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Listener: The Deflating of Air America

The Listener column this week looks at liberal talk radio and its struggles in Washington and around the nation:

Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio talk show hosts have often noted that being on the outside, rallying the audience to action, is good for business. Being aligned with the party in power, not so good.

If that's the case, the miserable condition of Air America, the two-year-old effort to create a liberal alternative to conservative talk radio, is likely to get even worse, perhaps fatally so.

Air America has announced that it is negotiating with potential buyers to avert a shutdown of the network because of its heavy debts and losses.

But though the Democratic victories in November's elections clearly help conservative talk, some radio executives believe the results also can boost the smaller but growing field of liberal talk.

"It gives the format a little more heft," says Bill Hess, operations manager of Clear Channel Radio's AM talk stations in Washington, conservative WTNT (570) and liberal WWRC (1260). "It makes the hosts feel a little more wind in their sails."

That bit of optimism seems pale compared with Hess's analysis of what the election returns mean for conservative radio: "It's great for them: It galvanizes the hosts around an enemy."

Hess knows that Air America, which remains the primary provider of liberal talk shows on WWRC and many other stations, despite an increasing number of programs produced outside the network, is in deep trouble. WWRC is dropping Air America's morning show, "The Young Turks," a rambling roundtable of chatter with Cenk Uygur, Ben Mankiewicz and Jill Pike that launched on Sirius Satellite Radio. Tomorrow, WWRC will replace "The Young Turks" with Bill Press, the former CNN "Crossfire" host whose radio show also airs on Sirius.

In Washington, liberal talk is "not doing so well as we'd like," Hess says. With an almost imperceptible audience, according to the Arbitron ratings, WWRC, which has no local programming of its own, has suffered ever since it adopted the liberal talk format two years ago because most of the nationally syndicated shows "were more interested in preaching than in entertaining," Hess says. "Look at Limbaugh: It was from the start a fun show, with his parody spots. The left is still hesitant about having fun on the radio; you have people that really care about the ideology."

Air America's afternoon host, Randi Rhodes, has been relegated to evenings on WWRC, in good part because Hess believes her show is unrelentingly harsh and bitter. "She's got unbridled passion, which is good," he says, "but my ears are going to bleed after 15 minutes. Man, how about a laugh now and then?"

But Hess believes the quality of liberal talk shows is improving quickly, pointing to the Fargo, N.D.-based "Ed Schultz Show," which will move tomorrow to the noon-to-3 p.m. slot on WWRC. "Schultz is a breakout talent," Hess says of the former college football quarterback. Schultz started out as a sportscaster and then became a conservative talk host; he turned to left-wing politics after the woman he was dating invited him to lunch at a Salvation Army shelter to meet some of the "bums" he railed against on his radio show. That woman is now his wife and assistant producer.

Clear Channel, Jones Radio Networks and a liberal Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, teamed up this fall to conduct a talent hunt for liberal talk hosts. The "American Idol"-style contest was necessary, said Paul "Woody" Woodhull, president of a Washington-based radio consultancy, because "progressive talk has grown so big, so fast, that all of us in the industry are searching high and low for more great Progressive Talk radio talent. Great talkers such as Ed Schultz, Bill Press and Al Franken are hard to find."

But despite Clear Channel's commitment to the two-year-old format -- the behemoth of the radio industry has 24 stations devoted to liberal talk -- the ratings numbers have been weak in most cities. The theory that liberal talk would score well in Washington was based on voting patterns in the Washington area and on the unusually strong ratings that public radio stations win here. Now, Hess says, it could be the strength of public radio in this market that is holding back WWRC: "If you want straight discussion of the news, you're more accustomed to the public stations."

WWRC's ratings numbers are so tiny that the data do not provide useful information about who makes up the station's audience. Hess's anecdotal sense is that the listeners are younger than those who listen to conservative talk.

Meanwhile, the station's next challenge might be to replace programs produced by Air America, which make up more than half of each day's offerings on WWRC. Air America is in dire financial shape, according to its filings in bankruptcy court, where the company sought protection from its creditors in October. The company owes $458,000 to Clear Channel; $327,000 in back rent; $150,000 to its advertising agency; $143,000 to Arbitron, the ratings company; $63,000 to Real Networks; and hundreds of thousands more to other creditors. This past year alone, Air America ran a $13 million deficit.

The network is involved in court battles with its affiliates and employees, and it has run through executives at a startling pace.

Now, it's on the verge of losing its one big-name celebrity, Franken, who has said he is contemplating quitting radio to run for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

With or without prominent hosts, Air America has proved to be an environment that advertisers find unattractive. In October, ABC Radio informed its stations that they were to black out all ads from almost 90 companies that had bought time from ABC but did "not wish to air on any Air America affiliates." The list of companies that wanted to steer clear of Air America programs included Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, McDonald's, Cingular, Visa, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, the U.S. Postal Service and the Navy.

Although many of the companies on the list advertise on conservative talk programs such as the Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly shows, Hewlett-Packard issued a statement explaining that its decision to avoid Air America was based on its desire to steer clear of "inappropriate or controversial programming environments."

By Marc Fisher |  December 9, 2006; 1:06 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I agree some of the problems Air America faces are of its own making -- too much polemics, too little populism -- but it's often been dealt a bad hand when it comes to affiliates. For example, in Washington 1260 is not a very good AM signal, compared to Clear Channel mate 570 or right-wing WMAL 630; it used to be in the good old days when it was WWDC and carried Johnny Holliday in the morning and Senators baseball at night, but it's apparently not been well-maintained over the years. In most markets, I would think that the Air America affiliate probably has a worse dial position and lower wattage than stations that carry Limbaugh and other conservative talkers. If the situations were reversed, I'm not saying the ratings would exactly reverse either, but they'd be more representative of the ideological divide.

Posted by: Vincent | December 10, 2006 11:08 AM

One key problem is that the shows are impossible for anyone other than a true believer to listen to. You may think that Limabaugh is a windbag, but at least he's obviously having fun, and wants you to have fun too. The liberal talk radio shows available in this area have all the scary earnestness of a cult leader trying to convert you to the one true faith - and all the charisma of a incompetent insurance agent. Add a little mean-spiritedness, and it's deadly.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2006 10:28 AM

Conservatives are notorious for their ideological discipline, like to be on the same page, and enjoy strong hosts who give them marching orders. They tend to prefer talk radio. Liberals like interactivity, canonize diversity, and don't like being told what to do. They tend to prefer the blogosphere.

Posted by: Miles | December 11, 2006 12:38 PM

Progressive radio is my Prozac without the side effects. I listen in my car and then at my desk and again in the car on the way home. America became a very scary place beginning in 2000 and I needed some facts and I found them with Air America and later WWRC. My only complaint about WWRC is that it has a lousy signal. You can't get it in certain areas of downtown and it fades out too quicky in Northern Virginia and I can't get it on my home radios, so I can listen when I'm not a work. I wish they would boost the signal and maybe more people be able to listen.
While I hope Air America doesn't go under, I know Randi Rhodes will survive and I will find her on the dial wherever she goes. Progressives need her talent and ability to get to the truth.

Posted by: Janet G. | December 11, 2006 4:25 PM

"Conservatives are notorious for their ideological discipline, like to be on the same page, and enjoy strong hosts who give them marching orders. They tend to prefer talk radio. Liberals like interactivity, canonize diversity, and don't like being told what to do. They tend to prefer the blogosphere."

This is a remarkable claim - "we don't do radio because we're too smart!"

How do you explain NPR? Let me guess - "oh . . . now that, . . . that's different."

Posted by: Anonymous | December 12, 2006 10:13 AM

The curious part of the story is the piece at the end about corporations that don't want their products or brand advertised on Air America. Why? Is it in response to an organized boycott or threat of a boycott? A decision that Air America is a threat to corporate interest and therefore something to starve? I'd be interested in a follow-up piece that looks into this. Thanks.

Posted by: sdc | December 12, 2006 2:15 PM

Who cares? No one listened - that's why it's going belly up.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 12, 2006 5:18 PM

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