofalo.)

All the more frustrating given the issues that are stacked up waiting to be explored. For instance, the big demo in Washington last weekend was the pretext for some discussion on reproductive rights - but, not much on Franken, as I recall, and on Garofalo (who was there) mainly bullhorn soundbites, as if she was addressing a street-corner meeting over the noise of traffic.

Now, I've looked at the politics of abortion here just a little [2], and it's genuinely fascinating stuff. (If you think that the politics is boring, and needs the comedy as the spoonful of sugar, you're wide of the mark.) The legislative tactics of the anti-abortion crowd since Roe was upheld in Casey are a case-study; the fightback in the courts against S3, the Federal partial birth abortion act; the politics of S3 within the Democratic party in Congress - lots of red meat for liberals to chew on [3].

But all that needs expertise and organisation and time to wrap up into a coherent and attractive radio product. And there's precious little evidence of any of those things having been devoted to AAR's product.

And then there's the NPR factor. Now, some parts of NPR - Morning Edition, for instance, even before Bob Edwards got the death sentence - are practically embalmed. And the hushed tone, the public funding, the perceived liberal bias all go to making it the poster-boy for the elites that Bush rails about.

For that reason, and given that NPR is a competitor, AAR wants to differentiate itself. (Not entirely - its weekday Brit, Sue Ellicott, is an old NPR voice, I think.) But, if spending money on programmes is NPR, and is also necessary for a half-decent product, AAR is in a bit of a bind.

I suspect the answer is that there is no money. (No disposable money, at least.) And that AAR shows will continue more or less in the current format up till the presidential election. Straight after which the plug will be pulled.

My guess is that the numbers don't add up. That, in a nutshell, the available audience for liberal radio is too small to generate the ad revenues needed to make programming of the quality to sustain any audience. (Unlike a lot of start-ups, radio production costs are liable to be pretty fixed in relation to potential sales: Franken and Garofalo won't be getting top dollar, but they're not going to be on a straight percentage of the gross either! What with the circular conveyor-belt of PSAs...)

Presumably, before the funding was put in place for AAR, guys with spreadsheets produced financial models, did polling, talked to focus groups, looked at programme budgets, yadda, yadda yadda. The budget line for wishful thinkingwas just too damned big.

  1. Earlier thoughts on AAR on April 6 - Ctrl + F on Franken for other pieces since.

  2. They must have broadband over at CAP: why can't they hook up a decent, FM-quality connection for the guy?

  3. Most recently on April 25 and April 26.

  4. And they have the problem of how far they shill for Kerry and the Dems. Few issues split on party lines; in most cases, some Dems in Congress take the Administration line. Keeping away from the details of issues like abortion and FCC censorship and the Medicare bill avoids the need to draw attention to those Dems who are an embarrassment to the likes of the liberals running AAR.

free website counter Weblog Commenting and Trackback by