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Air America Radio: Gnow What?

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by Aaron B. Pryor

The news was mixed to good to what the hell for those of us who plug in daily to the Air America Radio network, good because the troubled little network has a backer, mixed because Al Franken is hanging up his microphone — perhaps to chase bigger and better things — and to what the hell because Franken's departure leads to the rocket promotion of a bearded professor of a man called Thom Hartmann.

For those of you living in a cave, provided that the cave has food, heat, cable, and every other amenity besides a satellite radio receiver or a high-speed Internet connection, the announcement came down at noon today, as Franken himself announced that the Greens of New York would be purchasing the property and that he, Al Franken, would leave the microphone Feb. 14. He did not provide the two of this one-two punch and tell us if he intended to run against Norm Coleman in Minnie Soda.

It is, surely, a relief to know that the Air America Radio has a backer and that it will survive. It would have been a profound shame to have lost this, once the pluckiest presence in the genre, indeed, that which formed the genre, which previously had consisted of Hurricane Randi in the Sunshine State, Alan Colmes at the improbably Fox "News," Big Ed, and the chronic SFX-abusing Stephanie Miller. Before the Air America, there was some scratching at the gate but no leaping over and no explosive smashing through. Say what you will of the network's reliance on brand and big name dropping. It got them through the door, and it was Franken — whose "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot" was so groundbreaking it's difficult to remember that it was — who led the crush.

So realize how much oxygen Franken's departure will suck out and how, once again, the Air America seems rather unprepared for the transition.

I should rush to clarify my thought because I do not mean to insult Mr. Hartmann. I am a fan of his. He is a profoundly logical populist who backs himself up with the Federalist Papers better than anyone — in fact, he might just be one of 70 in this country who's ever read them. No, the Hartmann show is a competent choice. But will it counter the giant sucking sound?

Recently, "terrestrial" radio heard that sound loudly and clearly when Howard Stern left the air. Think what you want about Stern, but there is no question that his departure to the satellite radio not only deprived the "free" stations of content but affected the medium so profoundly that it may be figuring out for years how to redefine itself so as not to see the old Buggles song played out. Often subtraction is more influential than addition, as I think it might be, to a smaller scale, regarding Mr. Franken's departure. And the biggest, boldest move the Air America could create to counter it was, let's move this show over to here. Plop.

I find it sad that this scrappy little startup got the pioneering beat out of it so early, so sad that Mr. Montvel Cohen didn't have what he said he had and that the Air America suffered a bloody lip before it even knew how to pee straight. Back in the day they said, get me a militant rap king, a funny funny lady, and a cross-dressing lesbian, and see what happens. Go. That's radio. And that was not guaranteed to be good or great, but it was guaranteed to be by the seat of your pants. And it spawned a star, Dr. Rachel Maddow, who is wonderful.

My wish for Air America Radio has always been to return to that spot outside the box because I'm convinced that, had it stayed there, even just a little, its successes would eclipse the astounding achievement of "finding a buyer to snatch us from the jaws of bankruptcy." Why not offer Marc Maron, who any serious AAR-phile acknowledges was the network's potential giant snapped off too soon at the knees, half of Franken's salary to create a big crazy noon show to fight for the weirdly important because-it's-when-Rush-is-on time slot? Or how about a show based in Hollywood, on the nexus of show biz and politics and music and culture? Or why not a show based in Washington, D.C., an answer to my perpetual question of AAR, an entire network concerned with public policy and you've not got any single solitary presence in the Nation's Capital?  

Don't get me wrong. Hartmann will be fine. It just seems to me that when the turtle-shell frames that got you here's about to split, you want to be rolling out something explosive, new, and cool as hell — not a show you've only been excited enough about to this point to call "syndicated," leaving it to stream and podcast.

No offense, Mr. Hartman.

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