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The “Liberal” Network By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 31, 2004


SCHEDULED TO LAUNCH ON THE EVE OF APRIL FOOLS’ DAY, the new “liberal” network Air America Radio is to begin airing on stations in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland and, maybe, San Francisco, five liberal cities where it can rouse the already-converted.

Several of its key programs can also be heard via XM Satellite Radio’s new “America Left” Channel 167, also launching March 31.  (Air America’s Vice President of Programming Dave Logan was programming executive at XM.)  Its streaming internet audio might also be available at airamericaradio.com.

Experts are betting that the new network will fail to make money and disappear within a year, despite celebrity hosts such as comics Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. But this does not matter to its investors.

Pundits have claimed that it will offer the opposite view to talk radio conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, but this appears not to be Air America Radio’s primary mission.

A look at the people and corporate structures behind the new network reveals that it will liberally lampoon and criticize Republicans and conservatives, but do not expect to hear any principled liberal criticism of Democrats such as presidential candidate Senator John F. Kerry. And do not hold your breath waiting for its hosts to praise the Green Party or invite Ralph Nader to appear as a guest.

The reason: Air America Radio was designed and built to advance the Democratic Party, not necessarily liberalism. And if it proves unprofitable, preparations are already in place for this network’s lucrative dismemberment shortly after the November election.

“I’d be happy if the election of a Democrat ended the show,” said the network’s biggest star Al Franken, who reportedly has signed only a one-year contract to do a weekday three hour show opposite Limbaugh. “I’m doing this because I want to use my energies to get Bush unelected.”

The idea to create a “liberal” radio network – as if National Public Radio, ABC, NBC, CBS and the other left-leaning networks were insufficient – came from Chicago businessman Sheldon Drobny, who said he was willing to invest $10 million in the venture. In 2003 he created AnShell Media as home for this enterprise and hired Atlanta broadcast veteran Jon Sinton as its chief executive officer.

But Drobny became controversial after National Review’s Byron York reported on his writings for the small website MakeThemAccountable.com. Drobny’s rantings likened President Bush to Adolf Hitler and accused the Bush family of links to Nazi Germany. These loony-Left notions, Drobny acknowledged, came from his readings of conspiracy theories published by former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche’s organization.

Drobny defended his potential role as owner of this “liberal” network. “As a venture capitalist, I’m not the one who does the programming,” he said, “nor would I interject my own opinion into programming.”  But his argument that he who pays the piper would not call the tune was unpersuasive.

In 2003 Drobny and his wife sold “much” (but not all) of their ownership of AnShell to a group formed by New York investor Evan Cohen, an entrepreneur “who at the time was developing a pan-Asian radio network,” and his classmate at Beloit College in Wisconsin David Goodfriend, a former Clinton White House staffer. 

The new holding company, with Drobny as part owner, is named Progress Media, and its President is Jon Sinton. What it holds are two separate entities, Air America Radio which produces programs and Equal Time Media, which buys and leases and manages radio stations. (You can surmise that the radio network will not offer conservatives Equal Time.)

As of its March 31 launch date, no stations have been purchased.  (By contrast, Clear Channel, Rush Limbaugh’s partner, owns more than 1,200 radio stations that broadcast various kinds of music and talk.)

Two of the stations carrying Air America Radio – 50,000 watt KBLA (K-BLAH) 1580 in Los Angeles beach suburb Santa Monica, and 5,000 watt WNTD 950 in Chicago – were both previously Spanish-language and are both being provided by the same company, Multicultural Radio Broadcasting Licensee LLC in Miami, Florida. 

In the radio business, companies frequently “rent” stations through an LMA, a lease-manage agreement.  But much is kept vague about how Progress Media does business. The arrangement with station owner Multicultural Radio is described as “a radio network distribution deal” or “leasing time,” a bit like a radio evangelist buying hours of airtime from a station owner.  (Depending on the terms of such secret deals, they could be little different from a campaign contribution to allies of the Democratic Party in the form of cheap or free air time, which can be entirely legal under the new campaign finance law.)

The third affiliate carrying Air America Radio, WLIB 1190 in New York City, until this change a Caribbean music station with occasional black-targeted talk shows, is via a “partnership” with owner Inner City Broadcasting Corporation. Conditions of the deal apparently involved Air America Radio hiring WLIB host Mark Riley and altering the content of its programming.  One morning primetime co-host will be rapper Chuck D.  The chairman of ICBC is Pierre Sutton, son of part owner and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. The network has moved into WLIB’s 40th floor offices at 3 Park Avenue.

As of late Tuesday, the promised San Francisco affiliate station had not been named. But Air America Radio’s web site said that as of Noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, its programs could also be heard on 5,000 watt, year-old KPOJ 620 in liberal Portland, Oregon – aptly making a tiny change from its previous programming format, “Golden Oldies.”  And it boasted of another network affiliate 70 miles east of Los Angeles – one of many stations that have carried my own national show – 1400 watt, daytime-hours-only KCAA 1050 in Loma Linda, California.

“This is really a neat [corporate] structure,” said Madison, Wisconsin, businessman Terry Kelly, one of the Daddy Warbucks investors that Progressive Media has tried to keep under wraps. 

(Another such investor may be Rex Sorensen, a Democratic donor who owns five radio stations on Saipan and, across the International Dateline, Guam (where, as we hear during every political convention, “America’s day begins”) and a friend of Pacific broadcast maven Evan Cohen.)

“Equal Time was formed to buy and hold radio stations,” said Kelly. “The reason to have these companies separate is that investment in Equal Time can be attractive to different kinds of investors.” 

“Owning radio stations means you have physical assets and therefore you can get investment groups who have owned broadcast properties before and know what the returns are likely to be,” continued Kelly.  A former Madison TV weatherman who co-founded successful Weather Central, Inc., Kelly became wealthy by supplying a large share of the weather and other graphics programs used by television networks and stations across America.

“Equal Time,” says Kelly, “is a nonpartisan investment group.”

Air America Radio’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Walsh is more blunt. He compares owning or leasing radio stations to controlling valuable beachfront property.

If the liberal radio network tanks or goes bankrupt, notes National Review’s Byron York, “the group will still own the stations, which will still be worth a lot of money, and can still be reprogrammed with something more popular.”

Or as Walsh puts it, “If people don’t like the way you decorate the house, you can change it.” 

That is why Progress Media is divided into two bankruptcy-bulwarked separate entities, the radio network and the holding company for the radio stations. Few other radio networks are set up on this cunning capitalist model, the kind that liberals condemn when practiced in other industries.

Prior to taking the helm at Air America (also the name of the Central Intelligence Agency’s airline), Mark Walsh was the top Internet advisor to Senator John F. Kerry’s campaign.

And just before that he was the first Internet Chief Technology Advisor of the Democratic National Committee, as well as a donor of $250,000 in 2000 to the Democratic Party, making him one of the top 400 fat cat political party donors in America. 

During his 49 years Walsh has been a TV newsman in West Virginia and a highly paid executive at Home Box Office, General Electric, America Online, VerticalNet, the New York Times Digital Company, Impulse Radio and several other enterprises.  So why is this Harvard MBA and wealthy businessman a Democrat?

“I am a lifelong Democrat,” Walsh told Business Week in 2002. “My mother took me to a rally for then-candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. Hubert Humphrey was a family friend. I’ve just always been a DNA-level Democrat and love the party.”

Now, imagine that you are a principled liberal talk host and that this guy is your boss. Are you going to say anything that might incline liberal listeners to vote Green or for Ralph Nader instead of for Democrat John F. Kerry? Not if you value your job. Not when you know that your boss arrived trailing clouds of glory from positions with the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and that he remains closely allied with both.

No dummy, Walsh knows that a sugar coating of comedy will be needed to sell his hard-to-swallow, hard-to-stomach political views.

Past liberal hosts like Texan Jim Hightower or former New York Governor Mario Cuomo have failed not only because they were sandwiched between conservatives – like playing hip-hop on a country music station, says Walsh, but also because “we’re often accused of having radio or entertainment that sound like eat-your-vegetables scolding. It’s got a slight air of education, of ‘I’m right, and you’re going to learn why.’ And we just concluded that that’s not a winner.”

This liberal network will therefore “nuggetize” news and opinion into entertaining programming. As Walsh explains, this process will work “The way that you have a dog, you crush up the vitamin pill into the dog food.”

In other words, you will be fed propaganda the way a drug is hidden in the food fed to a dog. You, gentle listener, are the one Walsh sees as the dog into whom his leftist ideas must be stealthily injected for your own good. It is a classic approach to brainwashing.

To crush and conceal these propaganda pills, Air America’s staff of nearly 100 will include 11 full-time writers, most of whose work is to produce jokes and comic bits. They have been recruited from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, CourtTV, Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel Oxygen, and elsewhere.

The aim, says President Jon Sinton, is not to sound like a liberal version of Rush but more like the repertory companies of Don Imus or Howard Stern.  It is certainly not to sound dry and boring like National Public Radio or raving lunatic Leftist like Pacifica Radio, although the leftward slant will point in the same direction.

And on this liberal network, the medium will be part of the massage. Directing its entertainment programming is Lizz Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

At her urging, nearly every show on Air America has at least two hosts. Inexperienced in hosting talk radio, for example, Al Franken will be backstopped by veteran co-host from Minnesota Public Radio Katherine Lanpher.  Both co-hosts, says Air America’s web site, “have a mean streak a mile wide.” (But she will not receive equal billing on “The O’Franken Factor,” a title meant to tweak Fox News Channel star Bill O’Reilly.)

Franken reportedly wanted to call his program “The Liberal Show,” but network bosses preferred to de-emphasize the “L” word. These same executives originally wanted to give their entire network the deceptive name “Central Air,” as if it were centrist.)

Each program is supposed to sound like a dialogue, not a monologue, says Winstead. And any one host can take days off while the co-host maintains continuity.

“There will be a woman on every show,” predicted feminist Winstead. “That’s important.”  (Ah, but one afternoon show will have a single host – female. So much for equality and balance.)  Every dialogue will therefore include a female viewpoint. And this, liberals believe, will attract female listeners away from patriarchial right-wing male hosts.

Winstead, like many involved in Air America, is an ice person from the frigid flatlands of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her Leftist views, she says, came from “growing up Catholic in Minnesota, the Lutheran police state.” (Her brother is the Republican mayor of Bloomington.) 

Network CEO Walsh was “family friends” with Minnesotan Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Although born in New York City, Al Franken, now 52, grew up in Minnesota, land of the loon and 10,000 taxes, in the embrace of its far-left Farm Labor version of the Democratic Party, worshipping its leaders from Hubert Humphrey to the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Franken has said he and his wife of 28 years might return to Minnesota so that he could run in 2008 to replace the Republican who replaced Wellstone.  Franken’s co-host comes from Minnesota Public Radio.

Humphrey’s protégé was fellow Minnesotan Vice President Walter Mondale. And the network will feature a nightly one-hour show by Mondale’s former speechwriter Martin Kaplan, who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Investors Cohen and Goodfriend were cheesehead classmates at Beloit College south of Madison, Wisconsin. And another of the network’s biggest investors is Madison business tycoon Terry Kelly.

So if you smell cheese or hear the cry of the loon while listening to Air America Radio, do not be surprised. This is where this network comes from. And watch where you step while visiting. Lots of that other herd byproduct will be all around you.

“While individuals on those networks [NPR, PBS, CNN among others] may occasionally express views that are left of center, on balance we find those organizations to be pretty centrist,” said Air America President Jon Sinton. “Our task is more than to be left-leaning…. Our task is to be funny and entertaining, a no-sacred-cows sort of thing.”

One test of its liberal integrity will be whether, and how sharply and often, Air America Radio voices criticism of Democrats up for election. Another will be whether this network opens its books so that America can see which wealthy and powerful special interests, foreign and domestic, are bankrolling it – reportedly to the tune of $30 to $100 million. Liberals demand such disclosure of other corporations, and so a network that declares itself liberal should set an example of openness.

Odds are that this network will have no sacred cows, but it will have lots of sacred bull.


Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.


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