• Lies and the lying liars who launched Air America
• You can call me Al and Rachel and Marc’s radio colleague once upon a time
• The slow-motion train wreck that was supposed to take down Rush Limbaugh
They were among the luckiest documentary filmmakers ever.
The photos and clips in this post are from “Left of the Dial,” a doc that aired on HBO 15 years ago, and was shot by a film crew given access to the run-up and launch of Air America in March of 2004. (They were one of two film chroniclers of the network’s debut. I don’t know what became of the second one. I think it may have been a project of the late D.A. Pennebaker.)
The filmmakers might have packed up and left shortly after the launch, but this crew waited long enough to capture the shocking moment, about a month into Air America’s life, when the fraud perpetrated by its founders was uncovered, spectacularly so. A couple of venture capitalists, long forgotten, had said they had raised $60 million dollars so that the liberal radio network could broadcast for a year or more before having to turn a profit. In reality, they had raised about six million. The documentary crew had a real-life cliffhanger drop right into their lenses, and they went on to show the subsequent frantic and temporarily successful effort to keep Air America on the air.
Air America helped send Al Franken on his way to the US Senate. (#Metoo later sent him packing.) Franken had emerged as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live and then wrote best-selling books like Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
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I can’t share a lot of inside dope on Al because he and the producers of his daily segment were one of several fiefdoms headed by on-air talent that often quietly feuded among themselves in a way that definitely didn’t foster a one-happy-family feel to the place. I’d been brought on as a newscaster and I have to say my colleagues and I in the newsroom sometimes seemed barely visible to some of the show hosts.
Rachel Maddow, in only her second or third radio job, was among the friendlier, more outgoing of the hosts. I once noticed a guy in jeans and a work shirt walking down the hall toward the restrooms, and said to myself, “That guy must be one of our college interns.” When she returned, I saw it was, of course, Rachel. During her show I would see a bulletin coming over our wire service printer and quietly run it into her studio, for which she was grateful. Her internet-savvy producers (this was in the mid-aughts) would sometimes spot the news item on the internet before the soon-to-be-obsolete Associated Press printer completed its operation. Rachel would politely tell me, “We saw it, thanks.” I was getting more internet-savvy myself during the final months before the news department was dismantled. Because newscasters were just going through the rip-and-read motions, I had a lot of time on my hands. I honed a penchant for snarky comments on Gawker.com – and actually won the weekly Best Comment award twice.
Comedian Marc Maron was an original Air America co-host and went on to create one of the earliest widely-listened-to podcasts, WTF, as well as acting in the Netflix series GLOW and other films. Janeane Garofalo, another actor, was a co-host. Randi Rhodes was the one show host who had considerable experience as a liberal talk show host.
The network’s emphasis on initially hiring many comedians regardless of their amount of radio experience grew out of a belief that right-wing talk radio – which had grown exponentially at the end of the 20th century – was essentially humorless. Air America, intent on talking back to the right, was also out to prove that the left is inherently funnier than the right. While that may be the case – and the network did have several very creative writers who produced some funny sketches and fake commercials – the network’s dysfunctional march into oblivion was definitely not funny. Certainly not to me.
I’d reached a point in my career where television news wasn’t an option anymore. Air America had brought me back to radio for the first time in about 15 years. Doing radio news was second nature to me and doing it on a progressive network whose raison d’être was squarely in my wheelhouse was a perfect fit, I thought.
But the ratings kept sliding, the newsroom kept shrinking, and efforts to save Air America kept falling short. At one point, Danny Goldberg, a successful record executive and rock and roll artist manager (Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana), was brought in as CEO. He also chaired the Southern California ACLU chapter. He’s a great guy and I’ve known him for a long time but . . . he had no experience running a radio network. None at all. He was gone in a year. The network, begun in 2004, went under, finally, in 2010, ten years ago this month.
Right-wing radio is still an omnipresent and powerful medium. Air America, if it’s remembered at all, is often mistaken for a 1990 Mel Gibson movie about a CIA front airline during the Vietnam war.
In my house it lives on as a refrigerator magnet.