Clint Hendler: A counterweight to the ranting right, but demand wasn't there

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The death of Air America is a blow to the diversity of my country's radio waves. But it hardly comes as a surprise, and not only because the network had teetered on the brink of solvency again and again since launching in progressivism's dark Bush days.

The fact is that conservative voices have long dominated political radio, providing refuge and a sense of community for millions on the right, who have long derided the major wheels of US media as hopelessly biased. The biggest stars, like Rush Limbaugh, are well known, but there are scores more at local stations across the country, who burn less bright, jabbing out news, opinion, and insinuation around the clock.

Air America's tough order was to provide a liberal counterweight. But it was never clear that there was ample appetite. For starters, the radio dial of the stereotypical American liberal has grown dusty, set at National Public Radio (NPR). And there was always the rather self-flattering liberal argument that their world view was too nuanced, too genteel, to be grafted on to the hot rant-a-minute medium pioneered by the right.

While Air America can be credited with cultivating the welcome career of Rachel Maddow, there wasn't much of a nationwide liberal farm team from where the network could draw talent. Instead, they brokered not always enduring or successful shotgun marriages with semi-celebrity liberals, like actress Janeane Garofalo, rapper Chuck D, and comedian (and now Senator) Al Franken. While these radio novices brought some modest cache, their talents didn't necessarily translate into good programming.

The Democratic Party, always afraid of muddying their wing-tips, never embraced the network to the extent that the Republicans are entwined with right-wing radio. And while some liberals will shed a tear over the dissolution, they don't have to look far to find a silver lining. While radio is still – and for Americans strapped into their cars, always will be – a major news source, it's clear this early twentieth-century technology's salad days have passed.

Online, sites like Daily Kos and Fire Dog Lake provide American liberals with like-thinking communities, with information assists from Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post, and others. Of course, the right has its sites too. But the internet, where the playing field of America's partisan media is more even, is where the future will be written – not spoken.

Clint Hendler lives in New York, where he is a staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review.

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