The righties are having fun with Air America's start-up pains. One might imagine that pro-business conservatives would understand the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial venture, but no. Pro-business conservatives, these days, don't understand anything but their own superiority.
I worked for a start-up cable television network, and Air America's problems bring back memories almost too painful to tolerate. The first thing that happens when someone becomes a media star is they forget how hard it was back when they were struggling. The result is a media environment in which the new kid is invariably hazed and harrassed most visciously by people who ought to know better.
But they don't. I recall a phone call with the owner of a small cable company in Pennsylvania -- since bought out at enormous profit by Time-Warner, I believe. We were a struggling network and he was an electrical engineer who'd stumbled into the cable business almost against his will, accepting a franchise from a municipality back in the Community Antenna days. He started out putting a big antenna on a hill and piping broadcast signals down to people in the valley, who otherwise would have had no reception. He had, over the years, parlayed this into a 12,000 home cable system, which gave him a great deal of power in his little valley and made him, in his own eyes, a telecommunications genius.
We had him on a conference call trying to convince him to carry us, and he's telling us what we have to do to get shelf space in his store: Change our programming schedule, cut a show he didn't like, give him more advertising time, let him sell infomercials over our programming whenever he felt like it.
"I got lots of people want that channel space," he said. "I don't know why I'm even talking to you."
Air America, no doubt, is dealing with a lot of the same kind of local station owners and massive station groups with a single goal: How can I use my monopoly power to screw you and enrich myself?
The Air America staff is no doubt hard-working, committed and passionate. They're suffering through dark moments -- all start-ups do -- and having to do it on an embarrassingly public stage. That's show biz; everyone gets to have an opinion about what you're doing. But I've worked in an environment where every time anything happens that isn't glowingly positive, people land on you with both feet, where the trade-industry morning newsfax is like the descent of a dark cloud every morning. I've watched excellence and teamwork and inspiration be sidetracked by things competely out of our control, and listened as others who wouldn't dare a similar risk interpreted random happenings as proof of your ineptitude. (Andrew Sullivan makes fun of the fact that Air America's phones went out one day.) I've had others take joy in my suffering. And I know: It really, really sucks.
Air America is out there trying to give voice to a segment of the population that has no voice. They're trying to start a business and to operate it in the interests of their stakeholders. What they're doing is, without question, admirable. For that, they're being ridiculed.
But remember this: When Rupert Murdoch started Fox News, he had to pay cable systems to carry the network, something no self-respecting cable network had ever done before. The traditional media heaped scorn on Fox and Murdoch. They have to pay to get on cable systems! I remember articles about Fox News not being able to generate a measurable rating, and at a cable trade show I had lunch with a group of cable operators who trashed Murdoch's product even as they cashed his checks.
Murdoch got his cable carriage, and the money is flowing the other way now -- from the cable systems to Fox News. He survived the scorn and made a go of it, and even if you don't like Fox News you've got to admire Murdoch's commitment. Also note that the same people who scorned Fox News are now struggling to keep up with it.
Air America today is in that same position Fox News -- and everyone else in the media business -- once was. At every turn, the most powerful, vehement, and self-righteous voices in the country are mocking them. Air America, for now, is a punchline, a running joke.
But stick to it, kids. Start-up's a bitch, no matter what business you're in. When you're starting something as public as a radio network, there's no place to hide, and the only way to succeed is to keep hacking away at it until you see the glint of fear in your tormentors' eyes.
It'll be there soon enough.