BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Air America has been reincarnated so often it ought to be pretty far along the path to enlightenment, yet it seems to be on the verge of yet another rebirth. Before we consider its next life, let's quickly review the past ones.
It started back in 2003 when investor Sheldon Drobney and his wife Anita decided to launch a liberal talk radio network. Before the year was out, they'd sold their new company to Evan Cohen and Mark Walsh. Finally on March 31st, 2004, Air America launched. Al Franken was at the helm. AL FRANKEN: Today is both an ending and a beginning – an end to the right-wing dominance of talk radio, the beginning of a battle for truth, a battle for justice, a battle, indeed, for America itself – not to be grandiose. BOB GARFIELD: Mark Walsh was the CEO of Progress Media, Air America's parent company. In 2004, we asked him if Air America would lose its raison d'etre if John Kerry won the presidential election. MARK WALSH: If John Kerry wins in '04, I think our business is even better. Why? Because Tom DeLay ain't going away. Nino Scalia ain't going away. Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott and Bill Frist are not going away. BOB GARFIELD: Hm. Actually, everyone he listed but Antonin Scalia has more or less gone away. But so did Mark Walsh four weeks after Air America's debut. So did Air America's VP for programming, and after that, chairman Evan Cohen left, along with vice-chairman Rex Sorenson. In October 2004, we got an update from The Washington Post’s Paula Span. PAULA SPAN: Things looked grim. For a couple of weeks, people didn't know if they were going to be on the air the next day or not. They got some new investors. They reorganized. Things have stabilized. And part of what kept them going, I think, virtually none of the staff left. Even though they were afraid of not getting paid, no one could stand to think about what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would say if the much-ballyhooed liberal radio network went kaput after a month. BOB GARFIELD: In March 2005, we spoke with filmmaker Patrick Farrelly who had spent time behind the scenes at Air America making the HBO documentary Left of the Dial. He said CEO Evan Cohen had everyone believing there was plenty of money to ride out the bad times. There wasn't. PATRICK FARRELLY: I think at that point, Evan Cohen was in denial. I mean, ultimately the guy is a salesman. He's never going to say that, in fact, you know, that he'd sold people a bill of goods. Among the staff, there was this intense sense of betrayal. And he basically, you know, he just disappeared off the scene. BOB GARFIELD: On the scene was new CEO Danny Goldberg, a music industry veteran and founder of Artemis Records. We spoke to him too. DANNY GOLDBERG: I've got either the foolishness or the guts to try to do it and, yeah, I don't think there's any one person that would have all the different tools. Hopefully, I've got enough of them not to screw it up. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, a year later, April 2006, he packed up his tool kit and left. Two months later, network president Gary Kranz left. In October 2006, Air America filed for bankruptcy. Rob Glaser stepped in with some cash to keep them on the air while they figured things out, and that brings us to this week, when yet two more owners have stepped into the picture.
Brian Maloney writes the blog Radio Equalizer, and he joins me now to review the latest developments. Brian, welcome to On the Media. BRIAN MALONEY: Oh, thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Stephen and Mark Green, who are they and what are they fixing to do? BRIAN MALONEY: Stephen Green is a very, very wealthy developer, extremely well-known in Manhattan and on Wall Street, with a brother who [LAUGHING] is known in New York for his political background, has run for office a number of times and is a political activist. But I think Stephen Green certainly shares his political views. BOB GARFIELD: For a reported 4.25 million dollars, they are acquiring the goose that lays the--leaden egg. What could they possibly be thinking? BRIAN MALONEY: Well, it's hard to understand beyond perhaps that this has really been about political advocacy more than making money from day one. Air America has essentially--its parent companies have been part of an ongoing shell game where people step in, they give their money, they never see a dime [LAUGHS]. And a new company is created, and the assets have transferred to that new company, and then nobody sees their money again. And that's exactly what has happened this time.
So I would hope that anyone investing money in this company at this point would not expect to see their money [LAUGHING] back, because I don't think the track record's very good.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Brian, this has been reported to be a four-and-a-quarter-million-dollar deal. But based on what you've blogged, I get the idea that actually the Greens have paid only a million dollars for back rent and legal fees and so forth, and for that they've actually acquired, by way of assets, nothing? BRIAN MALONEY: That's right. Really, most of this money is a loan that's been forgiven that Rob Glaser made in October to keep the network afloat while they were in bankruptcy court. He's forgiving that loan in exchange for a stake in the new company, so there's no real money changing hands. That's an accounting maneuver. The rest of it is going to pay lawyers, accountants, the landlord, a labor union and others that are owed money currently.
No assets are actually being purchased with this money. And [LAUGHS] that is what is not being reported in the press because really nobody took the time to look at the filings and to see what's within them. And that is [LAUGHS] how we get to this strange new chapter in Air America's long and twisted history.
The only real hope here is that Stephen Green will actually come forward and contribute some money in the future. And I think that's the real reason why he's the new owner of the network. BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you so much. BRIAN MALONEY: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Brian Maloney writes the blog Radio Equalizer.