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The message of Air America's end

One thing supporters and foes of the liberal network can agree on is that its problems went far beyond politics.

January 23, 2010|By Steve Carney
  • Sen. Al Franken represents Minnesota.
Sen. Al Franken represents Minnesota. (Bebeto Matthews / Associated…)

Coming only two days after the Republicans' upset U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts, the sudden demise of the Air America radio network -- after a protracted illness -- left liberals reeling and conservatives gloating over the failure of their competing ideology's highest profile outlet.

But the end of Air America is not the end of liberal talk radio, nor should it be, according to observers.

"The only thing they did that was outstanding -- boy, did they get a lot of PR," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade journal of the talk-radio industry.

"The thing that was so maddening about Air America's original programming -- and they squandered their initial capital and their initial publicity -- [was that] all you heard was about how bad Rush Limbaugh was and how bad Sean Hannity was," Harrison said in an interview Friday. "If that's the 'liberal message,' there is no message."

Charlie Kireker, the chairman of Air America, announced Thursday that the board was pulling the plug on the 5-year-old venture, which supplied programming to about 100 stations nationwide, including KTLK-AM (1150) in Los Angeles. The network had had financial problems from the outset, and they were exacerbated by the worsening U.S. economy, which has resulted in advertising cutbacks across all media.

Robin Bertolucci, program director at progressive KTLK and the much more successful conservative outlet KFI-AM (640) -- both stations are owned by Clear Channel Communications -- agreed that ideology alone was not the reason for Air America's demise.

"The thing that makes any radio program successful is the entertainment value and the information value," she said.

"What makes a compelling talk-show host is not limited to political ideology," Bertolucci said, citing the example of KFI mainstay Rush Limbaugh. "He's a wildly talented and entertaining broadcaster. If he was a communist, I think the show would be successful too -- in a very different way."

She said the network's demise would have a minimal effect on KTLK. The major hole will be 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays, when the station had featured Air America's Ron Reagan Jr. Most of its hosts -- Bill Press from 3 to 6 a.m. weekdays, Stephanie Miller from 6 to 9 a.m., Thom Hartmann from 9 a.m. to noon, and Randi Rhodes from noon to 3 p.m. -- are distributed by other companies.

Hartmann took over Al Franken's prime 9 a.m.-to-noon slot at Air America when the former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer left to run for the U.S. Senate in 2007. Hartmann didn't stay after his two-year contract ended, though, and now is syndicated by another company.

"I felt this date was on the horizon," Hartmann said of Air America's expiration. "Every time a new investor came in, there was all this hope they'd do it right," he said, but each new management would tinker with programming. Hartmann said a show requires six to 18 months to nail down its audience: "If you're constantly jacking around your lineup, it's a recipe for disaster."

The network suffered from financial troubles and organizational upheavals even before it premiered on March 31, 2004.

The venture was originally the idea of Chicago-area entrepreneurs Sheldon and Anita Drobny, longtime Democratic fundraisers who wanted to buy stations and launch a radio network to counter what they felt was a monopoly of right-wing talk. But they bowed out in November 2003, selling most of their stake in what was then called Central Air to investors including Mark Walsh, a former America Online executive and Internet advisor to the Democratic National Committee, and New York venture capitalist Evan Cohen.

Two weeks after Air America went live, it got yanked off the air in Los Angeles and Chicago as part of a dispute with MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting, which owned the affiliate stations in those cities.

The network remained off the air in Los Angeles until February 2005, when KTLK -- then called KXTA -- and about 25 other stations nationwide owned by the Clear Channel chain switched to a "progressive talk" format, featuring some of Air America's hosts.

Harrison said one difficulty for liberal talkers is that they were late to the party: Conservative talk had been around for many years and was already entrenched on the AM stations with the most powerful signals, such as KFI.

As for Air America's legacy, Harrison cited the success of onetime host Rachel Maddow, now with her own show on MSNBC. "And Al Franken," he said, "would never have been elected to the United States Senate if not for his participation in the first round of Air America."

Hartmann praised Air America for challenging the notion that only conservatives could work on talk radio.

"In spite of the lack of funding, and the series of incompetent managers," he said, "they were the first to really come along and do that successfully. There are a bunch of us who are making money, and who are on a lot of stations."

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