Head On Radio Network's Bob Kincaid Talks to BuzzFlash About What Air America's Failure Can Teach Us About Progressive Success.
by Meg White
With the demise of liberal talk radio station Air America last month, liberals lost their voice in commercial radio. But is that really such a huge loss?
Bob Kincaid, a progressive radio host based in rural West Virginia and co-founder of The Head On Radio Network (HORN), will be the first to tell you he's not happy Air America is gone.
"It's a sad thing," Kincaid told me in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I don't want less liberal radio; I want more liberal radio."
As the host of Head On with Bob Kincaid, he welcomed left-wing competition against his online radio show, which has outlasted the recently-defunct liberal experiment of the AM airwaves. But he does have a strong opinion as to how we got to this barren landscape in progressive radio.
"I think part of the reason Air America failed was because it was set up to work on a right-wing business model," Kincaid said. "I think it's highly unlikely that [model] is going to be successful down the road."
He explained that progressives are less tolerant of on-air endorsements than conservatives, making such a model less profitable for a liberal station. Head On's model is more BuzzFlashian than Air-American. You won't hear him hawking gold or Swedish mattresses.
"We're supported almost exclusively via listener contributions," he said. "Nobody's getting paid here. This is an all-volunteer effort."
Head On also receives a little money in underwriting each month from the grassroots environmental organization Coal River Mountain Watch because, as Kincaid puts it, they "understand the desperate need for independent, liberally-influenced radio."
Kincaid wouldn't have it any other way.
"Sooner or later [advertising] will get you in trouble," Kincaid said, noting that there will always be the underlying temptation to engage in "preemptive self-censorship" if you accept ads.
"Because we are supported by listener contributions, we're not beholden," he said.
Kincaid sees the Air America failure in a larger context, however. Not only did the conservatives' business model fail in a progressive context, but the left has also failed to compete with the right in terms of media presence.
"We're still waiting for liberal America to find out that it's tired of getting its asses handed to it by right-wing America," Kincaid said.
While conservatives have been busy snapping up radio and television stations left and right throughout the past two decades or so, liberals were sitting on their hands.
Kincaid said that while some progressives out there understand the importance of owning outlets, "the so-called 'deep pockets' in Liberal Land don't."
"We're not losing this fight; we're not even on the field of battle," he said of the media ownership landscape. With Air America, the effort turned out to be too little, too late.
"The HORN was part of the effort to build a liberal radio network," he said. "With Air America dropping dead, we're the last one there is."
Kincaid allows that while "there are some great liberal talkers out there," it's still "tough to get stations." Head On with Bob Kincaid broadcasts live for three hours every weekday, from 6 pm to 9 pm ET and it is meticulously archived through the White Rose Society, along with dozens of other liberal radio programs.
Back in 2004, you could hear Kincaid on the dial in West Virginia, on what he refers to as "terrestrial radio." But he explains that he was "bought off the air" because some locals disagreed with his views on mountaintop removal mining and other issues. Kincaid, who refers to himself as a "hillbilly elitist" is definitely over the loss.
"I prefer Internet radio," Kincaid said, noting that now he doesn't have to deal with censorship or time constraints such as breaking for commercials or station identification. "The Internet, frankly, is the future."
He doesn't feel threatened by satellite radio, which he predicts will "will fall by the wayside." Kincaid offers up the recent merger of the two major providers of such programming as evidence that "Sirius and XM are not a viable business model."
But it's not just about technology. For Kincaid it all comes down to the very purpose of being on the air. He describes HORN as "conversation radio."
"We're in the business -- if you can call it a business -- of simply trying to have a conversation... without people being shouted down," Kincaid explained. By contrast, in commercial radio "the purpose is not to deliver programming to consumers. The purpose is to deliver potential consumers to a product seller."
When Kincaid talks about his listeners, you hear a deep level of respect in his tone. With the self-deprecation and lack of confidence rampant in the progressive movement, it's downright affirming Kincaid say that, as the liberal working class, "we are the people who are carrying this country on our backs."
Because of his respect for the listener (and thanks to the lack of time constraints you get on "terrestrial radio," where callers are often cut off), everyday Americans have a chance to contribute meaningfully to this unique concept of "conversation radio."
"People that share their time with us are the most important part of the process," Kincaid said. He also pointed out that callers can be a wealth of information, saying that "the folks who call in to the program" have just as much to contribute as some "policy wonk in D.C."
Despite how tough it is to keep together a show on a shoestring budget, Kincaid expresses an optimism that Head On will continue and an amazement at the donors who continue to help keep it going:
"That's a form of patriotism that I think is stunning in scope."
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