Friday, July 31, 2009

A farewell to Air America Radio

Last week, despite deep regret, I canceled my subscription to Air America Radio. I have been a paying customer for many years now, giving about $11 each month for the privilege of downloading my favorite shows as podcasts. I finally decided that Air America no longer carries anything I want to listen to.

I think I heard nearly every episode of the Al Franken Show (previous "The O'Franken Factor" for a year) without missing any. I occasionally caught up on the Majority Report because I was a fan of Janeane Garofalo, and I subscribed to Randi Rhodes as well although she never fully clicked for me.

They've made a number of changes to their content over the years, some of them bad decisions and some of them not really their fault. First Franken quit to run for Senate (congratulations again, Al!), and I had to pick a replacement for my most listened-to show. I settled on listening to the Majority Report more. Even though Janeane quit to go back into acting, I discovered that Sam Seder had a bigger talent for commentary anyway. I listened faithfully to Sam until the AAR management decided he wasn't worthy to have a daily show. First they relegated him to a weekly show, and then they eventually dropped him for a while.

So I reluctantly switched to Randi Rhodes, even though she's generally too screechy and not thoughtful enough for my taste. As a bonus, Sam Seder often filled her shoes when she was on vacation. During this period I also added Thom Hartmann to my rotation, as well as Rachel Maddow, who was doing weekly news updates.

Randi Rhodes threw a temper tantrum at Air America and they fired her. Thom Hartmann took the prime time slot. Rachel Maddow got picked up for daily episodes. I listened to both on a semi-regular basis until Hartmann decided to leave AAR for unspecified reasons. Rachel became my main show, until she started dividing her time between radio and her new MSNBC show, which I also love.

At this point, I've found that I can get Thom Hartmann for free, as well as the audio of Rachel's TV show. There's simply no one else left on Air America that I really care to listen to. So, while I didn't mind spending money to support entertainment and politics that I like, I've dropped my subscription.

I remember when Air America launched, conservatives predicted immediate failure. Air America has not exactly failed, but I do think it has sort of petered out. At the same time, however, I think you could also call them a massive success based on the tangible accomplishments that they contributed to. Let me list them.

  1. Al Franken winning the senate by the skin of his teeth. There is no question in my mind that his popularity and name recognition were mostly due to his tenure as radio host. Thanks to that, we now have not only one more liberal Senator, but a really sincere and passionate liberal. That's notable.
  2. Liberal commentators on TV. Rachel Maddow, who has long been my favorite current AAR host, obviously gets to have her hour on TV thanks to her very excellent radio hosting creds. To a lesser extent, I think Keith Olbermann owes a great debt to Air America for blazing the trail and legitimizing liberal voices on talk radio.
  3. The 2006 election. Credit goes to a lot of people for flipping the house and senate, but I think Air America played no small part. Basically, I think that the political shift happened in large part thanks to grassroots donations encouraged by Daily Kos, and liberal outrage that was voiced regularly on the radio. In effect, hearing similar opinions helps to give liberals a better feeling of moral authority, which was lost temporarily when Bush went on his rampage after 9/11.
  4. While we're at it, let's remember that this trend continued and bolstered Obama's overwhelming electoral college numbers.
On the whole, I feel like Air America Radio has been a valuable asset with a limited lifespan. They blazed a trail that needed some blazing when it launched in 2003. Now perhaps it's no longer necessary for an all-liberal radio station to exist, as many of the authors, columnists, and hosts that I associated with AAR have gone mainstream. That's a track record to be proud of.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weird insight into Fox News philosophy

An American soldier goes missing, turns up as a prisoner in a Taliban propaganda video. Then Fox News "analyst" Ralph Peters publicly states that the soldier is probably a deserter, and "the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills." Here's Rachel Maddow discussing the situation.

As far as anyone can tell, Ralph Peters' "source" is his butt, from which he pulled this "inside" information that the soldier abandoned his unit.

Why go to all this trouble to slander a captured soldier? What's the point? Personally, I think it's because Peters' form of conservatism shares qualities with karma and "The Secret." On a basic level, it is the belief that everyone deserves what they get. Are you poor? It's because you did something bad in another life. Got cancer? It's because you "wanted" cancer. Are you a prisoner of a murderous dictatorship in a foreign country? Well, I don't know exactly what you did, but somehow you must deserve it.

I suspect that people such as the odious Michelle Malkin are willing to believe Peters because it makes them feel better. It's very sad if a soldier is in enemy hands and possibly facing execution. But if you can convince yourself that he OUGHT to be executed, well then, problem solved.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is there anything the internet doesn't have??

When Keryn and I were kids, my parents used to take us to Colorado every year for summer camp. When we were picked up, we'd usually go to Denver, where there was a yearly Gilbert and Sullivan festival, and also a melodrama. Many fond memories.

After the melodrama performers did their play, they would often use the second half of the show to perform short skits, songs, and audience participation activities. One year, they performed a song where each singer played a part in a brass band. That was the only time I have ever heard that song before.

This morning my sister was humming the song, and I immediately recognized it. I joked "I bet I'm the only person in the world who would recognize what you're singing." She replied "Well, maybe it's on YouTube."

Joking aside: it is.

Turns out that the melodrama performers were ripping off (excuse me, I believe the polite term is "homage") a very excellent number from the Dick Van Dyke show. And now I get to hear it again.

For good measure, it also turns out that evil muppet genius Jim Henson also performed a version of this song.

Oh wait, wait, last minute addition. This is our Colorado melodrama troupe. Not the same players after all these years, but definitely the same group.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cronkite, Ender's Game, and decentralization of news

Walter Cronkite died last week. I was six years old when he retired as the anchor of CBS news, but I remember him vividly. He was on our black and white TV all the time in the late 70's, and to me he was what news looked like: A white haired guy with a mustache, looking like Captain Kangaroo and speaking in a reassuringly solid bass voice.

I did not live through many of the events that made him famous. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Kennedy, and the moon landing were all before my time. I'm hearing a lot of background information about how he has become the voice that was most closely associated with the news of these events. As one of the most prominent news anchors in the world, it seems like he almost WAS what the news was. "That's the way it is" was his sign off.

It reminds me of an aspect of Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game, which I'm rereading once again, this time with my girlfriend Lynnea. Despite my usual observation that Orson Scott Card has been gradually turning into a lunatic over the past decade or so, good old Past Orson has got some great fiction behind him.

In many ways, Card's book is surprisingly prescient when it comes to technology. First written as a short story in 1977 before being novelized in 1985, it accurately describes email and the internet as a pervasive influence in the futuristic students' lives. The lingo isn't quite right, of course, but the general idea is pretty spot-on.

On the other hand some of it rings false -- really embarrassingly false. I'm focusing in particular on the subplot of Ender's brother and sister, Peter and Valentine. Little geniuses at the ages of 13 and 10 respectively, they decide to become influential political commentators by hiding their identities and writing articles and debates on "the news nets." They assume the identities of "Locke" and "Demosthenes" and, as planned, become famous bloggers (though this term isn't used, of course) to whom everyone listens. In short, it seems like they are trying to become the Walter Cronkites of their generation.

Which, to me, makes no sense. Because whether you think this is good or bad, I don't think that Walter Cronkite can really exist anymore in this post-internet world. Cronkite was a central voice of authority partly because everyone watched TV news, and there were three major networks at the time, and only an hour of major news per network per night. In this arena of scant competition, it's not surprising that one news anchor could become "the most trusted man in America."

Now there is not only network news, but many cable news networks that are devoted to covering stories around the clock. There are tens of thousands of political blogs, many of them individually influential in their own way. While there are news celebrities of a sort, none of them are watched by a simple majority of people in America.

Also, people are tending to pay attention to the news coverage that meshes with what they think. Some of us read lefty blogs like Daily Kos and Balloon Juice while listening to Thom Hartmann and watching Rachel Maddow. And then others watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. It's like there aren't just multiple sources of news; for some people, it almost seems as if there are multiple different kinds of reality.

Figuratively, of course. There's only one kind of reality, but most people filter their reality through the outlets from which they choose to receive it. Orson Scott Card's kids tried to rule the world by becoming the filter that controls the greatest market share of reality. Going a few steps further, George Orwell wrote 1984 laced with the fear that one group would squelch all others in monopolizing the way that people receive their information.

Something really different is happening to media instead. I think it's less frightening, but it's a lot weirder. While media companies may be consolidating, TV and newspaper sales are actually losing their monopolies on people's opinions, replaced instead by a million Lockes and Demosthenes(es?), who all want you to listen to their version of "the way it is."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pet peeve: this metaphor sucks

Today's Paul Krugman column says:

Is America on its way to becoming a boiled frog?

I’m referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it’s in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.

Why? Why is it a useful analogy? It only confuses the issue to spread the urban legend that frogs won't jump out of boiling water, and then say "Okay actually they will, but the analogy stands."

At least Krugman has the presence of mind to point out that it's an urban legend... most people quote the frog legend as if it were true. But frankly, by repeating the urban legend you're reinforcing the false story and increasing the likelihood of cementing it as a true story, by people who miss the instant retraction.

Here's a better idea: somebody ought to find a new metaphor to describe a person who doesn't notice they're in trouble as their situation gradually changes. If you can't think of one, then maybe metaphors just aren't the way to go here, because they muddle the issue rather than clarify it.