Air America

A while back I listened to a recording of a teach-in at Columbia University in which Cornel West was giving a speech. At the beginning he said, “I’d like to thank that group that made September 13th an upbeat day for me, even given the death of brother Tupac Shakur.” He was referring to the group of prisoners who took part in the Attica prison uprising on September 13, 1971, the same day that Tupac died in 1996. Some of the white liberals in the audience responded by laughing, thinking that West was making a joke. They were so clueless that they didn’t realize West was expressing genuine remorse over Tupac’s death. I was reminded of that incident when I started learning about this new “liberal radio network.” I thought that a lot of black folks must be laughing right now, because although white liberals don’t seem to realize it yet, Air America Radio is a joke.

The network made its debut in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. all of which have a substantial black population. New York has more blacks than any other American city. Chicago’s black population is nearly as large as its white population. Generally speaking, blacks are more liberal than their white counterparts. About 90% of blacks vote for the Democratic Party as opposed to just over 40% of whites. Given these facts, one might expect African Americans to be prominently featured on this new network. Sadly, the folks at Air America Radio could only find space for a grand total of two black people, both of which have two white cohosts. Chuck D, frontman for the great rap group Public Enemy, deserves better than to be a token black guy for this project. The other is Mark Riley, who cohosts the show Morning Sedition. Chuck D was more recently given a weekend show with black cohosts, but minority representation on the network remains tiny, especially during the best time slots. Highly qualified black journalists who asked not to be named were interviewed for on-air positions and felt slighted after not getting the job.

It gets worse. In New York, Air America’s programming will be featured on WLIB-1190 AM, which is owned by the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation (ICBC). Prior to the partnership with Air America, WLIB had been serving New York’s black community for decades. It was an outlet for black activists and featured unique “Afrocentric” programming. The CEO of the ICBC, Percy Sutton, tells his listeners that the new move “gives us an opportunity to impact on the world outside of our own community.” Many in the black community disagree. According to black activist Elombe Brath, “We have people here already who know radio, who can do shows. And they want to come in with a program from other people trying to talk to black people in New York City? (WLIB) is just a station that has been stripped of what it’s supposed to be! … In reality what the station needs is to have some people who know the community and can speak to its needs.”

In recent years WLIB has mostly featured Caribbean programming. Carl Tyndale, a listener for more than 17 years, was upset with the takeover: “Where are we going to find Caribbean music now? This station had so much information. They would broadcast cricket games and news from back home. Other stations don’t do that. I don’t think there is going to be many black issues with the new format, and there will be less Caribbean callers because people won’t feel at home. That is where people tune in to get something from home.” Tracey-McCallum, a Jamaican listener, was equally discouraged. “Their programming was quite good and offered quite a bit of Caribbean news; so that one source now is no longer available to us,” she said. The takeover couldn’t have come at a worse time, considering the recent coup in Haiti and the threats that CARICOM nations are facing over their refusal to recognize the new government. People in New York’s Caribbean community who may be concerned about their loved ones back home will now have a harder time finding news about the region. The station now only features Caribbean content from midnight to 5 AM. A prominent black newspaper ran a headline that said “WLIB: Black After Dark” in response to the changes.

Granted, the network is just getting started, but the fact that they have launched with such a programming package clearly indicates their target demographic, and it isn’t the folks who used to listen to Caribbean music on WLIB. One might argue that going for white, middle class consumers is the best business strategy. As CEO Mark Walsh put it, Air America is “Business. Period. End of quote.” That may be true, but if Air America was only interested in turning a profit they would be going after someone like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. They aren’t going after those folks because they’re trying to do something different, which is a laudable goal, but it is wrong to start a “liberal radio network” and neglect people of color, who for decades have been the bedrock of America’s liberal community. Liberals are supposed to support equality and inclusion, yet they replicate the same inequities of the larger society in their own organizations. If Air America is successful with its current lineup, they are unlikely to ever reach out to other groups. Why mess with a winning formula? This is why the problem needs to be addressed now.

After the deregulation of ownership restrictions in 1996, the San Antonio-based Clear Channel corporation quickly began to consolidate its control over the radio market, growing from 40 stations to over 1,240. For many liberals, Clear Channel represents everything that is wrong about the media in this country. Its lineup of hosts includes a vast array of right-wing ideologues (though they recently one-upped Air America and gave a show to Jesse Jackson). However, Clear Channel’s right-wing bias isn’t the only thing wrong with it. Media consolidation has had a devastating impact on local news and local music. Small radio stations that cater to the local community are unable to compete with national giants like Clear Channel and are either bought out or driven out of business. Ironically, this is precisely the same effect Air America has had so far. Air America CEO (and former DNC executive) Mark Walsh recently chastised liberals for thinking of Clear Channel as “Satan” and claimed that Air America would likely be partnering with Clear Channel stations in the future. In their zeal to find an alternative to Clear Channel, liberals have thrown their support to a network that is looking like Clear Channel-lite. The problem isn’t unique to New York either. Air America has displaced Spanish language radio stations in Los Angeles and Chicago, only to be taken off the air when Multicultural News Radio, the owner of the two stations, accused them of bouncing a check. Air America will soon displace ethnic Asian radio in the Bay Area of California. It seems they will not be satisfied until they have offended every minority group this country has to offer.

Of course, most white liberals are too busy bubbling over with joy to give a damn. “At last we have a voice!” Who cares if we further marginalize African Americans in the process? Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve done it. Russell Simmons recently attacked the arrogant indifference of white liberals at a gathering of the “Society of Ethical Culture.” The meeting featured many members of Hollywood’s liberal elite. Most of the time was spent strategizing about how to defeat Bush in the upcoming election. When given the opportunity to speak, Simmons informed those in attendance that “The s— y’all doing is corny! You have to at least include people. We are not included!” The audience members responded by rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Laurie David, the organizer of the event, later said, “I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. I was pretty clueless at the beginning of his diatribe and clueless at the end of it.” Obviously.

Also in attendance was comedian Al Franken, who sarcastically responded, “He said we were ‘corny,’ which is a terrible insult. That really hit me hard.” Franken now has his own show on Air America, which he has mischievously titled The O’Franken Factor. Somehow I doubt black people will be tuning in to hear Al Franken deliver cheesy one-liners about Bill O’Reilly. Most reviewers of Franken’s first show found it disappointing and boring. They should not have expected anything better from Franken, who has been telling the same five jokes for the past two years or so. The show featured a bland interview with war criminal Bob Kerrey about the 9/11 commission followed by an interview with sellout filmmaker Michael Moore. The show reached its climax when former vice president Al Gore called in. Moore used the opportunity to grovel. He issued a pathetic apology for backing Ralph Nader in the 2000 elections and promised to “throw a big party” for Al Gore if Bush loses the next election.

In response to this article, a Latina activist relayed a negative experience she had with Franken and his fans that underscores my point. “I work for an organization who LOVED and even invited folks to Al Franken’s roll out event in D.C.,” she said. “As one of less than ten people of color in attendance, I was routinely asked, ‘Where should I hang my coat?’ which was actually a nice way of asking me to take the person’s coat, since they thought I was staff to the event rather than a participant! Al Franken was NOT funny, nor was the event successful for anyone other than the white ‘progressive’ D.C. folks who seem to thrive in an environment where they are allowed to drink, pat themselves on the back, talk about how to ‘organize voters of color,’ and count it as work time.”

The O’Franken Factor is followed by The Randi Rhodes Show, which featured a screaming match between Rhodes and Ralph Nader on its inglorious debut. Rhodes informed Nader that she was “pissed” that he “screwed up the last election.” Despite Nader’s civility, Rhodes continued screaming at him until he eventually hung up. Over the course of the screaming match, Nader aptly nicknamed the network “Hot Air America Radio.” Rhodes and Franken are both partisan hacks who spend a lot of time gushing over Bill Clinton. The resulting analysis ends up being as hollow and partisan as Rush Limbaugh’s show. The only promising shows are Janeane Garofalo’s Majority Report and The Laura Flanders Show (full disclosure: I had a huge crush on Garofalo as a teenager). Garofalo claims Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among her ideological bedfellows. Laura Flanders once worked for Fairness and Accuracy Reporting. Her fabulous new book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, seems to be doing well. Hopefully the independence of Flanders and Garofalo will balance the partisanship of Franken and Rhodes.

Sadly, it seems that nothing will be there to balance the utter whiteness of the network’s format at the moment. “We did make mistakes in our launch, and one of them was in the lack of integration,” says Executive Vice President David Goodfriend. Goodfriend says efforts are being made to rectify the problem: “First, Chuck D and his team, after raising the same issue with us, are helping us to find and recruit both on-air and off-air personnel. Second, at Pepe Sutton’s suggestion, we’re working with Henry Rivera to cultivate additional talent from the Latino community. Third, we are reaching out to anyone and everyone who has raised this concern to get ideas, names, and candidates.” These efforts sound promising, but whether or not they will yield results remains to be seen.

Considering that the Democratic Party would be a political nonentity without black voters, the fact that they are shut out and marginalized at every turn is beyond insulting. Air America is just another episode in a long history of callous indifference and clueless misunderstanding the Democratic Party and white liberals in general have shown toward the black community. White liberals need to wake up and realize that this sort of business isn’t going to cut it any longer, and black liberals need to speak up loudly and let them know it. Keeping pressure on Air America to diversify its staff and respect the interests of local communities would be a good start.

Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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