Apr 02, 2004

AIR AMERICA – PART TWO

(See also: “April 1 Air America Launch - Part One” below)

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March 31, 2004: We take you behind the scenes as Air America is just hours away from launch.  If you’ve never been present for the launch of a radio network designed to restore a progressive voice to America’s airwaves (and who has?), you’ll want to read this. See Al Franken, funny and serious…and much, much more.

8:31:56 - Air America 41st Floor

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I arrive at Air America’s offices located on the 31st and 40th floors of an office building in midtown Manhattan.  The actual studios take up nearly all of the 41st floor.  I quickly learn that cell phones don’t work well here, as the station’s broadcast antenna is perched on the roof just above us. 

CEO Mark Walsh arrives and escorts me past reception. The other side reveals controlled pandemonium as more than a dozen technicians work laying cable, testing networks, running sound checks and the like.  It turns out that Air America only took physical custody of the studios about ten days ago. Given that the previous tenant was a music station, Air America’s greater informational and technology needs necessitated a massive infusion of hardware, software, cable and microphones, often fusing new technology with old.  To further complicate matters, NBC has crews laying cable to film the day’s activities for use on its various broadcast and cable properties.

There are two primary studios built “Frasier” style, with the producers sitting behind glass.  A smaller studio will be used for news.  Great views, if you can see over the boxes and tool kits piled everywhere. That’s showbiz!

8:52:20 AM - Air America 31st and 40th Floors

I’ve never witnessed the launch of a radio network before, so I begin wandering through the offices to see what people are up to.  CEO Mark Walsh had previously told me that the network has about 60 employees and perhaps ten consultants. I didn’t know what they all did, but the heaping stacks of boxes for pizza, microwave popcorn and yogurt muffins convinced me that whatever it was, they did it from early in the morning until late at night.  I was about to find out.

I began with “Press,” where staffers were scrutinizing pre-launch coverage. “The BBC did a nice piece on us, as did the New York Times.  The Chicago Tribune put us in their ‘red eye’ edition, aimed at the young demo(graphic)” stated one woman as she shuffled through a stack of newspapers while simultaneously reviewing coverage online. I asked how the radio world was reacting.  “To be determined,” said she reaching for a phone that wouldn’t stop ringing.

Network executives were meeting in a closed room next door, so I decided to forgo the opportunity to be told, “Get out” in order to visit the first office down the hall.  The sign indicated that it was the office for the Randi Rhodes Show, airing immediately after the “O’Franken Factor.”  Rhodes Executive Producer John Manzo and an associate were “preparing the afternoon show – content, audio, everything.”  The look Manzo gave me suggested that follow-up questions would not be warmly received on their inaugural day.

The Traffic department was sweet talking hotel employees, trying to arrange for Chuck D to extend his visit until his new apartment was ready. The Sales Team was not only secured behind closed doors, but had a strongly to-the-point message posted on their door warning people of the consequences for interrupting them for anything less than a major emergency. (Believe me, it wasn’t pleasant).

And so it went.  Programming…Production…News…IT…Engineering…Human Resources…everyone knew their roles, and correctly understood that their work counted in getting this network off the ground. It would launch in less than two hours.


10:10:44 Team O’Franken

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Al Franken is hunched over papers at his desk, seemingly oblivious to the flurry of people hurrying into and out of his office despite their conversations on cell phones and with each other.  Occasionally, something is said that evokes a response from the “O” himself, but even then he generally doesn’t look up.  His eyes are glued to the opening remarks he has prepared that would shortly signal the debut of Air America. 

Gone was the funny man who has entertained Americans for, what, three decades? In his place sat an analytical Al Franken that people never see.  Inhaling written and verbal information, spewing questions rapid-fire, nothing is too big…or too small…for his focus.  “Have you got the ad log?” he asks a programming staffer. He tells another about a bit he just thought of, asking whether he should call Dana Carvey and ask him to do it.  “He’s going to need prep time on that issue,” he’s warned.  “Ok, let’s save it for another day” Franken responds.

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Great comedy and good analytical thinking share the ability to strip away excess and quickly get to the heart of the matter.  Franken appears to be able to make most decisions in five seconds or less.  He will need those skills as he helps build the network.

Next to Franken’s office is the abode of the actual “Team O’Franken,” seven young, bright and energetic researchers who spend their days pouring through abstruse government reports and trolling research databases for interesting nuggets.

I lean into Franken’s office and snap a digital photo. Three people look up at the flash, “O” does not.  His mind is on other things.

10:41:12 – “Unfiltered”

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The crew of “Unfiltered” works just two offices down from the “O.”  Lizz Winstead, Chuck D, and Rachel Maddow host the show that Air America’s website says “puts politics and culture through the wringer, uncensored and unfiltered..”  It does so every weekday from 9am to Noon (EST).

Like nearly everyone else, Lizz and Rachel are sitting in front of computer screens. They are joined by two members of their programming crew as they go over audio for tomorrow’s show.

I strike up a conversation with Rachel.  She turns out to be your typical former-DJ-from-MA-with-a-music-radio-background.  Oh, with one exception – she also happens to have a doctorate in politics from Oxford. (Do you think that’s where Rush and Sean went?)

“What makes this show different?” I ask Rachel.  “Were going to deliver the political and cultural State of the Union, focusing on voices and stories that aren’t getting coverage in the mainstream media.” 

Wow. That should keep them busy!


10:58:27

I’m in the Green Room outside the studios on the 41st floor.  A crew from CNBC has appropriated the room to do a series of taped and live interviews, so you have to wait for a shifting-of-the-guests so that you can grab the coke you left sitting there twenty minutes ago.

Mark Walsh is being made up for a live shot.  The interviewer is asking her producer, “When do we go up?”  Turns out the answer is 11:11 AM, right after they play tape of Al Franken from that morning’s Today Show.  There’s small talk, lots of stories swapped.  Walsh tells how Holly Hunter ended up being his assistant for one week when both worked at HBO.  (She probably didn’t earn as much then). 

Thirty seconds to air, the interviewer who has been talking to Walsh for ten minutes suddenly looks flustered and says, “It’s Mark Walsh, right?” 

“Nope, Eric Stratton, rush chairman,” he replies.

Her eyes widen for just a moment, then she speaks to the cameraman: “Start with a wide shot” – and they are on.

11:35:10

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Al Franken walks out of office on the 40th floor.  The small crowd bursts into spontaneous applause.  “O” acknowledges, witticisms and best wishes are exchanged, and he walks out the door.  Ten seconds later he has been called back – turns out that a staff member from the office of a MAJOR MAJOR PUBLIC FIGURE (sorry to be mysterious, but there it is) is calling. Franken is back out the door two minutes later.

Because of building security, he needs to wait for the elevator to go one floor.  He glances again at the opening statement tucked under his arm.  He’s ready.

Part 3 Next: FRANKEN GOES ON THE AIR


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