Raise your hand if you've heard about Al Franken's new Liberal talk radio network, which went live yesterday (today as I write this) at Noon, Eastern time.
Okay, now raise your hand if you know where you can hear it.
Little problem there.
Now raise your hand if you even know the name of the network, which would help if you want to look it up on the Web.
Here's a hint: It's called "Air America." Search for that on Google and your top result will be for AirAmerica.com, which makes "The World's Finest Paintball Air Systems". Other results include the 1990 Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr. movie about a secret CIA smuggling operation. Also the short-lived TV series about undercover pilots flying for a Latin American transport company. Also Air America Jet, a charter service out of Houston.
There's also plenty about the semi-secret CIA airline that operated in Southeast Asia from 1946-1975. Here's the CIA's own story, which attempts to correct distortions by the movie of the same name.
Anyway, you'd think that Al Franken and his buddies would have done a little lookup on this thing. The only network site that shows up on page one of a Google search is CentralAir.com. Here's what it says on the home page:
Central Air is now Air America Radio
On March 31, 2004 Air America Radio begins airlifting entertaining, progressive talk radio to millions of Americans who for far too long have been and are being neglected by talk radio broadcasters today.
Our on-air personalities and guests represent today's top political and popular humorists, commentators, activists and analysts.
Our irreverent, informative programming sparks the kind of challenging political and social dialogue that has been absent from AM radio for years.
Our programs will mix provocative conversation, challenging interviews and biting political satire.
I won't bother you with a tour of the site, which is lame in the extreme, possibly because it isn't the official site anymore. Most of the blogs covering the launch today are pointing to AirAmericaRadio.com. Heres what it says, in a single .jpg:
AIR AMERICA RADIO IS ON THE AIR WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31ST AT NOON WITH THE O'FRANKEN FACTOR
Air America Radio will be broadcast on:
New York - WLIB 1190 AM
Los Angeles - KBLA 1580 AM
Chicago - WNTD 950 AM
Portland, OR - KPOJ 620 AM
Inland Empire, CA - KCAA 1050 AM
XM Satellite Radio - Channel 167
San Francisco - Coming Soon
Coming soon to airwaves near you.
If we are not currently in your area, please join our community of listeners on our website and enjoy the streaming audio of all programs starting Wednesday the 31st at Noon. We can also be heard nationally on XM Satellite Radio Channel 167.
Bookmark this page now so you can be the among the first to become a member and receive updates, newsetters and other funny stuff.
Thanks for your interest.
That's it. No links to webcasts, or to any affiliate station Web sites. Nothing. After what has to be one of the great PR jobs of the year.
Now, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Linux, or open source, or free software, or cool hacks, or any of the other stuff we usually obsess about around here? Well, not much, unless you credit Linux and open source with helping enable an enormous grass-roots support for such liberal causes as the Democratic Party, whose presidential candidates have been graced with dozens of millions of dollars, mostly in small donations, from citizens who became involved through Internet sites such as Howard Dean's BlogForAmerica (which still raises money and withstands Slashdot-grade traffic and postings, every day), MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com -- all of which run on Linux and involve supportive hacking by activist members of the Linux and open source communities.
Think about it. During most of the months when Al Franken and his buds were planning out this thing, the Howard Dean campaign did record-breaking fund-raising -- over $40 million -- and actually led at the polls in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucuses in January. Never mind that the candidate failed with the primary voters. Blame the candidate for that. Just pay attention to what was going on at the time. The Net was connecting citizens, and sustaining enormously productive grass roots support, which continues to drive the John Kerry campaign, plus dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other candidates across the country.
If you were going to start a new pro-Democratic radio network, one which attempted to balance the enormous incumbent advantages of Republican talkers such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Reagan, Michael Savage, Neal Boortz, Bill O'Reilly, G. Gordon Liddy and the rest of the crew... wouldn't you want to take advantage of only thing that was already working? With potential listeners already proven willing to spend money? Is this not a zero-brainer?
Okay, so let's look at what these guys are doing on the Web. It's now just past Noon as I write this, so the network should be on the air. Somewhere. The AirAmerica site has now gone live with a new message:
Thanks for visiting Air America Radio. Due to the overwhelmingly wonderful response to our website, you may experience some delays. We're working very hard to accommodate all of our listeners and supporters.
You can also hear us on the following radio stations:
New York - WLIB 1190 AM
Los Angeles - KBLA 1580 AM
Chicago - WNTD 950 AM
Portland, OR- KPOJ 1620 AM
Inland Empire, CA- KCAA 1050 AM
Minneapolis MN - WMNN 1330AM
The O'Franken Factor from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; XM Satellite Radio - Channel 167
The listen link goes to an error message consistent with the "some delays" warning. No surprise there.
The site is new. According to Netcraft, it's been up since March 11, running on Linux at a netblock owned by Alabanza. It's also on Microsoft IIS at a netblock owned by LifetimeTV.com. For what it's worth, CentralAir.com runs on Linux at a netblock owned by UUNet. So if one of you wants to volunteer to come and help those guys out, you may have something to work with there.
(As of 1:12pm EST, CentralAir.com redirects to the AirAmerica.com site. The lame original is no longer visible, although you can still see it in Google cache.)
As for their outlets on the air, only XM Satellite Radio has useful information. Here's its page devoted to the network. If you click on the XM "listen" link, you'll see "America Left" (not "Air America") listed, but without a "listen" link. Don't bother looking up "America Left" on Google, either, because all about all you'll get are right wingers crapping on " The Hate America Left".
Two of the listed stations -- KBLA and WNTD -- don't have Web sites. They're either too small or just don't care enough to bother. Or both.
KPOJ "Super 62" in Portland has a Web site for it's "new oldies" station. It consists of a form listeners can fill out to tell the station how it's doing. (First email today: "Where are the oldies?") It's been a sad decline for what had been KGW, one of the country's first radio stations. The channel has had at least five different sets of call letters since then. According to KGW-TV (where the call letters still live), KPOJ is dropping its oldies format to go with the new "progressive alternative". It doesn't name the network, but does say Franken's is the "flagship program". It also says the station is owned by Clear Channel, which also operates KEX, another big AM station in town. KEX carries Rush Limbaugh.
The same can't be said for any of the other channels carrying the network, with the conditional exception of the flagship, WLIB on 1190 in New York, one of the few stations in the country with more power by night (30,000 watts) than by day (10,000 watts). The signal isn't on par with New York's biggest stations, but it covers the New York metro area. The WLIB Web site has some kind of problem. (At least for me; I can't get it to open.)
In Los Angeles, 75 miles down the coast from where I live in Santa Barbara, KBLA is a 50,000 signal on 1580, with its transmitter near Echo Park, near downtown. That sounds like a good situation, but it's not.
It would be flattering to call AM radio a technological dinosaur. Think of it instead as a primitive bivalve from the electronic Paleozoic. The idea back then was to move a long waves as far as possible across the ground, to bounce them off the sky, or both. The tech was, and still is, brute force stuff. The AM towers you see standing alone or in groups on swampy ground don't hold radiating elements in the air. The towers themselves do the radiating. (If you see insulators isolating guy wires, or separating metal from concrete at the bases of self-supporting towers, you're looking at AM radio technology developed in the 1920s.) Since AM waves tend to adhere to the ground, you want the highest possible ground conductivity. Near the ocean you get that with salt water, which is why most of New York's Am are in the New Jersey meadowlands. Elsewhere the ground conductivity varies widely. It sucks on Long Island and under Atlanta. Also across most of the Southeast and the Northwest. It's good in the plains states, in most of Texas and in most of California's valleys. (Here's a map.) Longer waves also slop over mountains and hills and bridges, and tend to carry farther than shorter waves; which is why a 250-watt station on 540 will usually have far more range on the ground than a 50,000 watt station on 1580.
AM waves also bounce off the ionosphere at night, allowing bigger stations to cover distant regions. For many years the FCC reserved a couple dozen 50,000-watt "clear" channels, to be occupied by only one station in the country at night. WGN, WLS, WMAQ and WBBN in Chicago, for example. WJR in Detroit. WSM in Nashville. WCCO in Minneapolis. KNX and KFI in Los Angeles. KNBR in San Francisco. WNBC and WCBS in New York. WBZ in Boston. KDKA in Pittsburg. One of them, WOAI in San Antonio, became the launchpad for Clear Channel, Inc., a giant station-eating conglomerate that's now the biggest radio broadcaster in America.
In order to fit thousands of stations on a little over 100 channels, with minimum interference, the FCC allows stations to broadcast with limited powers and radiation patterns (obtained by using arrays of two or more towers). KBLA, for example, radiates with 4 towers by day and 6 by night. Both signals are weak in many more directions than they are strong, which is out toward the ocean.
KBLA, by the way, is the current incarnation of the old KDAY, one of L.A.'s second-tier Top 40 legends. Its Web presence is so minimal that Google asks "Did you mean: kabl radio?" It appears from a number of links that KBLA was most recently the L.A. home of Radio Korea, which appears to have moved to 1230 AM, the smallest signal in L.A. I can't tell, because here in Santa Barbara (where we get most of the larger L.A. stations) I can't get either signal.
In Chicago, WNTD is a former Spanish station on 950 AM, with two transmitter locations. It's nondirectional in the day from downtown, with 1000 watts; and it's directional at night with 5000 watts, blasting northward up Lake Michigan from south of town, Neither signal is competitive with the big former "clears", but they could be worse.
KCAA in Loma Linda (heart of the Inland Empire and birthplace of Richard M. Nixon) is a 1400-watt daytme only station on 1050 AM with an essentially local signal. At least it has an informative Web site. They actually promote the new program line-up. Credit where due.
WMNN in Minneapolis, Al Franken's home town, gets credit for having a Web site, but not for putting much on it. There's no mention there of Air America, Al, or anything close. The station radiates on 1330 AM with 9700 watts by day and 5100 watts by night. Both patterns cover most of the metro, but not much more.
As for San Francisco, Big Rick Stuart, the afternoon jock on KFOG in San Franscisco, yesterday pointed to a March 26 story in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal that says the new local Air America affiliate will be KVTO in Berkeley. This is the old KRE, in whose aging studios George Lucas filmed Wolfman Jack doing his thing for "American Graffiti". (Here's something cool: The site is the subject of a restoration project by the California Historical Radio Society.)
KVTO is on 1400 AM with a power of 1000 watts. The signal (see the red line on that link, which is the one that counts) is good for most of the North Bay and San Francisco, but starts getting weak south of the Dumbarton Bridge in the South Bay. And that's in the daytime. At night several hundred other stations on 1400 start coming in, limiting coverage to the nearest few zip codes. And, of course, no Web site.
``They're pushing a rock up a hill,'' said Robert Carey, president of Syndicated Solutions Inc., which sells programming to radio stations. ``There are only so many talk stations in the country and these stations already run some very solid programming.''
Air America, supported by as much as $60 million from investors including RealNetworks Inc. Chairman Rob Glaser, will offer 24-hour programming on five radio stations and on XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.'s pay service. It may take years for the network to establish itself with advertisers and listeners, Carey said.
All the ads on the network are for XM satellite radio. The current ad is bragging about how "all of our music channels are 100% commercial free." Now there's a Cool-Whip ad. The station ID just came up. Its WLIB from New York.
The O'Franken Factor show just ended. It was okay, at least from what little I heard. Franken has a good radio voice -- what in the business we used to call "heavy pipes". Basso, but not profundo. Now Randi Rhodes is on. She's an old pro and sounds like it. Just as smart, funny and self-righeous as any of her opponents on the right. (At the moment she's raking Ralph Nader over the coals. Also vice versa.) Looking forward to Jeanne Garafalo and the others later today.
Meanwhile, the problems remain, no matter how good the network and its talent may be. But the problems can be overcome. If the Air America people are as open as Liberals like to say they are, they can start taking advantage of what worked for Howard Dean last year and is working for John Kerry right now. (Not to mention George Bush.)
First, take advantage of the Net and the techies who make it work for a cause.
Second, schedule guests who know the Net and how it works for the New Politics. Schedule guests like Larry Lessig, Joe Trippi (who promotes the network on his Change For America blog today), and Cory Doctorow from the EFF.
Third, look at what Technorati says about the World Live Web, which is what it searches. We're talking here about the RSS-driven stuff that's too new and too live for Google. (Disclosure: I'm in the Technorati advisory board.) Think about what the "live Web" means for a live radio network. Put two and two together.
Fourth, make your Web site a living place where you can post what's going on right now -- for the network, its talents, its stations, its listeners, its friends and its intelligent readers. Set it up using PHP-Nuke, Drupal, Moveable Type, Scoop or whatever makes sense to the techies you bring on. If you're busy spending money outsourcing your Web sites "content", stop immediately and bring on some of the techies who used to work for Dean, Edwards, Clark or whomever. There are plenty of them around.
Fifth, put up links to listeners and fellow travellers, especially to blogs like Atrios, MaxSpeak and Daily Kos. Also to worthy sources on the other side of the fence, such as Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan. And to category-busters like Jeff Jarvis and Mickey Kaus. The potential list is huge.
Finally, get out of the media mentality of old radio. Don't try to beat right wing radio at its own game. Start a new one.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal