Something in the Air
"Macaca" is the word of the day in the Air America Minnesota studio. That's the term that Virginia Sen. George Allen used at a campaign stop a few days earlier to describe a young man of East Indian descent who was working for his opponent's campaign. Macaca also is, unfortunately for Allen's national political prospects, a derogatory French term that means monkey.
Mark Heaney and Bob Hill, the co-hosts of Minnesota Matters, Air America's fledgling, afternoon drive-time talk show, are discussing the remark on a recent afternoon. "He had claimed that this was referring to a haircut style, a sort of Mohawk," Heaney notes, in mocking defense of the Republican.
"Well, monkeys have funny haircuts, Mark," Hill retorts.
"This stuff just slips out of their mouths over and over again," Heaney continues. "It's just so hard to keep that racism bottled up."
Nearly two years after Air America Minnesota settled at 950-AM, Minnesota Matters is the only show that's locally produced by the liberal talk-radio station. The vast majority of airtime is filled with syndicated programs such as The Al Franken Show and The Ed Schultz Show. Several other attempts by Air America Minnesota, which was started by former Sixth District Congressional candidate Janet Robert, to develop unique programming have not succeeded. The company's initial foray, The High Ground, was scuttled in favor of a program featuring veteran talk-show host Wendy Wilde. Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman was subsequently added to the morning roster. But Coleman quit last August, citing repeated editorial interference from Robert. And Wilde left the station in February, complaining of chronic health problems stemming from mold in the Air America studios. (Wilde is now running for Congress in the Third District against incumbent Republican Jim Ramstad.)
Even Robert will fess up to the misfires. "None of us were radio people, so it was a huge struggle," she concedes.
Perhaps in part because of these difficulties, Air America Minnesota remains a bit player in the local radio market. The station has developed a small but loyal audience. Over the past two years 950-AM has consistently drawn around a one share in the Arbitron ratings—or just over 50,000 individual listeners per week. However, their audience is extremely dedicated, tuning in to the station an average of nearly 10 hours per week.
Air America's listeners are also wealthy, white, middle-aged, and overwhelmingly male. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Media Audit, 91 percent of the station's audience is Caucasian, while 83 percent is male. Roughly 70 percent of Air America's listeners are at least 45 years old, and 60 percent have household incomes of greater than $75,000.
Whatever strides Air America has made in developing an audience, the station continues to be hindered by a perception that it's nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. Robert has repeatedly been accused of interfering in editorial content, attempting to force her moderate Democratic views on the station's broadcasters. (Robert's longtime boyfriend is former Rep. Bill Luther, who is currently running for attorney general.) There's also been continuous staff turnover from the very start of the station. There's a feeling that, no matter what the station's initial mission was, it would now do well to simply avoid being the laughingstock of local talk radio.
When 'Minnesota Matters' was started in February, for instance, there were initially five volunteer hosts. The idea was to try out an array of personalities and figure out what would work best for the long term. Among those hosting the show was Hamline University political science professor David Schultz. He had previously been a regular guest on the Wendy Wilde show, discussing politics and legal issues. "It was rough," Schultz recalls of his new gig. "I was learning to go from second banana to top banana, which is a whole different spiel."
But even more disconcerting than his inexperience as a radio host, Schultz says, were the directives he received from the station brass. About six weeks after the launch of Minnesota Matters, the five hosts were called to a meeting with Robert and Luther. "This was the worst meeting I've ever been to in my life," Schultz recalls. He says that they were directed to be the voice of the Democratic Party and to avoid contentious topics such as abortion and gay rights. "Pretty much I just clammed up," Schultz notes. "I literally walked out of that meeting and said I'm done after six weeks."
The Hamline professor expressed his concerns to Robert shortly thereafter, but ultimately decided to keep hosting the show. It wasn't long, though, before the pair butted heads again. Schultz says he wanted to have a guest on from the Minnesota Opera for a segment looking at the intersection of politics and art. Then he wanted to bring on lawyer Marshall Tanick for a monthly segment discussing issues before the U.S. Supreme Court. Again Robert intervened. She vetoed both ideas. The reason? Schultz says she didn't want to give free airtime to potential advertisers.
After another contentious meeting, Schultz and Air America parted ways by mutual agreement. Schultz, however, remains bewildered as to why Robert is running a progressive radio station when her own political beliefs seemed to skew right-center. "One day she turns to me and says that 'I'm a pro-life, anti-gay marriage, fiscally conservative Democrat,' and I'm thinking to myself, what the hell is that?"
Schultz's comments echo those voiced by Coleman when he quit the station a year ago. The Star Tribune columnist complained that gays, guns, and abortion were verboten and that he was chastised for criticizing DFL candidates such as Sen. Mark Dayton. "If I'm going to be put on a leash, I'm leaving," Coleman told City Pages at the time.
Other people who have been associated with Air American Minnesota voice similar concerns. Carla Kjellberg, a local attorney who hosted a weekend show called It Takes a Village until earlier this year, says that some of her segments seemed to offend Robert. "I certainly knew that there were some shows that I did that might have ruffled some feathers," Kjellberg says, citing in particular a program that dealt with gay marriage. "I never heard this directly from Janet Robert," she notes, however. "She never said a word to me. It was just the feeling I got."
Robert insists that there's no prohibition on flashpoint topics such as abortion and gun control. "It's not that we don't talk about them," she notes. "That's just false. Anybody who listens regularly knows we do." She says that the only guideline is not to continuously dwell on these controversial topics and to treat all opinions with respect. "I don't want to hear people ridiculing people at Planned Parenthood," she says. "I don't want people ridiculing the pro-life movement. That's our policy."
Furthermore, Robert notes that she's far too tied up with the business side of things to micromanage content. "I don't know what's going to be on today," she says. "I never know what's going to be on. I'm focusing on sales."
Minnesota Matters co-host Mark Heaney, who is Bill Luther's nephew, strongly backs up Robert's assertions. "Absolutely there are not limits on what people can say," he insists. "I wouldn't be on a show where I thought there were limits. I'm not that good at controlling what I say."
He believes Robert is simply misunderstood. "Janet is a very passionate person and argumentative," he notes. "I think people mistake Janet's passion for limits on the show."
Ultimately, Robert would like to create additional local programming, but right now she's focused on bolstering the sales side of the equation. "Our long-term goal is to try to develop progressive voices and to expand that," she says. Perhaps pitying herself for a moment, she adds, "We have not been able to do what we wanted to do just because of lack of resources. Some people with my kind of money they have several homes in Switzerland and Vale, and I have a radio station. I have to tell you it's put a complete crimp in my life."
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