Today, Monday, March 2, marks a new stage in Thom Hartmann's career. Last Friday was the last day he functioned as a talk show host for Air America radio. Starting today, Hartmann's noon to three EST slot will be filled by David Bender, who's hosted a show on Air America for the past three years. The biggest change and the most significant part of the change is the fact that almost every one of the 60 plus radio stations which aired Thom's Air America radio show will continue to air his show. That means Air America has lost about 60 radio stations in their noon to three PM EST time slot-- the slot that Al Franken occupied before he left Air America to run for the senate.
To get the inside story on what happened, I interviewed Thom Hartmann, Thom's manager and the CEO of Air America radio.
On Friday, February, 27th, on radio row, at CPAC, I got together with Ron Hartenbaum, manager for Thom Hartmann and co-0wner of the Stefanie Miller Show, and asked him about what was going on with Thom, while Thom was at the next table, doing his last show, for Air America, live from the CPAC exhibit hall.
"I've worked with Thom for over three years as his manager. On Monday March 2nd, there's a change. Thom's show was syndicated by the Air America Radio Network. And our contract is over as of Feb 28th.
Starting on Monday March 2nd, we will be sub-syndicating our program, working with another company helping with our ad sales and affiliate sales. That company is Dial global, based in New York. And we will take more of our destiny in our hands. ANd we've already seen very positive result, in that regard. Thom's show improved on a number of affilliates in some markets. We've got a whole new website that we'e unveiling. We have new streaming opportunities for listeners and advertisers, podcasts... We're going to do commercial free, subscription podcasts for those people who say, I'd like a premium product. I'd like to listen to the show on demand."
Rob Kall; "What does that mean for Air America, where Thom has been one of their core personalities. "
"Air America has been shifting from a radio-only company to a multimedia company where they do radio, they do web-based content and where they've also got a streaming video project. And what does it mean for Air America? It means I certainly wish them well. The truth is that people go from one place to another if they're not ultimately happy where they are. When things are going well you usually stick with it. And we think we can do better by being on our own. We wish them well and we wish them success and we'll see what their business model emerges over the next couple of months."
Rob Kall; "So Thom's not going to be broadcast through Air America?"
"No, Thom's going to be broadcast. If people want to stream Thom, they can go to www.thomhartmann.com and you can stream Thom and also find out how you can podcast. He'll have a live blog while the show is on, social networking. There will be lots of great opportunities right there at thomhartmann.com."
Rob Kall; "What if somebody has been listening to Thom on Air America. Will they still be able to hear him on the radio?"
"They absolutely will. In fact all of our affiliates are sticking with us other than two or three that take a satellite signal off the air and regurgitate it on the airways. The stations that are major markets, the station where there are broadcasters operating the stations have all stuck with Thom and, in some cases, they're actually improving the time Thom is on the station (instead of playing a recording, they're playing him live.)"
Rob Kall; "So there's a net gain in stations with the move? "
"There is a larger listening audience because there were some stations where Thom was delayed and that's gone away.Rob Kall; "How many people listen to Thom? "
"In any given moment there are several hundred thousand, and that's by the quarter hour. And the cume (cumulative) audience... is millions."Rob Kall; "Thom was just identified as somebody special with Talkers, right? " Ron Hartenbaum:
"Talkers Magazine is one of talk radio's key publications, and they have an annual survey of what they call the "heavy 100" talk personalities in our industry. Thom was listed as the number ten talk personality out of 100 talk personalities and the number one progressive Talk personality."
Rob Kall; "Can you talk a little bit about Air America? "
"I think they have some challenges and some opportunities. Their challenge is to define who they are, going forward. Their opportunity is to define who they are, going forward, not different from where we are here at CPAC where there are scores, hundreds of conservative people walking around, and they've got to be saying the same thing, "What are we doing, where are we going, what will happen in the future?"
Rob Kall: "Is there anybody left at Air America from their original core-- their top hosts?"
Ron Hartenbaum: "Rachel Maddow.
Rob Kall; "Rachel's doing an hour."
"But she really isn't. Rachel is a very loyal person, a terrific radio personality. But as most people know, Rachel has blossomed magnificently on MSNBC, is doing a great video show for MSNBC. That takes a lot of effort and energy. So the deal that Air America structured with the MSNBC management is to take the audio from Rachel's one hour television show and put that on the radio the next day.
She's not doing anything at all for Air America. It is great cross promotion for Rachel. The truth is that great radio is not good television. Great television is not good radio and when you try to be all things to all people you end up with a sleeper sofa. It's not a good couch to sit on, not a good bed to sleep in. That' a metaphor everybody can understand because we've all slept on somebody's sister-in-law's house."
Rob Kall; "What about Thom and television. Any ideas for that?"
"We do. There are a lot of things that will happen with Thom over the coming months and years. Within our company one of the things we've been saying has been, "let's focus in on the Thom Hartmann brand." This is an incredible brand right now. He's the author of over 20 books published in over a dozen languages distributed in continents all over the world. He's always working on a new book. He's a fantastic lecturer. He's a great radio personality. Thom's done radio since he was in college. He's been a music jock. He's been a radio geek. He's been a program director. He's owned an ad agency. He understands all the different aspects of the radio business. But with that, this is a business where people say, "hey, I'd like to see somebody. I'd like to interact with him on the website. And it really is, the media going forward, really has to be, how do we take content and how do we re-purpose it in as many different media types as consumers want to interact with us on. Video and Television is certainly one of them.
The easiest thing for us to do, and what we will do is have video on Thom's website, http://www.thomhartmann.com and we'll do that in the next week or so. We will work on half hour shows. We will work on interview shows that are unique just to video. I think that people that love the intelligence and the debate that goes on in the Thom Hartmann program will have the opportunity to see and hear more of him in the future."
Next, I spoke to Bennett Zier, CEO of Air America Media, formerly Air America Radio, asking him, on the first day of the new "situation" who was replacing Hartmann. He replied that Air America host David Bender would be covering the time slot for the forseeable future.
I said to Zier, "There's some buzz that there may be a connection between Air America and Ed Schultz. Anything to it?"
He replied, "Ed Schultz is a great talent and we're always interested in what he's up to, but currently, he is contracted with another company."
"Bottom line," I asked, "what does Hartmann's leaving mean to Air America?"
He replied that Air America is moving toward becoming a multimedia organization, developing the airamerica.com website, online video and more, saying,
"We're very excited about the future of Air America. We're excited about the new ownership, the new management team and we're excited about the new opportunities in front of us. It's all very new. The new ownership has only been in place since April. The management has only been in place since late last summer and we'll see what happens. As far as Thom Hartmann is concerned, there were a variety of reasons that Thom decided to go to Dial Global, but, you know, you never know. We'll see what happens down the line."
After Thom Hartmann got off the air today, after untangling from a first day filled with dealing with new hardware, systems and circumstances, took the time to answer a few questions about the move, He started, "There are some wonderful people at Air America Media and it was an honor to work with them. I wish them the very best in the new directions they're taking the company."
I asked about his new arrangement, he replied, "I'm really happy to be with Dial Global, a company that has a long strong commitment to radio and which does a great job of promoting their talk show hosts."
"And what about your future?" I asked. "I look forward to doing kickass radio and building a long-lasting and strong relationship with my listeners and our radio stations."
I tried to get some juicy details about the move, the negotiations, etc., but Thom replied, "The reality is there really wasn't a lot of drama here. We've moved on in a professional and cordial way on both sides and I wish Air America the very best and I'm pleased to hear the same from them about me."
He seems genuinely content and satisfied with this new move.
Here's a little background about how the talk radio business works, which will help you understand some of the dynamics of the switch Hartmann made, at the advice of his manager, Ron Hartenbaum.
Local radio stations carry programs and listeners have relationships with hosts. And those hosts get to those radio station through a wide variety of means through networks or self syndication, like Peter B. Collins does and like Thom Hartmann did after IE America went out of business and before he signed on with Air America. The radio station program directors decide who they have on, what format and what time the show is going to be on.
If a program director wants the Thom Hartmann show or the Peter B. Collins or Ed Schultz show, they can usually get it, barring exclusivity arrangements for a given metro area. Whether that show is with Air America or Dial Global or NovaM, or OnSecondThought, or if a host independently buys time on a satellite, like Peter Collins does, it doesn't matter to the program director or the radio station. When a show is delivered to a radio station, the radio station is required to carry five minutes of advertising that the show or the network sells for each hour of show. That's how the host or network gets paid. The radio station can sell in their local market the other 11 minutes of ad time in every commercial hour and that's they make their money. So no money changes hands between networks and radio stations. The first one or two commercials you hear will be the network or host commercials and then it flips over to the local ad spots, and then they flip back to the program. The job of a network, or syndicator-- it's really a syndicator-- is to make sure that the show is available on the satellite, to help the radio stations technically, to provide the tools so they can sell the advertising on it and to promote the talent so they raise the value of the talent for the local radio station.
Every host, when his or her contract renews, negotiates with his syndicator and with other syndicators to try to find the best place for him or her, and, at the same time, the syndicator is evaluating whether to renew or to pick up a new host. Paul Harvey had a $100 million contract, Rush Limbaugh has a $400 million contract, Sean Hannity has a $200 million contract. Most of the B-list conservatives and all off the progressive hosts are signing contracts under a million and sometimes well under. The majority of the talk hosts in the industry bring home les than $150,000 a year. But all this doesn't matter to individual radio stations. They care about having a host that their listeners feel bonded to and a show that produces listener loyalty which they can sell ads for.
The reason Hartmann could switch from Air America to Dial Global was, as a host, he has very high listener loyalty.
As Hartenbaum and Zier both stated, AirAmerica has shifted from being a radio company to being a media company, hence the name change and investment in a new management team. It's fairly clear, if you read between the lines, that Thom Hartmann moved to Dial Global so he'd be served and supported by a company that was strictly committed to and focused on radio and all the things a radio syndicator does.
The big question is what is the future of Air America, with a new name-- Air America Media, not Air America Radio. They have new management, new funding and owners and a new vision, but no Thom Hartmann, Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes or Mike Malloy (listed in the order they left Air America.) It'll be interesting to see where they end up in the coming year, as they transition to being a media company. Will they become the next Huffingtonpost? Stay tuned, logged in and podcast downloaded.