Media Watch

KOKE-Air America Crashes, Oppel's Diversity Technique, and More

Media Watch

Air America never stood a chance in Aus­tin. KOKE-AM owner Border Media Partners, a specialist in Spanish-language stations, refused to spend money to promote and market it. And the signal was so bad, listeners often felt like short-wave-radio operators trying to tune in Radio Free Bulgaria. Last Thursday, when the station began mysteriously broadcasting dead air, many listeners simply assumed it was another in a long line of technical glitches.

Instead, a few hours later KOKE began broadcasting Norteño music, the radio world's way of announcing that BMP had sold KOKE and two Spanish-language AM stations – KELG and KTXZ – to a group led by Jose Garcia, the Spanish-language broadcaster who had sold BMP the stations three years ago. BMP is keeping four Austin stations, including La Ley and the Beat – but the sale meant a quick and unceremonious end to Air Amer­ica's 2½-year run in Austin.

Progressives are understandably angry, thrown back into a radio world completely dominated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Han­nity, and Glenn Beck, the voices of dumbass America. Many Austin listeners reacted like Mary Ann Cohron. "We need alternative voices in our local media," Cohron said. "I now have a profound sense of isolation from the truth."

While many fans are focusing their anger at BMP, progressives need to confront the 10-ton elephant hovering in the room: Air America sucks. It has turned out to be the worst possible standard bearer for progressive talk radio. From the very start it has been hounded by lousy management, inane scandals, and misguided decisions.

Worst of all, the on-air product developed as little more than a liberal counterpart to Limbaugh and his ilk, offering up similarly didactic, uncompromising, snarky, mean-spirited hosts, who happen to be liberals instead of conservatives. The only on-air personality able to create a show with style and wit was Al Franken, who left earlier this year to run for Senate, soon after he acknowledged that the company wasn't making payroll (another great moment in AA history).

Franken once told me he hoped the network would hire the likes of former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich or National Public Radio mainstay Ray Suarez, hosts able to create a dialogue that would be a sharp contrast to the Limbaughites. Instead they went for talkers in the mold of Randi Rhodes, whose nonstop rants only serve to reinforce every stereotype of whiny liberals. As it turned out, KOKE's most popular host was liberal Lim­baugh-clone Ed Schultz, who is syndicated and unconnected to Air America.

Around the country there are signs that Air America's star is sputtering. Even with the addition of 11 stations this week, it's down to 67 affiliates, off a high of about 90 stations. Next week the San Diego affiliate, once a network star, is dropping Air America for an all-sports format, a move that prompted angry fans to picket the station. While some are looking for conservative conspiracies, the station's owner, San Antonio-based Clear Chan­nel – the big chain often referred to as the "Evil Empire" – was one of AA's early supporters, more than willing to go progressive if it could make a buck.

Air America's biggest backer at Border Media – "the largest privately owned, Hispanic-focused radio company in the United States" – was founder Tom Castro, one of the most influential Hispanic Democrats in the country. But earlier this year, new investors moved in, and Castro was bumped into the role of "vice chairman of the board," making way for former Univision exec Jeffrey Hinson to run the company. BMP's move to jettison the Austin stations has the classic look of a company retrenching after growing too big, too fast, rather than being a referendum on progressive talk.

In Austin, Air America generated the tiniest of ratings, which is perhaps not surprising since BMP never spent a dime to market it. "We're making a concerted effort to find a replacement," said Dave Kaufman, AA's vice president of affiliate relations, who has been on the job for three months, part of AA's ever-revolving management. But local radio executives laugh at the idea of any other broadcaster picking up Air America. Thanks to its bumbling, stumbling performance, it could be years before another Austin station takes a chance on progressive talk. Air America is squandering a huge opportunity to change the dynamics of radio. And that's what should really piss people off.

Petty and Stupid

"Wasting energy worrying about what white folks think about us is fruitless," nationally syndicated sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who is black, recently told the Big Lead, a sports blog. To make his point, Whitlock recalled his decision 15 years ago to quit The Charlotte Observer for a job in Ann Arbor. The editor of the paper "made it a point to hunt me down in the main newsroom to tell me that I wouldn't make it in this business and that I'd return to the Observer and beg for my old job," he said.

That editor was Rich Oppel, now the guiding light of the Austin American-Statesman.

"Now I have no idea if Rich Oppel is or was a bigot," Whitlock told the blog. "I just figured he was petty and stupid."

Whitlock eventually landed at The Kansas City Star, where he writes a sports column, and makes guest appearances on ESPN and The Oprah Winfrey Show. "I've run across a lot of Rich Oppels in this business; small, petty people who want to put a glass ceiling on people they don't like and prop up the people they favor," Whitlock said. "They can be worked around and ignored."

Responding via e-mail, Oppel says he doesn't remember telling Whitlock he wouldn't make it in the business. "In fact, my intent was to keep him at the Observer, which I wouldn't have done if I thought he was a loser," Oppel wrote. Whitlock's column often appears in the Statesman's "guest column" spot on page 2 of the sports section, Oppel notes. "We're delighted to publish his work and I'm personally happy and proud that he's been so successful," he wrote.

Asked about Oppel's response (Oppel sent him a copy), Whitlock said he had "no fight" with Oppel. "Newspaper editors do what newspaper editors do," he said in an e-mail. "Their 'intent' is to retain talent with insults, threats, and disrespect. Other industries retain talent with pay raises and promotions."

He emphasized that he's not complaining. "I'm sure Oppel meant well and learned that recruiting technique at a diversity seminar," he said. "I've seen it executed far worse."

Alt. Weekly Owners Arrested

A case unfolding in Phoenix should send shudders through anyone concerned about the future of the free press. Owners of the Phoenix New Times were arrested and charged last week with violating grand jury secrecy rules, after the paper reported it had received a subpoena related to its investigation of the local sheriff. In addition to records from reporters, the subpoena demanded that the paper turn over Internet records of any person who had visited the newspaper's website since 2004. The next day, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas dismissed the charges against New Times owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, amid a flurry of protests and charges of abuse of authority.

To supporters of the New Times, the case is clearly an attempt by Thomas to punish the paper for its investigation of his political ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. As part of a long and tumultuous relationship, three years ago the paper ran a series of articles questioning Arpaio's real estate transactions. Thomas' office has alleged it was a crime for the alternative weekly to print Arpaio's address. Now the State Bar Association is investigating charges of misconduct involving Thomas and the special prosecutor in the case, Dennis Wilenchik.

In publishing the story about the subpoena, Lacey and Larkin acknowledged they could be arrested. "But there are moments when civil disobedience is merely the last option," they wrote.

Contact Kevin Brass at kbrass@austinchronicle.com.


*Oops! The following correction ran in the November 9, 2007 issue: Also, at some point during our weekly sausage-making process, we managed to botch the third sentence of the "Media Watch" column that ran in the Oct. 26 issue so that Radio Free Bulgaria reads radio-free Bulgaria. Kevin Brass was not referring to an area of Bulgaria where there are no radios. We regret the error.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Air America, Border Media Partners, Clear Channel, Rich Oppel, Austin American-Statesman

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