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Radio: America Still on the Air

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"You've accomplished so much," Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (aka (Robert Smigel) told Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder, hosts of Air America Radio's "Majority Report," on the network's first anniversary last Thursday. "A year ago today we had a tyrannical president leading us into a costly war. And look at today. The war's going much better."

Triumph's chronology may have been off — George W. Bush invaded Iraq two years ago — but the pooch's sarcasm was on target. If Air America's ultimate intent was to end war and change administrations — and it was — the network failed. AAR was founded and funded by liberals who saw the need for a liberal alternative in a wildly energized political season when arguing over Bush and his policies had become the national pastime. The network's founders had three dreams (not necessarily in this order): 1. provide talk radio with a countervailing force to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the other right-wingers who saturate the airwaves; 2. make money; 3. defeat Bush in the 2004 election. "He is going down," promised Al Franken, the network's signature host, on its very first broadcast on March 31, 2004.

As you may have noticed, this didn't happen. Bush won the election, for a change with more votes than his Democratic opponent. The party it supports couldn't unseat a President who launched the implausible invasion of an unthreatening country that most Americans wish we would get out of. The federal government is essentially a one-party system. In making their decisions, the conservatives who run the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives need not, and do not, consider the minority Democrats. For now, all potent opposition will come from disgruntled Republicans. Though the President's approval ratings have ebbed lately, the dip has more to do with political missteps (a Social Security overhaul, the Terri Schiavo adventure) than with any radio chorus of nattering nabobs of negativity.


PROGRESSIVE GAINS

But Air America Radio has achieved something significant: survival. As poignantly revealed in the HBO documentary Left of the Dial, the network had to endure media scorn, its own amateur flounderings and, nearly, financial ruin. Yet it is still on the air — not in three big cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) and three smaller ones, as it was when it went on the air, and not on the severely reduced network it became two weeks later (after bounced checks led to L.A. and Chicago dropping out), but on 52 stations, including 15 of the top 20 markets (L.A. is back, Chicago still MIA). It has added Sirius Satellite Radio to its original XM satellite connection. In February, AAR inked a deal with industry behemoth Clear Channel, which put the network back in L.A., and which plans to bring the Air America format to 25 of its lower-rated AM affiliates.

Clear Channel, a major funder of Bush and the Republicans, isn't a liberal philanthropy. It's picking up "progressive radio" because this is the fastest growing format in the country; and that is because Air America has proved it attracts listeners and advertisers. From an original audience of 120,000, the network more than tripled to 400,000 within three months, and now, according to the latest Arbitron ratings, reaches 2.137 million listeners a week, with 129,900 tuning in for the average quarter hour. Now and again, at least in New York City, Franken's midday show has out-pulled his right-wing nemesis Bill O'Reilly's; Randi Rhodes has lured more listeners than Hannity; Garofalo and Seder topped the rabid Michael Savage.

And, as Carolina Miranda reported for an item I wrote in the Apr. 4 issue of TIME, AAR is enjoying monthly double-digit ballooning in ad sales revenue — a rate that Jon Sinton, AAR's president, expects to continue for the next two years. Commercials for national brands like Geico and Volkswagen can now be heard along with spots for Verbal Advantage vocabulary builders (one of Limbaugh's early sponsors), sexual potency pills and "clinical hypnotherapist" Wendi Friesen's promises of happiness, weight loss and freedom from nicotine addiction if you'll just let her talk in your sleep.

Other stats are encouraging and amusing. Ratings show a younger, more diverse audience. "The average talk-radio listener is 60 years old, but the average Air America listener is 48," Sinton told Carolina, adding that during nighttime programming, "in a format that is generally two-thirds male and one third female, Air America is 52/48. We are almost precisely evenly balanced between men and women." The network is also doing well in terms of brand recognition. A study issued last month by the consulting firm Paragon Media Strategies indicates that Limbaugh's is the name most familiar to talk radio listeners, followed by — drum roll, please — Al Franken.

Certainly Air America's numbers don't come close to the 600 stations that currently Limbaugh's daytime program, or to the 20 million listeners that tune into his show each week. But, it's growth, and in a highly competitive industry, that's an achievement. "It's a tough business no matter what your programming is," Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine, told our Carolina, saying that Air America has "begun to compete. They have some ratings to show, they get publicity, they're selling ads. Selling ads in radio is not easy, but they're doing it."

How did they do it? What did they do to themselves? How are they doing now? Here's a first-term report from a long-time listener — and (to indulge in its hosts' obsessively confessional tone) a radio fan and radic-lib who is glad the medium's political spectrum is now a little less narrow.


AIR AMERICA UNDERCOVER

Create an instant, full-time radio network around an ideology? So far as I know, the Air America scheme had no precedent. There had been stations with congenial formats, like the left-wing Pacifica and Amy Goodman's invaluable news-and-interview hour "Democracy Now" has built an informal network on radio and TV stations. There are many, many evangelical Christian radio stations, which bolster the right-wing talk count by hundreds. (If the Unitarians or Episcopalians have a radio network, it's not on my dial.) But these all grew organically, adding like-minded affiliates over the years. No network based on dogma had hit the air running. And with the radio right dominant, the odds of a bunch of liberals thriving, or for that matter surviving, were pretty long.

"The industry at large said, 'Liberals aren't funny. They aren't engaging. They're too nuanced. A concept of a liberal network is stupid,'" Sinton told Carolina. "I guess we were just stupid enough to press on." Sinton — one of the few executives who has remained at AAR since its conception two years ago — acknowledged that even he at times doubted if the network would ever get off the ground. "I never thought we'd get on the air to start with," he said. "Around my house, this was always a day-to-day project."

And for a while, the skeptics were right. The network experienced intense birthing pains. Raising the seed money was no picnic, as founder Sheldon Drobny spells out in the memoir Road To Air America: Breaking The Right Wing Stranglehold On Our Nation's Airwaves. Drobny raised the loot, beat the drum, rounded up political support, then saw the project mismanaged and nearly torpedoed. (He was not at New York headquarters for the startup, and is not mentioned in the documentary.)

Fearlessly ignoring the right's prediction that a liberal network would be stocked with Jews, gays and blacks, Air America filled most of its air time with people who answered to one or more of these descriptions. (Right-wing radio is basically guys of the Christian persuasion.) It also flouted the received radio wisdom that listeners want one strong voice, and created teams of complementary hosts — typically a comedian for energy and a radio veteran for stability.

Here's the original cast of characters. 6 to 9 A.M, "Morning Sedition": the Jewish comic (Maron), the thoughtful black (Mark Riley), the BBC-sounding British woman (Sue Endicott). 9 A.M. to noon, "Unfiltered": the woman comic (Lizz Winstead, who was also he network's program director), the elder statesman of black rap (Chuck D.), the Jewish lesbian with some radio experience (Rachel Maddow). Noon to 3, "The O'Franken Factor": Franken and NPR refugee Catherine Lanpher. 3 to 7 P.M.: Randi Rhodes ("I'm Jewish, I'm from Brooklyn"), who had built strong ratings in South Florida. 7 to 8 P.M., "So What Else Is News?": a magazine-show-style survey hosted by Hollywood producer Marty Kaplan. 8 to 11 P.M., "The Majority Report": comic Garofalo and comedian-director Seder.

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