Air America's Green Revolution

New York City's most famous gadfly tries to rescue the liberal radio network

After a rocky quarter-century in New York politics, perennial progressive candidate Mark Green has heard plenty of bad puns on his last name. But not until he and his brother Stephen Green bought Air America Radio did so many of their name's connotations—well-funded, untested, a little bit hippie—apply all at once.

In his new corner office overlooking Sixth Avenue last week, the recently minted media mogul shifted and fidgeted in his seat like a kid on the first day of school, alternately swigging Diet Coke and smoothing his faded black chinos. He could barely wait to get back to calling each of Air America's 70 affiliate stations to assure them that the company's wild ride—which accelerated when the network's former parent, Piquant, declared bankruptcy last October—was over.

Scott Elberg, the radio veteran who guided the network through bankruptcy and will now run it as chief operating officer, sat next to Green, explaining that such courtesy was uncommon in the business. "It's amazing," Elberg said. "It's kind of like sitting at a subway stop shaking hands when you are running for office."

"No," Green countered. "It's like sitting at a desk calling potential donors. But it's a lot easier than cold-calling rich people."

Green has spent a life making such phone calls, in a political career that began with a run for Al D'Amato's U.S. Senate seat in 1986 and ended last year with his loss to Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. Along the way, Green served two terms as the city's public advocate, but he's best known as the guy who might well have been mayor if not for 9/11. His older brother, Stephen Green, the largest commercial real estate owner in Manhattan, has long been his biggest supporter. (Stephen Green declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"There's a joke at Harvard College that if you get A's, you end up a scholar, and if you get C's you end up a wealthy businessman," said Green, who went to Cornell and Harvard Law School. "So I got the grades, but Steve got the street smarts."

The notion of going into business together emerged from a casual conversation at the elder Green's house in mid-December. Mark mentioned plans to guest-host on his old friend David Bender's Air America morning show—and that the bankrupt network was looking for a buyer. Stephen was interested, and three months later bought the majority share in the company for $4.25 million, on the condition that Mark and Elberg run it together. Stephen Green will serve as chairman of the board.

The vote of confidence in Elberg was based "on the merits," Green said, but some staffers worry Elberg lacks the partisan zeal to push the progressive product. Most, though, are grateful for the stability. "Considering what a revolving door we've had, it's nice to have things carry over," said drive-time host Rachel Maddow.

The trio received loud applause from nearly 50 staff members when they announced their plans in a meeting on March 6. "It really feels like the cavalry has arrived," Bender said.

Air America has long needed financial rescuing. It went broke less than two weeks after its glitzy launch gala on March 30, 2004, and has lost money each year since. The reasons for the money troubles are manifold, ranging from financial scandals to a network business model that many radio experts thought was nuts. "We were tilting at more than windmills," said former network CEO Mark Walsh. "We were tilting at a radio structure that had become decidedly right-wing across the board. We thought we were going to change the national conversation."

Despite the red ink in the company's ledgers, Air America the brand did affect that conversation. Green pointed to the many liberal outfits, from The Huffington Post to MoveOn.org, that have blossomed since Air America launched its answer to Rush Limbaugh et al.

The newly installed Green has come out swinging. Last week, in response to the Nevada Democratic Party's (now-revoked) invitation to have Fox News sponsor a Democratic presidential candidates' debate, Green fired off two statements: one to the "fair and balanced" news channel proposing that Air America talent fill half of the panelists' slots; another to the New Hampshire Republican party offering to sponsor their candidates' debate. Neither Fox nor the Granite State GOP responded, but a more local target of Green's quest for political dialogue has.

"I have no interest in participating," New York Post editorial page editor Bob McManus told the Voice, rejecting Green's invitation to have him on the air once a month in exchange for a regular liberal op-ed in the paper. "That sort of balance doesn't concern me as it would if we were a one-newspaper town."

Green, told of the response, put up his rhetorical fists: "McManus and the Post run outrageous monologues because they are scared of dialogue. He couldn't stand up to me in a dialogue."

Until now, such fightin' words usually came out of the mouths of Air America's hosts, not its executives. But with the company's biggest star, Al Franken, off to run for Minnesota senator, perhaps it's appropriate that a former Senate candidate step into the role of lead zing-slinger. Green's pugilistic instincts and the network's loudmouth partisanship seem to be a good fit. Together they might make the radio waves that save Air America.

 
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