December 02, 2003,
There was always something unrealistic about the project to create a liberal talk-radio network. Announced to much fanfare in a New York Times article last February, it was the brainchild of a Chicago businessman named Sheldon Drobny, who had had a lot of success in the venture-capital field but no experience in radio or entertainment. On top of that, Drobny intended to put just $10 million into the venture, which is a lot of money but not nearly enough to build a national network. And on top of that, Drobny had expressed some ideas that, were they better known, might not be terribly attractive to some listeners and sponsors; he has, for example, compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler. (See "Liberal Radio and Its Dark Angel, National Review, October 27, 2003.)
Given all that, some in the radio business were deeply skeptical about the project, even as commentators on the left gushed about finding the liberal Rush Limbaugh. As late as this fall, the "network" seemed to have done little more than hire a few people no actual radio personalities and hold contract discussions with a few others. "Basically, this is all talk," one insider told National Review in October. "I'm not sure what they want to do."
Now, however, things have changed. In November, Drobny sold the company to a group of investors led by a former Internet executive named Mark Walsh. A veteran of America Online and VerticalNet, as well as an earlier stint at Home Box Office, Walsh has also recently served as a volunteer for Democratic causes; in 2001 and 2002, he was chief Internet adviser for the Democratic National Committee, and for a while this year he did the same thing for the John Kerry presidential campaign.
It appears that Walsh, working with New York investor Evan Cohen and a group of other so-far-anonymous moneymen, has the cash to create the network that Sheldon Drobny talked about. Just about the only thing missing from the new project now named Progress Media is the involvement of billionaire financier George Soros, who seems to be behind nearly every left-wing, anti-Bush effort getting underway this year. Not that the radio executives didn't try; not long ago, the company pitched Soros on the radio project, but he said no.
With a new name and new money, the new owners are trying to redefine the idea of liberal talk radio. For one thing, they don't want to call it liberal. Walsh prefers "centrist": "To label ourselves as liberal radio out of the box is a little regrettable, and something I'm trying to avoid," he says. Part of his goal, Walsh explains, is to "scrape off the taint of negativism" that has come to be associated with the word liberal a project which he acknowledges "is going to take some time."
Another thing Walsh & Co. are trying to avoid is the stultifying self-righteousness that has characterized previous liberal-radio efforts. As part of their preparation, the new owners have studied earlier, failed, programs featuring Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower. While some liberals have blamed the demise of those shows on a poor distribution network, Walsh has a more honest take. "They weren't very entertaining," he says. "On the progressive side, we're often accused of having radio or entertainment that sounds like eat-your-vegetables scolding. It's got a slight air of education, of 'I'm right, and you're going to learn why.' And we just concluded that that's not a winner."
To guard against creeping earnestness, Walsh has hired Lizz Winstead, one of the creators of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, as his head of entertainment programming. Indeed, the company's executives often point to The Daily Show as a model of the kind of programming the new network will showcase. Talk to any one of them for any length of time, and they'll tell you over and over that they want it to be funny.
But perhaps the biggest idea animating the new group is their belief that liberals should abandon the long search for a Rush Limbaugh of the left. "It would be a terrible mistake to try to out-Rush Rush," says Jon Sinton, the veteran radio executive who was originally hired by Drobny and continues to run the operation for the new group. "He's a great entertainer, and to think you're going to emulate that in an inverse universe is to set yourself up for failure." To that end, the new executives plan programs in which several voices, sort of a repertory company, will take part more Imus or Howard Stern than Rush.
Of course, all the new ideas stand in some contrast to the on-air personalities who will likely appear on the new network. Just as it was in the Drobny days, the name mentioned most often in connection with the project is that of comedian/conservative-basher Al Franken. Walsh says he expects an announcement involving Franken "in the very short term." He also says the company is in "deep discussions" with comedian/conservative-basher Janeane Garofalo. If those two performers actually sign up, it seems hard to believe that the network will have the "centrist" flavor that Walsh desires. Garofalo has, after all, referred to the Bush administration as "the 43rd Reich." Franken reportedly wants to call his program The Liberal Show.
Will any of this actually work? It seems clear that the network has a better chance of success now than it had under Drobny. But there's still plenty of reason to be skeptical. If Walsh and his team hire more people with a Franken/Garofalo point of view, it seems reasonable to predict that the project will feature more anger than comedy. And, contrary to the protests of many liberals, there is simply no shortage of left-leaning voices in radio surely many of the new network's target listeners are currently tuned to NPR. If there was a crying need for the new network, it seems likely there would be one already.
Of course no one associated with the project will say that. But they've taken one interesting action that suggests it's in their minds. In addition to hiring talent and planning programming, they have also set up a side company which plans to buy radio stations in the nation's top markets. On the one hand, that will make it much easier for the network's programming to be heard in its entirety in big cities. But it will also give the group an insurance policy against failure. If the liberal network tanks, the group will still own the stations, which will still be worth a lot of money, and can still be reprogrammed with something more popular.
Walsh likens the station strategy to owning a valuable piece of beachfront property. "If people don't like the way you decorate the house," he says, "you can change it."