November 27, 2015

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Air America Elects Zier: New Commander-In-Chief Brings The Buzz To A Network With Big American Dreams (10/06/08)

Since it went on the air in 2004, Air America Radio has had a knack for getting attention — not always in a good way — and it perked up ears again in July, when new chairman Charlie Kireker brought in veteran radio exec Bennett Zier as CEO. That move instantly bumped up AA’s credibility by a couple of notches, and the liberal talk network’s energy level is zooming. As Zier tells Radio Ink, AA is thinking of itself in a whole new way these days, with plans that go way beyond just talking politics.

Radio Ink: What made you want to be CEO of Air America Radio?
Bennett Zier:
We have a great new chairman and owner in Charlie Kireker. He has a great vision and a great mission, and he’s been a real pleasure to work with. Also, I believe this is a great time for Air America to become a media company. We have so much going on right now, in news, in politics, in technology, and I believe that this time, Air America has an opportunity, with people coming on board, to be a relevant and provocative media company.

RI: So some of what attracted you was the excitement of political talk in an election year?
The presidential race has been unprecedented. You’ve had an African American running for the presidency, you’ve had a woman, and both are larger-than-life candidates. There have been a lot of things coming out of the White House this year that have been controversial, and the energy level of the issues and the discussion are something we haven’t seen in over 20 years.

Also, younger people are getting involved in politics. Before, younger people would sit around the dinner table and listen to their parents talk about politics. You’d have the 6 and 11 o’clock news. Now the Internet and technology have allowed younger people to be involved, and, at the same time, the issues at hand have made the younger demographics more interested. It’s pretty passionate.

RI: Has all the energy around politics been good for Air America?
It’s great for Air America. Moving forward, there is a wave that we can ride — the wave of politics, the wave of the country changing, the wave of being a new media company. Air America is interested in listeners, viewers, and readers. And we will have space in all three of those areas.

RI: Why do you think that liberal or progressive talk hasn’t been as successful as conservative talk so far? Does Air America have an answer that other liberal talkers haven’t?
Anything that goes on the radio needs to be entertaining. Air America has hired SVP/programming Bill Hess, who is a senior, successful member of the radio industry, and also has great experience on the Web. Air America’s opportunity is by being an entertainment company that happens to use politics as its vehicle, like other companies use sports or music.

RI: Your target is a little younger than conservative talk, is that right?
I don’t know if it’s a little younger, but I will tell you this: We’re seeing that people who are registered to vote are younger. Right now 51 percent of registered voters are leaning toward the Democratic party. That’s 4 percent up from 2004. Only 38 percent are leaning toward the Republican party, and that’s down 6 percent from 2004. So there’s opportunity there.

But, again, Air America wants to be a media company that is entertaining and uses politics. We want to put people on the radio and on our website who are relevant and provocative — to continue to make people scratch their heads, make them smile, laugh, engage.

RI: Will the focus stay as tightly on the liberal or progressive viewpoint as it has been?
We’re going to be an independent voice. We want people to listen to the radio station and feel that an independent voice is coming at them that maybe they haven’t heard before. What was on Air America in the past is the past, and I’m happy to be here today.
Here’s a vision: Four years from now, when the conventions are held, I’m hoping that people turn to Air America quickly, and in critical mass, because they want to know what Air America thinks, what Air America is saying, what Air America believes, what Air America challenges. That would be a great four-year plan.

RI: Does Air America lose some of its underdog energy if Obama wins and there’s a Democratic Congress?
If we do our job well, it won’t matter who wins. Being that independent voice gives us that opportunity. If Obama wins, it certainly gives Air America an opportunity to use the news and the change. If McCain wins, it gives Air America an opportunity to listen, understand, and comment.

RI: You alluded to Air America’s past. Would you say it has had some image problems?
I think there were two Air Americas out there. There was an Air America business-to-business, and there was Air America to consumers. Air America is a very well-known brand. What it means, we’re going to find out. It means a lot of things to a lot of different people. But people certainly know that it is radio and a website of some political nature.
One of the early things we’re going to be working on is to understand our brand and not just guess at it. We want to be fact-based so we can give the listeners, viewers, and readers what they want.

What we don’t want to do is play our own record collection. I tell everybody — I’ve run a lot of radio stations over the years, and if I were to take my iPod and plug it into a transmitter at 50,000 watts and play it, I think I might have three-and-a-half listeners. That’s why I never play my record collection, and I’m not about to start. Especially with Air America and politics and news. I think what people hope is that I hire great people and allow them to be great.

RI: On the digital side, you’d mentioned that Air America was well ahead of the industry on podcasting. What’s coming up in new media?
We have a very exciting and aggressive interactive plan. As we build this media company, we’re not going to build it in silos. We’re going to be a media company that has people working in all facets. Bill Hess will oversee radio content, Web content, and video content. Everybody will sit at a round table. That doesn’t mean that it’s a democracy; what it means is that we believe in collaboration, but we’re not necessarily going to go with consensus. We’ll go with what the listener asks us for, what they find to be the most compelling content.

We’re going to have a daily offering — live streaming of a 30-minute video show that will be politically based, but somewhat of a reality-based, sitcom-type show. We’ll be the best of humor, the talk-show world, and the political world, and bring it all together into live streamed offering every day, which nobody else on the Web is doing. It will also be available as a podcast, but it will be a live show, and it’ll be very, very exciting.

We’re going to be a media company where the radio and the video feeds into the Web, and then the Web kicks it back out again. Feeds in and kicks back, kind of like the ocean. We’re not going to just try to run three parallel roads. We believe the future is about allowing your content to be a living, breathing thing, and letting it criss-cross through the different technologies.

There are challenges with that: How do you get them to go to the different mediums? How do you make sure that people have access to all of it? How do you make it not only user-friendly for the listener, but for the media community to purchase, invest, and sponsor Air America products?

RI: Are you looking at any kind of social networking features? Is there an Air America community?
Yes. It’s a very strong community, and we will be focusing on that. As a matter of fact, it’s something that we’re working on today. The community part of it is critical to our success.

RI: What do you think of all the speculation about the return of the Fairness Doctrine? Would that be a big problem for Air America?
If there’s a Fairness Doctrine, one would say that would be a good thing for left-of-center talk. But I think if Air America puts forth relevant, entertaining, provocative content, it’ll be a balance. People will be interested in what we want to do. We believe that we need to control our own destiny, and we’re going to do that by giving the listeners, the viewers, and the readers what they want in a lot of different technologies.

RI: If you could give anybody an Air America show, who would you want to have on the air?
We are looking for people who are in the space of talk, comedy, entertainment — that type of individual who engages the audience through dialogue. We’re leaning more into the entertainment world that has a political lean and is relevant, and we are also talking to people in the political arena who we find to be opinionated, entertaining, controversial. Air America would love to introduce an "Oh, wow!" So if someone is reading this reading this article and they think they’re an "Oh, wow!" give me a call!

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