Clearing the air on talk radio

Air America went out of business last week and I’m ready to accept the significance of the radio network’s demise -- the inevitable marginalization of those who support big government, illegal immigration and the homosexual agenda.

Yet the Drudge Report has been dropping further behind the Huffington Post, the conservative aggregator attracting well under half the liberal website’s audience. Even a dummy can see what that means -- that this country has no appetite for gun rights, private property, the value of the unborn or the sanctity of the American flag.

On the Media: The On the Media column in Wednesday’s Calendar section said the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to provide equal time to alternative points of view. The doctrine, abolished in 1987, required broadcast license-holders to present important issues and to offer multiple perspectives. The federal requirement was distinct from the equal-time rule that applies to candidates for political office. —

And to repeat the obvious: Huge ticket sales for “Avatar” reveal the world’s budding sympathy and respect for poor indigenous peoples. Bet on it.

There’s nary a shift or shimmy in our culture that someone’s not invoking as a political watershed. Television ratings, newspaper circulations, even movie box office all become mere signposts in the endless struggle of left vs. right -- at least if the people filling my in-box are any example.

Last week’s shutdown of the nearly 6-year-old Air America radio network provided the most recent opportunity to heap mountainous meaning on a political molehill. That obscures the more telling lesson of what caused Air America to fail: Bad radio. Boring radio. Preachy radio.

The upstart network, founded by radio naifs, couldn’t get any traction in a radio niche that conservatives effectively cornered two decades ago. Their sharp, populist approach had become the industry standard for owners of powerful AM outlets.

Conservatives began to carved out a formidable radio beachhead in the years following the abandonment of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters until 1987 to provide equal time to alternative points of view.

Talk radio had been something of a backwater before that time, with relatively few outlets on an AM dial once dominated by music. Those who set up camp built their audiences slowly, painstakingly, over many years, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine about talk radio.

But that began to change when “The Rush Limbaugh Show” went up on 56 stations in 1988. Not everyone wanted gentle interviews and ideological balance. Limbaugh’s slashing provocations and inflammatory pronouncements kept people listening. They told their friends.

As he built toward some 600 stations and an audience now estimated at 20 million, Limbaugh went from being an unknown to the standard. Program directors would clear space for lesser-known conservative talkers in the hope of mimicking anything like Limbaugh’s success.

At the same time, corporate consolidations were putting radio programming decisions into fewer hands. And the people in charge tended to go with the tried and true.

Today, liberals seethe when they hear someone call Limbaugh a brilliant broadcaster who built his large audience through years of hard work and creativity. Conservatives become just as ornery when they’re told that their radio dominance might represent something less than a political mandate.

Limbaugh and even his imitators continue to hold on to the stronger stations, with broader reach, where they put down roots years ago. Those bigger stations also tend to promote their programs more aggressively, helping cement conservative dominance in the talk venue.

“There is just a tremendous reluctance in management of these talk stations to try anything new right now,” Harrison said. “Even in advertising sales, they’re more accustomed to selling the conservative shows. They go with the path of least resistance.”

From the time a couple of Democratic activists launched it in March 2004, Air America’s biggest problem was that its operators treated it as a blunt political instrument, not a vehicle for entertainment. “Saturday Night Live” star Al Franken, comedian Janeane Garofalo and others seemed uncertain how to fill long hours of air time. They frittered away a lot of segments obsessing about the dominance of Limbaugh and his brethren.

“I’m a big fan of Rachel Maddow and Al Franken,” said Stephanie Miller, one of the most popular liberal entertainers on AM radio, who appears in L.A. on KTLK (1150). “But they were both doing this to get to something else. To build radio you have to get radio people and build an audience.”

Maddow has moved on to her own show on cable television’s MSNBC, while Franken got himself elected to the U.S. Senate. Miller said she and other radio veterans, carried by other syndicates, welcome the chance to stumble or soar on their own, without having outsiders judge progressive radio solely through the lens of Air America.

Robin Bertolucci sits in a unique position in Los Angeles, as the program director of both the dominant conservative talk outlet, KFI-AM (640), and of liberal-oriented KTLK.

The liberal outlet’s weekly cumulative audience of 207,000 is only about one-sixth the size of KFI’s.

Bertolucci said liberal talkers can draw sizable audiences: “I don’t think there is any barrier. It just takes the right, smart person. . . . People like me, we are shameless. We just want to get ratings.”

While both friend and foe view Limbaugh as a titan who consumes or alters everything in his path, it’s worth remembering that, in his morning slot at KFI (not unlike a lot of other markets), he pulls 3% or 4% of the L.A. radio audience.

It might not be a bad time to recalibrate on a few other media fronts, as well: For those who tell me about the growing power of the liberal Huffington Post, remember, an audience of 9 million unique users is substantial, but still a sliver of the vast Web pie. And those who tout the conservative Fox News Channel’s huge lead on cable TV, please recognize the massive audience advantage the three nightly network news shows still enjoy -- their combined audience of 25 million dwarfs the 3 million who watch “Special Report” on Fox.

The caricature of the ideological mix on radio has been even more extreme. Many folks make their assessments of conservative dominance because they talk about only those talkers who are overtly political. But moderates and liberals pop up on many other platforms -- from National Public Radio to urban contemporary stations to morning shock programs.

“When you put it all together,” Harrison said, “that’s quite an audience people forget about. When people ask if conservatives dominate, I say they dominate in conservative talk radio. It makes tremendous money, gets tremendous buzz and plays a role in the political dialogue. But it’s not this total domination of American thought and politics.”