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Two years down the road, liberal network still struggles to establish itself

Lisa Simmons and her bumper sticker
Lisa Simmons and her bumper sticker (Photo By Jana Birchum)

There is an "F the President" bumper sticker on the rear window of Lisa Simmons' aging BMW. She's a single mother, a divorced transplant from Los Angeles. Her hair, sometimes streaked with blue, is dark brown today. On her jacket lapel – "Armani," she notes – she sports a wide white-and-blue Air America button, which she wears always, everywhere.

Simmons is on her way to meet a client, but she pauses for a moment to express her outrage that her mother voted for Bush. "People like my mother are the reason I believe in my job," she says. "It's like they have Fox News plugged into their head."

Simmons is the primary local advertising rep for Air America Radio, the progressive talk format carried by KOKE-AM (1600). The job is selling "spots," radio ad time, but she often talks like a missionary offering salvation to the condemned. Around the office they call her "Miss Air America." "I feel like I'm making a contribution to things I believe in," she says, sounding nothing like the typical radio ad sales geek. "I could never go back to normal radio."

KOKE picked up Air America a year ago – March 14, 2005 – joining the hodgepodge of stations around the country carrying the attempt to counterattack Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the other icons of conservative talk. Thus far, it's been a year of mediocre ratings, technical problems, and continued rumors that the national network is about to crater. KOKE still doesn't have an active Web site. But none of it dampens Simmons' zeal.

"I feel like it is my duty to help make the station successful," Simmons says, guiding the BMW onto MoPac. "It's the only station that matters. It's important."

Good Enough

When Al Franken was working on his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, he came across a study that said 21% of Americans get the majority of their news from talk radio. "That's what this is all about," he says on the phone from Air America's New York studio. "It's about getting a foothold in talk radio so we can push back."

Air America often takes on the aura of a crusade. On-air promotions describe the network as a battle for "truth and justice." Devoted fans flock to events and often grow emotional describing the world before Air America. "Some people tell me they feel less alone," says Franken, the former Saturday Night Live stalwart.

As a commercial-radio enterprise, however, it's been a bumpy ride. The first six months, as chronicled in the film documentary Left of the Dial, was a mix of true-believer fervor and amateurish screwups. The network has grown to 88 affiliates, up from 50 a year ago, but it has been a stuttering, burping, two-steps-forward, one-step-back momentum. This month the network lost its affiliate in Phoenix when the station was sold and the new owner promptly switched to religious programming. A few days ago the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post floated a rumor that Air America was about to lose the lease on its New York station, forcing Air America to issue a statement assuring listeners that the format would stay on the air in the country's most important radio market. "Air America Radio is much stronger today that it was one year ago or six months ago," CEO Danny Goldberg wrote in a memo to affiliates, "and is on track to be stronger still in the coming year and years."

Overall, the network is still relatively puny compared to the world of conservative talk-radio. Limbaugh, for example, is carried by 600 stations. In many cities, Air America is on stations with weak signals, literally overpowered by the entrenched giants. "Think of it as a shopping mall and their station is the little store in the back next to where you get your nails done," says Tom Taylor of Inside Radio, an industry newsletter.

But there are pockets of solid, if not spectacular, success. In Portland and San Diego, Air America has established itself as a viable part of the radio dial. In many markets, including New York, Franken and Randi Rhodes often beat their conservative counterparts head-to-head among listeners 25 to 54 years old, an advertiser's key demographic. "Frankly, the fact that they are in so many major markets is a huge accomplishment," says industry consultant Robert Unmacht.

Talk radio is a notoriously difficult format to establish. "You don't just turn them on and have success like you would with a music format," Unmacht says. Conversely, once talk formats are established, the audiences tend to be rabidly loyal. "Look at how hard it is to unseat Rush or Hannity today," Unmacht says.

Considering the shaky start and the oft-expressed attitude that "liberals just ain't good talk radio," the network's survival is seen as a major achievement. "They certainly have outlasted the naysayers," says Sean Ross of Edison Media Research. "I'm sure a lot of people didn't expect Al to be on the radio after two years."

In fact, Franken originally signed for only a year. "I didn't know whether I would like it and I didn't know whether I would be any good at it," he says. Turns out, as his character Stuart Smalley would say, he's good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like him. He is still the network's biggest star, finding a balance between serious discourse on Social Security payout charts and comedy bits. "Cheney shoots a guy, you're going to do comedy," he says.

Instead of burning out, Franken demonstrates boundless energy for his role, keeping up a blinding schedule of appearances and benefits. He seems energized by the constant barrage of assaults from conservative media, who have turned the name "Al Franken" from an SNL punch line into a political slur. "It just means they're scared," Franken says, with only a slight chuckle.

Big Plans

On a recent Sunday afternoon the engineers of Border Media Partners – owners of KOKE, the local Air America affiliate – were moving the company's seven local radio stations into new offices on Capital of Texas Highway. Wires, packing material, and piles of duct tape were strewn across the floor. All wood paneling and Hill Country views, the offices are a sharp contrast to the peeling paint and strange stains of their old South Austin offices, which offered stunning views of I-35. "We're about six months behind getting in here," says Bob Proud, BMP's vice-president of operations, leading a visitor through the clutter.

Houston-based BMP, which owns 35 stations in six Texas markets, inherited the aging South Austin offices two years ago when they bought the local operations of Amigo Broadcasting and Garcia Communications. A specialist in Spanish-language stations, BMP has been busy in the last year reshaping Austin's Hispanic radio dial. It scored a major hit converting 98.9 to "La Ley," a regional Mexican format. It also brought in a new transmitter and launched KXXS as "Digital 104.9," a contemporary hits format attracting young Hispanic listeners.

But little time, money, or effort has been spent on Air America, the stepchild of BMP's Austin lineup. "Regrettably, Air America still falls on the to-do list," Proud says. Behind the scenes, in the last year an operations manager came and went, and the station was beset with a long run of technical problems. The signal was scratchy and distant, even in Central Austin. A strange recurring metallic sound could be heard on Franken's show, and, even worse, the most unforgivable sin for a station, occasional blots of dead air. Last Thursday the station repeatedly ran commercials for a show that had already aired the day before. "Technically the performance, I believe, has been atrocious in the last year," Proud admits. "It's been a virtual comedy of errors."

KOKE management has made only one major move with Air America and it immediately backfired. Last fall they decided to drop Randi Rhodes, one of Air America's few real stars, in favor of a syndicated show hosted by Ed Schultz. A self-proclaimed meat-eatin', gun-totin' liberal who sounds eerily like Limbaugh's tree-hugging twin, Schultz is considered more of a "heartland" voice than Rhodes, who sounds like she's broadcasting from a New York deli. "There is very much an East Coast perspective to much of the content" on Air America, Proud says. Schultz gives the station "a little more variety to the tone in the course of the day."

Austin Air America's Pedro Gasc
Austin Air America's Pedro Gasc (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Reaction was swift. Rhodes' fans were outraged. The station got hundreds of calls and e-mails. A few weeks later they decided to put Rhodes back on the air, although tape-delayed at 5pm. (Essentially, the station shifts the entire afternoon Air America lineup back three hours, which means none of those shows are live and Austin listeners can't call in.)

At the very least, station management learned a little something about Air America listeners from the Rhodes incident. "We have some very passionate people listening to Air America," Proud says. Passionate or not, according to the Arbitron ratings, there are not that many of them actually listening. After cresting at a 1.3 share of the 18-and-older listening audience last spring, it slumped to a 0.8 in the summer and sputtered to a 1.0 in the fall, the latest available rating book. But the ratings study also shows that the total number of listeners more than doubled in the last year, Proud says – and those listeners tend to spend far more time listening than typical radio listeners. But no matter how you look at it, Air America is not exactly burning up the Austin airwaves. Instead of ads, public service announcements fill a lot of time, and weekend airtime is sold to syndicated shows to help make the station economically viable.

Ordinarily, Austin radio employees would be starting office pools trying to guess when Air America would get dumped. But it is one of the twists of Air America – one of the elements that make it different from "normal radio" – that no one doubts for a second that BMP will stick with the format. That's because BMP president Tom Castro was national deputy finance chairman of John Kerry's presidential campaign, and former Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez is a major investor in the company. To BMP, broadcasting Air America is about more than dollars and cents, although Proud insists they are not simply playing politics. "It's not just that we like it," he says. "We like it, and it makes good business sense."

Despite its primarily Spanish-language focus, BMP installed progressive talk formats on three of its Texas signals, creating a Texas Progressive Radio Network including KOKE, KTXX in San Antonio, and KXEB in Dallas. In Dallas, where Proud is based, Air America is a priority, and the station is an active player in the community, supporting events and working closely with local civic organizations.

In Austin, Border Media is finally getting ready to give Air America some attention, Proud says. It recently installed a new transmitter for KOKE and the new building includes a studio designated for Air America, although it's not quite clear how it will be used. The station plans to gradually produce "featurettes" and local elements, Proud says, giving the Air America more of a local identity.

But there are no plans, at this point, to produce a local morning show. There have been light discussions with the likes of Molly Ivins – perhaps putting a show on all three Texas stations – but nothing concrete has developed, Proud says. The station is contractually obligated to carry the bulk of Air America's programming, making it difficult to maneuver, especially now that it is already bumping Rhodes' show.

Air America's lineup of ranters is the subject of much debate within the industry. Other than Franken and Rhodes, the network has been unable to develop a real star. Jaws dropped last year when AA chose, of all the liberals who can talk without stuttering, Jerry Springer, icon of TV sleaze, to host a morning show. But Proud says he'll stick with the network. "The on-air product continues to strengthen," he says. "We are very satisfied with the product they give us."

Paid Airtime

"Your country is dead." It's Friday night, and Air America stalwart Mike Malloy is on the air and on a roll. "You now live in a country that is operating under the practices of fascism," he says, just warming up. The topic is the Senate's vote that day to renew the PATRIOT Act. Democrats who voted for the act can "go to hell," he tells the audience, sounding like he's about to pop a vein. And he's not letting Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist off the hook, just because he's a doctor. "Mengele was a doctor, too," Malloy says.

Considering Malloy's willingness to label Democrats "fascists," right along with Republicans, this is what passes for balance in the realm of talk radio. There was reason to hope that Air America would raise the level of public dialogue, perhaps providing a smart and funny contrast to the bombast of the right. Instead, critics charge that Air America simply developed as the anti-Rush – equally shrill, equally closed-minded, spewing the same type of vitriol, except from the perspective of the knee-jerk left. "It may have been true in the beginning, but it's not true now," says Gary Krantz, president of Air America. "If you listen to many of the callers ... there is a healthy amount of opposing views."

Franken is diplomatic when talking about his peers, but it's clear where he stands. "Nobody has to talk like Noël Coward," he says, but he wishes there was a slightly higher tone to the ranting dialogue. "I think it does a disservice to everybody," he says. He wanted to hire Robert Reich or National Public Radio mainstay Ray Suarez for the network.

But talk radio is a forum that undeniably rewards ranting demigods and punishes intellectual discourse. "The majority of talk listeners respond to black-and-white more than the subtle shades of gray," Proud says. Perhaps that's why liberals have never been good at the talk radio game. "Liberals are raised by Mom, who said, 'Don't make fun of other people,'" says Taylor of Inside Radio. Maybe the Air America hosts are simply overcompensating, tired of all the cracks that liberals are wimps.

Either way, the Air America hosts often seem to be "preaching to the choir," their stances as predictable as any Limbaugh or Hannity or Bill O'Reilly diatribe. Unanswered at this point is whether or not the choir is big enough to make the network commercially viable. "We don't know," Taylor says, "because the choir never had a church to go to before."

Putting a chunk of prime airtime in the hands of Springer, who also lists "disgraced politician" on his résumé, may have shocked some Air America supporters, but to Krantz he was a natural. Not only is Springer a recognizable and appealing figure to advertisers, he is popular with African-Americans and an icon among watchers of daytime TV, a potentially viable audience for any radio network. "He brings a certain Q-factor [familiarity] that is very different than Franken's," Krantz says.

A good chunk of Air America's natural constituency – young people looking for smart banter – simply doesn't give a rat's ass about radio. In the recent ratings period, Air America in Austin didn't record any significant listeners under 25. It might be a ratings anomaly, or maybe young liberals are simply listening to music, satellite radio, and podcasts.

Faced with a general malaise in radio advertising, Air America is trying to develop new revenue streams. Last fall it launched an "Associates" program, offering listeners a chance to pledge their support with a check in exchange for a tote bag or bumper stickers, similar to a public broadcasting membership effort. A new syndication service started last year focuses on marketing shows to nonaffiliates. And in January, the network added a premium service, offering access to show archives, podcasts, and other perks – many of which were free in the past – for anywhere from $1.99 a day to $49.95 for a year.

And despite the constant prophecies of impending doom from O'Reilly and his ilk, Krantz insists Air America is on solid financial ground. By March 1 the network had already booked 86% of the ad revenue it took in during all of 2005, Krantz says. New national advertisers include Ford and Bose. The goal is to grow to 140 affiliates by the end of 2006. "Our business plan takes us to cash-flow positive by the end of the year and profitable by the first quarter of next year," he says.

Even if it doesn't hit that target, it's unlikely the network's supporters would let it die. Billionaire Internet entrepreneur Rob Glaser is the chairman of the board, and the network enjoys the support of frustrated Democrats around the country. (Despite O'Reilly's smirking assertion that financier George Soros is bankrolling the operation, Soros does not sit on the board and only made one donation at the outset, which was "nothing close to seven figures," Krantz says.)

But many questions remain, lingering, fueling pundits and bloggers. Survival is one thing, but can it be relevant? And what happens if Franken goes off to run for the Senate in Minnesota, which he has often considered? And if syndicates are going to offer successful talkers like Schultz and Stephanie Miller, why will stations need Air America? "I think they've proven liberal talk can work," Unmacht says. "Whether they will be the model or not, I don't know."

The Good Fight

Lisa Simmons walks into a furniture store and hails the staff, squeals at a cat, and hugs Missey Morgan, the business' owner. Morgan started advertising her Urban Living store on KOKE when it first switched to Air America, even though she hadn't bought time on radio in 16 years. "It was not about advertising, it was about supporting an alternative," Morgan says. "I really wanted to show that Austin would support them."

Simmons doesn't get many like Morgan. More often she finds skeptics and closet O'Reilly fans. They mock her, citing the latest predictions of Air America's imminent doom. "Every day that's the stuff I have to fight," she says, growing angry. "I go in and they say they won't advertise because they heard on Bill O'Reilly last night that Air America wasn't going to be around."

She doesn't want to turn sales calls into political pitches. She'd rather talk about time spent listening and the devotions of fans. But with Air America there is often little difference between politics and ad sales. Driving down the road, she ponders for a moment what job she'd be doing if she weren't hawking ads for the station. Maybe a lobbyist, she says. "I have to have a job I can be proud of and believe in," Simmons says. "And I love it that everyone calls me Miss Air America." end story

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talk radio, Air America, Lisa Simmons, Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, KOKE-AM, Left of the Dial, Danny Goldberg, Tom Taylor, Robert Unmacht, Sean Ross, Stuart Smalley, Dick Cheney, Border Media Partners, Bob Proud, Amigo Broadcasting

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