Talk Radio Turns Blue

Leading with Al Franken, Air America lands in Austin

Al Franken at the State Theater
Al Franken at the State Theater (Photo By Jana Birchum)

At 6:30am Monday, people started lining up outside the State Theater. Ranging from college students to seniors, they sat quietly, intent on getting a good seat to that day's live broadcast of Al Franken's radio show on the Air America network – the local debut for the company trying to bring liberal voices to AM talk radio. "We're welcoming a new voice in Austin," said Lora Wataha, 51, who wore a button that said, "Question Authority."

Nearby, Amy Everhart, 29, sat cross-legged, her computer open on her lap. She was first in line, along with her friend Ian Davis, 26. "We've been listening to Air America since it first started," Everhart said. They used the Internet to tune in, helping to make Air America one of the top streamed sites on the Web. Now the network will be aired locally on KOKE-AM (1600), only the second Texas affiliate to pick up the fledgling company. "It's good to have a blue voice in a red state," Everhart said.

While not quite yet an official phenomenon – despite the early lines, the State Theater was only two-thirds full for Franken's show – Air America clearly represents something more than another attempt at talk radio. On March 31 the network will celebrate its first anniversary, defying the many skeptics who had predicted a quick failure. With the addition of Austin, Air America can now be heard on 50 stations around the country. Although still in its infancy, it has managed to make a ratings splash in some cities, including Portland and San Diego. "They have certainly put legitimate success stories on the map," said Sean Ross, who covers the radio industry for Edison Media Research. "They've gotten past the growing pains."

Yet, in many ways, it's still the upstart, throwing spit balls at the giants of Rush and Hannity. Fifty stations is a fraction compared to Limbaugh's almost 600 stations (31 in Texas alone). In San Francisco, a seemingly natural market where Air America's audience grew steadily over the past year, it is still only a third the size of the audience for traditional talk giant KGO, a pattern repeated elsewhere. But Air America continues to add new stations, including one in Dallas on Monday, giving it a strong base in the Top 10 markets for the first time.

More than anything, Air America's survival and continued growth flips the bird to the general perception within the radio industry that a liberal talk format simply won't work. For one, there was the oft-repeated belief that liberal politicos are not funny, or that they "don't make good radio." Beyond personalities, conservative radio instantly delivers an advertising base eager to reach a righteous, free-spending, generally gullible listenership. No one wants to advertise to reach an audience of egghead weenies – or so the theory goes.

"We know how to sell news talk radio," said Tom Castro, president of Border Media Partners, the Houston-based company that owns KOKE. Although it primarily focuses on Hispanic listeners, Border launched a conservative talk format in the liberal Rio Grande Valley, he noted. "We sold conservative guys in the Valley," Castro said. "We can certainly find a way to pay bills with a progressive station in Austin."

Air America officials like to note that the format has been able to attract a significant audience of 25- to 54-year-old men in markets like San Diego, the heart of Reagan Country. In several markets, the format has been picked up by Clear Channel Communications, the San Antonio company run by devoted George W. Bush supporters, a sure sign that Air America has been turning into a viable business option.

When it comes to the red state/blue state line, advertisers "understand green," Castro said. In Austin, Air America can deliver "affluent listeners," he said. For Castro, the decision to bring in Air America was based on sound counter-programming strategies. "There is a lot of right-wing radio here," he said. "Rush is here, Hannity is here. O'Reilly is here. But there was no commercial progressive station here."

Yet, there is clearly more involved for BMP and Castro, who served as one of John Kerry's key national fundraisers. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez is a key investor in the company. "We are here to service progressive listeners," Castro said.

Castro says KOKE will look to develop local programming, not simply air the national network show. In addition to suggesting KOKE would be a new player on the local news and information scene, he was also making it clear that the progressive talk format will not necessarily live or die solely on the success of Air America's shows.

Sing Me a Tax Bill

It is still early for the network, but other than afternoon hosts Randi Rhodes and Janeane Garofalo, who came out of comedy and film, few of the Air America shows have managed to attract much attention.

Franken is still the star, the biggest draw. Al Franken is, after all ... Al Franken. Of the radio talk-show ilk, he is the only one who can trace his roots to classic Saturday Night Live routines. On any given day, more than a million listeners are tuning in, not counting the untracked Internet listeners. Most importantly for the advertisers, his audience in the key 25-54 demographic grew by 45% from the spring to fall ratings periods in 2004.

Without Franken's ability to sound "comfortable" and attract an audience, Air America's rollout "might be a different story," Ross said. It's Franken who is making it "viable radio," he said.

If nothing else, Franken is certainly the only radio talk show host who occasionally introduces politicos by crooning a song about "right-wing dishonesty." The three-hour show often seems more like an Old Time Radio Hour than a modern political bitch forum. Franken's first show in Austin included a skit on the "Quid Pro Quo PAC," with Franken portraying a fictional but vaguely familiar Texas lobbyist.

"Al has always been a fan of [legendary radio duo] Bob and Ray," said his executive producer Billy Kimball, who once produced The Late, Late Show and worked with Franken on Comedy Central's groundbreaking political coverage in 1992. "The challenge is to keep it fresh and entertaining when you're dealing with something that can be dense." Typical shows will spend long sessions on such issues as tax legislation and Social Security. "For lack of a better word, there are sexier issues," Kimball said.

A Dose of Sanity

Sitting in the empty State before the start of the show, Franken insisted the program would never slip into the world of car chases and Michael Jackson's pajamas. "In telling the truth, sometimes you have to try to treat the audience like adults," he said.

During the Austin show, Franken, dressed in his familiar jeans, sneakers, and sport coat, sat behind a table with co-host Katherine Lanpher. With nobody prompting him and no flashing screen feeding him lines, he dryly bounced through the news of the day, slipping in lines about lawyers with "tassled loafers" and the possible impact of homicidal "nurse practitioners" on the unusually high rate of hospital deaths. "Let's go over the numbers, because there is nothing a radio audience loves more than good hard numbers," Franken said.

Franken says Jon Stewart had a valid point when he decried the culture of "partisan hackery" that permeates many political shows, the predictable diatribes of screamers who seem to be simply playing their roles. He realizes there is a trap in being perceived as simply the counterpoint network. "We're not a mirror image of Rush Limbaugh," Franken said. "He lies. He says offensive stuff." He noted that a few days earlier he lambasted Democrats for supporting a banker-friendly bankruptcy bill. "We like to preach to the unconverted," Franken said.

For Air America and its future success, there is always the concern that the show is simply preaching to the choir. During Franken's program, the audience booed and hissed at the mention of Texas Republican scoundrels, like the audience for The Rocky Horror Picture Show throwing toast at the screen. It's part of the Air America experience, shrugs Franken. "Blue listeners are just grateful to hear something that doesn't drive them crazy." end story

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talk radio, Al Franken, Air America, Sean Ross, Edison Media Research, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Castro, Border Media Partners, KOKE-AM, Billy Kimball, Katherine Lanpher

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