Hot Air America! The Liberal Network That Almost Wasn't, Still Is

dial.jpgIn the beginning, Air America Radio was a conservative squirt-gun's wet dream. The dropped stations! The bounced checks! And no Soros feeding tube in sight! Death was imminent. Obits were being workshopped daily by Hannity, Drudge, and all the others, and it was going to be a giddy, giddy wake, proof positive that the liberal elite simply couldn't survive in a truly populist medium like talk radio. Today, alas, Air America celebrates its first anniversary. It's carried on more than 50 stations. It's in fifteen of the top twenty markets. Its approval ratings seem at least as high as the President's. But if you miss those days when it seemed destined for failure, you can find solace in a new documentary airing at 8 P.M. on HBO tonight, Left of the Dial. See suits lie about ad revenue! See talent fret over its lack of radio experience! Our advance copy got lost in the mail, but we decided to ask the documentary's co-director/co-producer, Patrick Farrelly, some questions anyway. Full interview after the jump.


GB: Why did Air America say yes to this project?

Patrick: In many ways, I don't think they knew what they were letting themselves in for, but I think that they were intrigued by the idea and we also told them that we would show them a final cut. Not that we would give them any editorial control whatsoever, but I think they found that reassuring.

GB: When things started to get weird there, did you start finding it harder to get the same access you were getting at the start?

Patrick: When the situation there got really tense, and Air America was having huge financial difficulties, people were really nervous and there were a whole number of occasions when they told us to shut our cameras down. We totally understood that. Although there is a crucial scene in the movie where Robert Palumbo just kept shooting, even though he was told to shut down. He figured that they would understand the importance of the scene later on, and they did.

GB: From what I've read, it sounds like there are some scenes in the movie where former Air America chairman Evan Cohen was basically lying on camera and not really making any effort to hide that fact. Is that correct?

Patrick: There are two scenes in the movie where Evan Cohen totally exaggerates the amount of advertising money that Air America was taking in. But you also have to remember that Evan was a total salesman and in some ways you needed a guy like him to pull off a venture like this. The conventional wisdom before Air America was launched was that liberals and progressives couldn't do talk radio, they just weren't funny and so on. In essence, Evan betrayed Air America, but in the movie we don't see him as an evil guy.

GB: But it's not like this was an episode of Punk'd -- he knew the cameras were rolling. What was he thinking?

Patrick: I think that Evan Cohen was a gambler and a salesman, and in many ways he sold these people a bill of goods. I think he hoped to build Air America to a certain point, get more investment, sell the company, and make a big profit. In the end, he ran out of runway.

GB: How many total hours did you end up shooting?

Patrick: We shot a total of 350 hours. We had two great editors Maeve O'Boyle and David Zieff. Zieff edited that great Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster." Out of those 350 hours, Maeve and David were able to shape the movie that people will see on HBO.

GB: Was HBO funding this from the start then?

Patrick: We financed it ourselves from the beginning. We maxed out our credit cards, got a loan from the bank, and then we ran out of money during the editing process. [Co-producer and co-director] Kate O'Callaghan contacted her sister in Ireland--she's a farmer--and she sold a young horse she had and sent us the money. Eventually a rough cut came to the attention of Sheila Nevins, the head of documentaries at HBO. She really liked it and from that point on, HBO financed it. They got on board in the nick of time.

GB: You and Air America were almost in the same boat! Did you ever have to bounce any checks like they did?

Patrick: We never actually bounced any checks, but then again we're just regular people. We're not businessmen.

GB: And you got a scene of Evan Cohen packing up his office in the middle of the night, or something like that? Sounds like great drama.

Patrick: There is a scene where Evan Cohen has to arrive late at night to meet two Air America Radio executives and sign over the company to them. If he hadn't done that they wouldn't have been able to get new investment in. It's pretty dramatic all right.

GB: And how would they alert you to these late-night scenes? You weren't tailing them around the clock, were you?

Patrick: This was a pretty intense period, so we were there all day and all night just capturing the story and hoping that we woudn't miss anything.

GB: So you just sort of camped out at their offices?

Patrick: Pretty much. This was a period when we were getting the "evil eye" from a lot of the people working there. It was very intense and most people thought that the network was going to go down the toilet. So it was a pretty intense situation for everybody.

GB: From what I read though, you also got a scene of Randi Rhodes in her apartment, even though she didn't like the idea of the movie at all. How'd you persuade her to let her shoot in her apartment if she didn't even want you guys filming there at work?

Patrick: Randi Rhodes was incredibly cooperative and gave us a lot of access. When we first met her, we didnt know much about her. I suppose it's a little bit like a Hollywood casting agent who sees an actor and knows straight away that that person is a star. That's how we felt when we met Randi. She's one of the great things for us in this documentary. Randi has seen the documentary and really likes it. It shows how cool she is because we show Randi in a lot of very raw and intense situations.

GB: On that note, a lot of the people you were filming (Al Franken, Janeane Garafalo, etc.) are pretty used to being in front of cameras. Did that make your job easier or harder? Were they warier, or more nonchalant than typical documentary subjects?

Patrick: It varied a lot. In general people like Al Franken and Janeane were very cooperative. I think that Franken feels that the documentary shows too many painful situations in the history of Air America and I can totally understand that. We were quite surprised given what Air America went through that they've been so supportive of the documentary. If you look at their website they have the movie poster and a link to the HBO site. Last night at the premiere, the new CEO of Air America, Danny Goldberg, helped introduce the film. We think it's pretty mature of Air America given a lot of the scenes in the movie to do that.

GB: Were there any scenes that you missed that you wished you'd gotten?

Patrick: During Air America's financial meltdown, there was a lot of stuff going on behind closed doors that we would have liked to have access to but we were shut out. Which is totally understandable, but at the same time, as documentary makers, we just want to see and shoot everything. But I think when people see the film they'll get a great sense of what it was like to be on the inside.

GB: With 350 hours, it sounds like you guys could have actually made this into a reality series, akin to The Restaurant or something like that. Was there ever any talk of that?

Patrick: No. We think that Left of the Dial tells an important story. The founding of Air America Radio which now is a success story, is a really important media and political event. Air America has become an important addition to the political diversity of radio. At a time when the range of opinion you can see on television is getting narrower and narrower as television becomes more corporate, Air America is a really important development. I don't think a reality show would do much justice to the story. Project Greenlight it certainly isn't.

GB: So there's not a lot of stuff that you're disappointed you weren't able to put in? I just figured if it were a series, you could have made it 12 hours long or whatever...

Patrick: We could've made a second movie with the amount of really good material we had. We think the movie is just the right length and that wasn't something that was determined by HBO. Their feeling was that it should play at whatever seemed like the right length. Twelve hours? Air America is interesting but it's not that interesting.

GB: Well, you know, an hour a week for 12 weeks.

Patrick: It would never fly. But if anybody out there wants to make a deal, we're willing to listen. We have a lot of tape over here.

GB: You didn't happen to get any footage of Al Franken eating bugs, did you? Cuz if you did, I think Fox might go for it.

Patrick: I think if we had that, Bill O'Reilly would be beating down our doors. Afraid not.

GB: The last election night scene in the movie -- President Bush kind of helped give you a happy ending!

Patrick: We were there for Air America's coverage of the November election. It's a pretty intense scene because like a lot of people, the folks at Air America thought that Kerry was going to win. So we have the whole arc of optimism, confusion, and total depression. In a weird way, the election of Bush was good for Air America. For the next four years, they have a captive audience of people who are ready to hear whatever criticism you want to make of the Bush administration. What we're hearing from Air America is that they are unable to sign up quickly enough the amount of radio stations who want to be Air America affiliates. As of now, they have 51 affiliates, which when you consider what they went through is pretty impressive.

GB: So Bush may not be doing much for job creation on the whole, but in the anti-Bush sector, he's doing great!

Patrick: It's happening right across the board. The circulation of magazines like The Nation and Mother Jones are going through the roof. So it's the one bright spot in an otherwise pretty bleak situation.

GB: OK, so tonight, you're airing against Survivor on CBS and WWE Smackdown! on UPN. Why do I choose "Left of the Dial"?

Patrick: Because....Our documentary has more drama, better personalities, and a much more interesting story to tell than either of those shows. Randi Rhodes would kick the ass of any of those puffed up, steroid users on WWE Smackdown!

Left of the Dial [HBO.com]

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