At a party last night for his new book, Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America’s Airwaves, Bill Press said he and Media Matters founder David Brock are looking into starting up a progressive radio station, and they used the fact that the event was being taped for C-SPAN to call for donors. It’s a natural project for both men, but I see a couple of problems with it. First, it’s been tried. Air America spent six years on the airwaves and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006 before it finally folded in January. The history of Air America isn’t one of complete failure, of course. It started off strong and was a true national network within the first six months of its existence. The network helped Rachel Maddow emerge as a national name, and for three years, helped Al Franken make the shift into politics that led to his successful Senate race. But those organizational successes weren’t the same as finding a consistent audience big enough to make Air America a truly self-sustaining commercial enterprise. Maybe the mix of programming was wrong, but Air America had six years to find a lineup that worked, which suggests that market may just not be there.
Which brings us to a second problem. If Press, Brock, and others have decided that the nonprofit model is the way to go with a progressive radio station, they may avoid the financial-viability problem. But that doesn’t guarantee them an audience or influence. The reason right-wing talk radio matters is less that it makes a lot of money, and much more that it shapes an agenda. It won’t do much to even the ideological balance on the airwaves if no one listens—and it’s hard to imagine donors sticking around to fund a political project that turns out not to have any influence.