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As Air America stumbles, what's radio got left?

Local affiliate KTLK sees an audience for programming that's entertaining talk first and liberal second, with a competitive agenda.

October 20, 2006|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

With Air America filing for bankruptcy protection last week, and its local affiliate dropping in the most recent ratings, right-wing critics are gleefully writing the epitaph for liberal talk radio -- dead at 2 1/2 .

But other observers say that regardless of whether Air America survives, an audience exists and will remain for left-leaning hosts.

"There's a market for good talk radio, no matter what the political label is," said Perry Michael Simon, news-talk-sports editor of AllAccess.com, an online journal of the radio industry, and himself a former talk radio programmer. "The key is that if it's entertaining talk radio first and liberal second, it can work."

"The problem," Simon said, "is that the entire category of liberal talk is judged by what Air America is doing."

Doing their best to get out from under that shadow are stations such as KTLK-AM (1150), Air America's affiliate in Los Angeles. Even before the bankruptcy filing -- in fact, since the station debuted in February 2005 -- KTLK has been weaning itself from the network's programming.

"We're trying to take this progressive format and make it radio, not make it a cause," said Don Martin, KTLK program director. "I don't want them [listeners] coming here because they call it 'Air America.' "

KTLK carries about 13 hours of the network's shows daily -- including its signature host, comedian Al Franken, from 9 a.m. to noon, and Randi Rhodes on tape delay, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- but fills the rest of the schedule with liberal or centrist hosts of its own choosing. That includes the key time slots of 6 to 9 a.m., held by Los Angeles-based Stephanie Miller, a self-described "liberal wacko," and noon to 3 p.m., with Ed Schultz, a red-state former Republican. Both are radio veterans, another quality lacking in many of the hosts who populate Air America's schedule.

"They're not bad, but there's a lot of competition out there," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, a talk radio trade journal. He warned that the hosts at Air America "continue to be presenting themselves as some sort of political campaign."

"I don't think they have as much of a chance if their political agenda supersedes their business agenda," he said. "I certainly do not believe they represent the viability of progressive or liberal-leaning hosts in talk radio."

He noted that in 2004, the most scathing and most widely heard critic of President Bush on the airwaves was shock-jock Howard Stern.

Simon predicted that Air America, which airs on 86 stations and XM satellite radio, will continue through the coming election and perhaps to the end of the year. Then he expects it will either fold, or change into a syndicate offering a few shows, rather than a network trying to maintain an expensive full slate of programming.

"It's a shame," he said. "This was an opportunity to create really good, new talk radio. It was misbegotten from the start, not a project of people who knew radio and wanted to create something long-term."

"Their core audience isn't big enough to sustain a commercial operation the way they're spending money," Simon said. In its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last Friday, Air America's parent company listed assets of $4.3 million against $20.3 million in liabilities. Air America officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

One variable in the network's future is Franken himself, who has said he might consider running for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota in 2008, against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. KTLK's Martin said he's already figuring how to rework his schedule if Franken leaves.

But Franken's not going away just yet. Addressing the Chapter 11 filing Monday on his program, Franken said, "You may notice I'm doing a show. I'm speaking now. And now. What's better is that you're hearing me."

"The right wing has been gloating since Friday, and let them," he said. "We're going to keep doing our work. It's important what we do, and it's important that progressive radio continue, and it will."

Air America has been beset by money troubles and management turnover since before it launched March 31, 2004. The network debuted on five stations nationwide, including KBLA-AM (1580) in Santa Monica, but two weeks later it was off the air here and in Chicago, when the owner of those stations, MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting Inc., cut off the service in a payment dispute.

After almost a year absent from Southern California, Air America returned in February 2005 via KTLK, one of 25 "Progressive Talk" stations nationwide owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications. Such a commitment from Clear Channel -- at 1,200 stations strong, the nation's largest radio chain -- bodes well for the future of liberal talk, Simon said.

"Talk radio, in general, is a growth business," he said. With people increasingly getting their music from the Internet, satellite radio or their iPods, talk radio can provide unique personalities unavailable elsewhere.

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