Air America + the Rise of Rachel Maddow

Air America + the Rise of Rachel Maddow

Why you should care

Because sometimes the left hand can’t figure out what the right one is doing, and vice-versa — especially when it comes to political media. 

As The Flipside, billed as yet another “conservative version” of The Daily Show, gets set to launch this fall, it’s a good time to remember that the American media landscape is littered with the corpses of conservative comedians, liberal talk-radio hosts and others who have tried to play against political type or media genre.

Case in point: 10 years ago, Air America Radio, a nationwide progressive talk radio network, promoted as the left’s response to Rush Limbaugh, took to the airwaves. “We will bring a fresh new voice to America’s ears,” promised its chief executive, Mark Walsh, amid the massive fanfare that accompanied the launch in March 2004.

“There’s no liberal echo chamber in this country,” observed comedian, Air America DJ and current U.S. Senator from Minnesota Al Franken, who pledged to provide one and help defeat incumbent George W. Bush in that year’s presidential election.

As 2004 would show, the American left was not ready to win a presidential election or dominate the talk-radio circuit.

With the election approaching, a fiercely divided polity and blue-state America geared up to bring down the much-loathed Bush, it seemed like the ideal time for progressives to get behind the mic. And with several big-name liberal entertainers — Franken, Janeane Garofalo, rapper Chuck D — anchoring a lineup of fresh young talent, Air America went straight for the jugular. The new network’s flagship show, Franken’s The O’Franken Factor (a play on Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor), aired opposite Limbaugh, to this day the nation’s most popular talk-radio host.

But, as 2004 would show, despite the rhetoric and the wrath, the American left was not ready to win a presidential election or dominate the talk-radio circuit.

The network may have launched with a swank $70,000 party, attended by stars like Tim Robbins and Yoko Ono who sipped red, white and blue vodka cocktails, but just six weeks in it was struggling to pay its bills — and the debt-ridden, blue-state ensemble was seeing mostly red. And whatever Air America’s anchors may have thought about Rush Limbaugh, they quickly learned that what the conservative commentator managed to do for hours on a daily basis — entertain, provoke and pontificate — was not easy, especially when many of your top voices have no background in radio.

Air America stabilized after the initial turbulence and stayed on air for six more years before filing for bankruptcy in 2010, by which point it had fallen victim to greater forces: radio listeners trending older, liberals trending younger, and NPR, MSNBC and other more established outlets satisfying the needs of core demographics.

Still, it wasn’t a total defeat for the voice of liberal America. The network gave Franken a pedestal ahead of his successful Senate bid, the Democrats re-took the Senate and Barack Obama was elected under its watch, and it helped launch the careers of many, including Cenk Uygur, Marc Maron and Randi Rhodes.

Perhaps the biggest star to rise from the ashes was Rachel Maddow, the host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, now the flagship show of the cable news network.

Nearly 6 feet tall, openly gay, unabashedly liberal and a self-described nerd, it was hard to imagine, even 10 years ago, that someone matching Maddow’s description would become a major cable news personality.

But Maddow’s ability, not unlike Limbaugh’s, to combine humor and levity with outrage and argument was apparent from the very first episode of Air America’s version of her show, which debuted on April 15, 2005.

Not bad for someone whose friends had convinced her to walk on to a local radio audition ‘on a lark’ five years before.

She opens by joking about being a non-morning person who must start work at midnight, then lambasts the “shame-faced House Democrats” voting for a Bush-backed bankruptcy bill, before deftly moving to her geek specialty: policy explication. Dissecting complicated subjects from the oil-for-food program in Iraq to how the U.S. tax system subsidizes non-wage earners, she explains her often-arcane interests by noting that her mother watched the “Watergate hearings for the entire time she was pregnant with me.”

Not bad for someone whose friends had convinced her to do a local radio audition “on a lark” five years before. Or for someone who Air America initially brought in to fill the third chair of its morning show Unfiltered, starring Chuck D of Public Enemy and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead.

Still, Air America producers knew what they were doing when they hired Maddow away from her Big Breakfast show at “The River” WRSI in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who didn’t know her, she might’ve seemed little more than a “filler third chair on the morning show,” says Matthew Traub, managing director at DKC, which helped launch the upstart network. (Editor’s note: OZY is a DKC client.) “[But] it was pretty clear to us from the very beginning that that there was something special about her.”

Not only was Maddow knowledgeable and articulate about a range of subjects, but she was also comfortable in her own skin and quickly became a big hit with listeners.

“She’s somebody who knows everything about everything,” Winstead said, and it was not long before Maddow was, as Chuck D observed, “steer[ing] the bus” from the third chair.


“It came out purple, but I did it again to get it blue,” she would later admit.
A Stanford graduate and the first openly gay candidate to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where she earned a doctorate in politics, Maddow had learned how to wear both her politics and her sexual orientation on her sleeve, and defend them vigorously. Indeed, as a “symbolic gesture” that she had not sold out to “the establishment,” Maddow shaved most of her hair after winning the Rhodes, dying the rest of it blue.

Today, even though Maddow may be an anchor who “disdains the conventions of TV news,” she has clearly become a part of its establishment — while remaining far closer to blue than purple on the political spectrum. (“He’s a centrist Democrat. I’m a liberal,” she says of President Obama.)

But Maddow is also a realist. When asked if Air America would ever provide an “effective counterpoint” to conservative talk-radio, she demurred, saying, “In talk radio we are still in a humongously right-wing universe … [and as to] whether or not we’ve tilted the playing field so it’s level — no way! Not even close.”

“Not even close” might have been a fitting epitaph for the Air America effort, but that’s not the whole picture.

“Talk radio doesn’t need ‘balance,’ ” Jay Severin, a longtime political commentator and radio host, remarked around the time of Air America’s demise. “In the larger scope of American media, talk radio is the balance.”

Will The Flipside fare any better when it debuts in the fall, or will it too stumble when it tries to upend the established media landscape?

Many of us will be watching closely, except when we’re not.

This piece was originally published March 31, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 4, 2014.

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