Air America hits turbulence once again

September 27, 2006

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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Last modified Wednesday, September 27, 2006 11:21 AM PDT

Air America hits turbulence once again

By many accounts, the Air America liberal talk-show network ---- heard locally on "progressive talk" station KLSD ---- should be off the air by now.

Not because its hosts lean to the left, an unusual trait in the archconservative world of talk radio. No, Air America's problems lie with its prowess, not its politics. The people who run the network, it seems, just haven't been too swift.

And now, their lack of smarts ---- or luck ---- may be finally catching up with them.

Air America's financial state has been precarious since it unleashed Al Franken & Co. on listeners in 2004, and rumors are currently swirling that bankruptcy is the only way out. Earlier this month, comedian Franken disclosed that his paychecks had stopped coming.

"We do know that there have been cash-flow problems," he told Radar magazine's Web site. "I haven't been paid in a while. Like, there's no cash flowing to me."

Then came news reports confirming that Air America was laying off a few employees. On the air, Franken made a suspiciously nervous-sounding declaration that Air America had not gone bankrupt.

Meanwhile, the network reportedly needs to give back $875,000 to a New York City-area Boys & Girls Club. An executive at the club supposedly siphoned off the money to help Air America get off the ground.

There have been other problems. Comedian Janeane Garofalo left the network a few months ago, and show host Mike Malloy took a powder, too. And in New York City, the network has had to switch to a lower-powered station, potentially weakening its reach in a city full of lefties.

So what happens if Air America shuffles off its mortal coil? Will it take liberal talk radio with it?

Absolutely not, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, an industry journal.

"The number of liberal hosts is growing now that liberals are concerned that they donít have their representation on talk radio," he said. "What works best on talk radio are people who feel they're not being served."

In the past, he said, "liberals had nothing to rally behind because they were happy." Indeed, it was during the Clinton administration that right-wing talk radio took off, becoming a major force in American politics.

Still, nationally syndicated liberal hosts don't have anything like the ratings impact of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. That could be because liberals also spend a lot of time listening to public radio. Or, as some people allege, it might have something to do with the "fact" that liberals just don't have a sense of humor. As a result, according to these naysayers, liberal talk show hosts just aren't as entertaining as, say, Limbaugh is.

It's true that critics have rapped some of Air America's hosts ---- particularly Franken and Garafolo ---- for offering substandard talk radio. And it's no wonder, considering that they were accustomed to television, not radio.

"What we haven't had is some greatly entertaining liberal hosts," Harrison said. "But there's nothing inherent about liberalism that's unfunny."

On the bright side, Air America has had some successes. While its initial effort to lease entire radio stations was unwise, its managers have become smarter, said Nashville radio consultant Robert Unmacht.

"They got in without understanding the business and made very basic mistakes that others have made," he said. "But they got past that, and thatís the amazing part."

Air America affiliates are doing very well in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Unmacht said, while stations have also had success with liberal syndicated hosts such as Ed Schultz (heard here on KLSD) and Stephanie Miller.

Ultimately, Talkers Magazine's Harrison wishes the best for Air America.

"I think they've been very colorful," he said. "If nothing else, they've increased awareness of the excitement of talk radio and the entertainment value of talk radio. I hope they stick."

Locally, liberal talk radio seems to be doing fairly well, although it seems unlikely to ever become as popular as its conservative competitors that air the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Roger Hedgecock and Rick Roberts. According to the spring 2006 radio ratings, KLSD was the 20th most popular radio station in San Diego County. It attracted more listeners on average than well-known stations like 91X and KPRI, along with the struggling male-oriented talk station 103.7 Free FM. Still, conservative talk/news station KOGO had twice as many listeners, and right-wing talk station KFMB-AM had 50 percent more.

KLSD program director Cliff Albert said the station is committed to progressive talk, but he acknowledges there are challenges, especially getting advertisers such as banks, financial planners and car dealers to expand beyond conservative-leaning stations.

It turns out, he said, that liberals also make money. And they like to spend it too ---- a fact that should interest advertisers.

Halloween masks of Randy Dotinga are already on sale. E-mail him at


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