Changes at Air America

Viability of two-year-old liberal talk network under scrutiny

Like jackals smelling fresh meat, critics circled Air America Radio last week, drawn by rumors of an imminent bankruptcy filing. Liberal talk radio was dead, the conservative talk-show cabal announced. I told you it wouldn't work, the analysts smirked.

The bankruptcy filing didn't happen – hey, there's a surprise – but a round of layoffs and the announcement of a lineup overhaul did little to squelch speculation about the viability of the 2-year-old liberal talk network, heard locally on KOKE 1600AM. Reports of the network's cash-flow problems were no conservative conspiracy. "No cash has been flowing to me," host Al Franken told a reporter last week after he didn't receive his regular paycheck. "That's the first inkling I got of a cash-flow problem."

In an interview with the Chronicle last spring, Air America President Gary Krantz said, "Our business plan takes us to cash-flow positive by the end of the year and profitable by the first quarter of next year." Now he's gone, along with Janeane Garofalo, the actress who helped give the network its initial boost. The network's other big name – Jerry Springer – has been taken off the regular daily lineup and moved to AA's syndication service. (Sam Seder moves into the 8-11am slot, and a new show, The Young Turks, takes over early mornings.)

While Air America has apparently survived its latest financial scare – "If Air America had filed for bankruptcy every time someone rumored it to be doing so, we would have ceased to exist long ago," a station spokesperson said – the crisis has renewed grumbling that Air America might not be the best standard bearer for the battle against Limbaugh, Hannity, and the other conservatives. "It just gets old after a while," progressive talk-show host Ed Schultz told listeners last Friday during his syndicated program, carried locally on Air America affiliate KOKE. "It's getting to the point it's starting to hurt progressive radio."

Schultz and Stephanie Miller are among the progressive talk-show hosts building audiences around the country, even though they are not affiliated with Air America. KOKE delays Randi Rhodes' afternoon show to make room for Schultz but is contractually obligated to carry the bulk of Air America's programming. The contract is year-to-year and expires in April, according to Bob Proud, vice-president of operations for Border Media Partners, owner of KOKE.

Border Media carries Air America on stations in Dallas and San Antonio, in addition to KOKE, and has branded all three "Texas Progressive Radio." Proud says he supports Air America, but BMP is not wedded to the struggling network. "In the bigger picture, we expect [Air America] to continue," Proud said. "But if it were not to continue, we still have a commitment to progressive talk radio." He is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new lineup; the old lineup wasn't exactly sending up ratings skyrockets. "We're anxious to see what the response of the audience is," Proud said. "Ultimately, it's what listeners think."

But there is no doubt that supporters of progressive talk would prefer to see Air America get its act together. "They have in place the infrastructure and the best brand name in progressive radio," Proud said.

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Air America, KOKE 1600AM, Al Franken

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