Saturday, May 19, 2007

Air America(n) Constitution Society Radio

Both Air America Radio and the American Constitution Society should have been abject failures, and for the same reason. Each was an attempt to do for left/liberals what a similar entity---Rush Limbaugh and his clones in one instance; the Federalist Society in the other---had done for the right. Yet in both cases there was an important difference. Right-wing talk radio gave voice to a political constituency that was previously largely voiceless, just as the Federalist Society provided a haven for conservatives who felt outnumbered by liberal faculty and students at nearly all prestigious law schools, a place for them to meet, network, and plan their eventual ascension in a real world in which conservatives held considerable power. By contrast, before there was Air America Radio, there already were NPR for the latte liberal set, a network of African-American stations for the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, and Spanish-language radio for the largest ethnic minority group in the country. About the only part of the Democratic base without an identifiable radio home was organized labor, and there was never anything in the format of Air America Radio that seemed designed to appeal specifically to union types. I'm not sure whom one would hire for UAW Radio, but Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo would not be at the top of the list. Likewise, the American Constitution Society entered what was already a crowded niche. Liberal law students did not feel marginalized and if they had a thirst for ideologically charged engagement, they had plenty of other options: they could become active (and many still do become active) in student branches of the ACLU, the Lawyers' Guild, and other organizations, or they could (and many still do) engage in activist lawyering through legal aid, clinics and externships.

How then to explain that while Air America Radio has been largely a flop, the ACS seems to have caught on? Air America Radio went bankrupt last year but has been kept afloat by an infusion of cash from real estate mogul Stephen Green and is in the process of re-launching under the leadership of his brother, perennial New York political candidate Mark Green. Whether it succeeds under the Greens remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the ACS website accurately describes itself as "a rapidly growing network" that is already "one of the nation's leading progressive legal organizations."

I don't have a perfect explanation for the different paths that Air America Radio and ACS have thus far taken. There is, to be sure, the obvious fact that despite the parallels I have identified here, the markets for talk radio and for law student/lawyer networks differ substantially. But there is another factor, I think, and it has to do with temperamental differences between liberals and conservatives, and between lawyers and others. Conservative talk-radio is an angry, strident medium, and, with important exceptions (including Al Franken himself), Air America Radio tried to emulate that style. That doesn't seem to work with most liberals, who generally prefer their political red meat laced with irony rather than vitriol. That's why the leading TV alternatives to Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Hannity are satirists like Stewart, Olbermann and Colbert. Indeed, Colbert is pretty obviously a direct parody of O'Reilly.

By contrast, the intellectual style of the Federalist Society has always been cordial, almost genteel. Thus, by adapting the means of the Federalist Society to liberal ends, ACS has adopted a style---that of the high-minded debating society---that liberals already find congenial.


Ben Alpers said...

I'm not sure this argument works, Mike. I think your reasons-for-failure argument makes a lot of sense for the ACS...which has in fact succeeded.

But do you really think that NPR is a "latte liberal" network? That just sounds like an Accuracy in Media talking point, no more true for its frequent repetition. As for the existence of other radio stations serving other Democratic constituencies.....

First, try going outside the very largest metropolitan areas and look for any such stations.

Secondly, even the Democratic-constituency outlets that you describe have a fundamentally different relationship both to liberal political movements and to the Democratic Party than Rush and other rightwing talk hosts have to the conservative movement and the GOP.

So I'm willing to buy your argument for the lack of a need for an ACS, but Air America was entering a nearly empty field (especially outside NYC), and yet it has largely failed. And signs of success under the Greens so far don't look good (which should be no surprise given Mark Green's general immunity to self-criticism).

-- Ben Alpers

Ben Alpers said...

I forgot to add:

I find your concluding thoughts about temperamental styles of the right and left a lot more convincing.

gregrocker said...

You don't know what you are talking about. Out here on the West Coast from top to bottom, and in places like Miami, Minneapolis, Denver and Phoenix, Air America spawned vibrant stations with huge listenerships. In fact, the undercounting of Air America listeners was exposed by the marketing department of UCLA, possibly involving fraud on the part of Arbitron and causing them to junk their entire prehistoric method of taking ratings. Their sample members will now be wearing receiver reporting boxes. So no more ratings showing no listeners in D.C. when BBDO's own focus group showed a third avid listeners.

Also revealing is your smear of latte liberals. I've never had one, but the entire younger generation orders them daily. This is the same younger generation that tells pollsters like me at UCLA that they would never consider voting for GOP. Don't look now, but the 15 pound Pew slide you took last month just slid some more!

Your lies and bullying is exposed for all to see, having destroyed the U.S. reputation permanently in the world, bankrupted the government and finally you are seen as the corrupt, chickenhawk, closet case bigots which we always knew you to be.

Benjam said...

i love gregrocker's post, simply for providing empirical evidence that liberals CAN be as angry as conservatives. (maybe johnrocker's liberal twin?)

i dont drink lattes. i sort of prefer regular coffee, cream no sugar. despite this preference, on many days i did find myself trying to listen to airamerica but eventually giving up and tuning into NPR. on that point, i cannot disagree with mike.

i think the main point is simply that the "talent" on airamerica was awful. the other point is simply that liberals dont need a radio station to remind them to be liberal and to stake out their positions for them. to be competely honest, i'd rather listen to limbaugh than garofolo any day of the week. after all, there is a value to entertainment. unlike the uber-pious sean hannity, rush does have a quick wit.

i think the partisan liberal media is here to stay. olberman has awesome ratings. but if you put randi rhodes in his spot, the show would tank in a heartbeat. the early failures of airamerica should not be overblown. not only are there significant barriers to market entry, but the model was clearly not market-tested. i think in five years, we might have a very different take on the success of liberal radio.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Hey Gregrocker, whoever you are, I think you meant to post this on somebody else's blog. If you do a little research --- or even if you simply read some of the other posts on this very blog --- you'll understand. I didn't realize that "latte liberal" was a smear. I was going to say "NPR liberal" but that would obviously have made the point circular. Anyway, I'm proud to be one (although my lattes are of the soy milk variety since I'm a vegan).

Ben, thanks for posting. I agree totally that the Democratic constituency outlets I describe have a different relationship to liberal political movements than do the rightwing talkhosts vis-a-vis Rush et al. That's part of the reason why it's easier for the right to stay on message. My point was only that the radio audience was already being served.

Anyway, my MAIN point was a humble one. I thought that both Air America and ACS would fail for the same reasons. I was wrong about ACS (and, as the faculty advisor to the Columbia chapter since its inception, delighted to have been wrong) so perhaps I can prove to be wrong about Air America or whatever follows it.

Unknown said...

I think another major reason that ACS succeeded where Air America failed is the names that were brought in. As you point out, Al Franken, Janeane Garafalo, Jerry Springer were the major names for Air America and I just don't see that working and anyone taking that seriously.

On the other hand, ACS brought in some heavy weights. Prof Dorf, Judge Berzon, Judge Reinhardt, Abner Mikva, Justice Breyer, Seth Waxman; now those are some names that are going to draw interest. Plus, the speakers from ACS have generally been very willing to do events and work around students' schedules. I was very successful in putting together a couple of debates at Golden Gate University (not exactly a top ranked school) this school year and have already had speakers offer to do more events for me next year.

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