Listeners in Los Angeles and Chicago who tuned in to Air America on Wednesday to hear comedian Al Franken dissect President Bush's news conference got entertainment gossip instead -- in Spanish.
In a dispute over payment for airtime, the liberal talk-radio network was abruptly yanked off the air in the morning by MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting Inc., the New York company that owns Santa Monica-based KBLA-AM (1580)and WNTD-AM (950) in Chicago.
David Goodfriend, Air America's general counsel and executive vice president, said MultiCultural's move was "not only a violation of our contract, it's a despicable act."
MultiCultural's chief executive, Arthur Liu, said the talk-radio programming was pulled and replaced with shows in Spanish because Air America "bounced a check" and owes the radio company $1 million.
A judge has been asked to decide which side was in the wrong: Air America filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in New York accusing Multicultural with breach of contract and asking for an injunction forcing the company to put the network's shows -- including "Morning Sedition," "The O'Franken Factor" and "Unfiltered" -- back on the dial.
The court filing alleged that MultiCultural did not seek to arbitrate their dispute, as called for in its contract with Air America, that MultiCultural changed the locks at WNTD to keep out Air America employees, and that it pulled the service from WNTD "to gain unfair leverage over Air America Radio regarding the Santa Monica station."
Goodfriend said the problem was that after Air America leased time on the two radio stations starting in January, well before the network launched March 31, Multicultural resold the time on KBLA to a Spanish-language broadcaster.
So Air America stopped payment on its check for the KBLA airtime, Goodfriend said. Since the time on the station in Chicago already had been "paid in full," he added, he couldn't explain why Multicultural pulled Air America off WNTD. "We didn't have any dispute in Chicago."
" 'Bounced check' suggests somehow we don't have the cash. We do, and plenty of it," Goodfriend said. "This is about not letting ourselves be shaken down."
Air America Radio Chairman Evan Cohen appeared on the network's afternoon show with host Randi Rhodes to talk about the flap. But people in Los Angeles and Chicago couldn't hear him.
Nor could they tune into Franken, who was instrumental in getting the left-leaning network off the ground. Instead of his show from noon to 3 p.m., KBLA aired "Todo Para la Mujer," on which host Maxine Woodside talks with listeners on topics ranging from Hollywood news to horoscopes.
Launched with financial backing of around $60 million, Air America has marketed itself as an alternative to conservative talk radio whose hosts include Rush Limbaugh. On its website, Air America says: "We are a new voice in talk radio: a smart voice with a sense of humor."
It had recently signed up new stations, and executives said it would start airing this week on KSQR-AM (1240) in Sacramento, as well as in Portland, Maine; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Burlington, Vt.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Key West, Fla.
Air America earlier announced that it had lined up two stations in the Bay Area: KVTO-AM (1400) in San Francisco and KVVN-AM (1430) in San Jose.
"I think there will be more," Air America Chief Executive Mark Walsh said, "and I think it shows some affirmation that the program is doing well."
Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers magazine, told Bloomberg News that the effect of the dispute with Multicultural wasn't clear.
"It's too soon to tell if it's a setback," he said. "Either it's indicative that they don't have money, and if that's the case, then goodbye, or it's that Arthur Liu's Multicultural Broadcasting has a problem."
Goodfriend declined to say how much money Air America was losing with its shows being off the air in two cities.
Though no ratings figures are available yet for its radio stations, Air America has been popular with listeners gaining access via the Internet.
According to RealNetworks, the online broadcaster that carries Air America, it delivered 2 million Internet streams during its first week, with 50,000 concurrent streams on Air America's first day alone. RealNetworks said the latter figure was a record for a non-breaking-news service.
The Chicago Tribune was used to compile this report.