Dial left for liberal
Surprised by Air America’s success? Corporate America loves the lefty product.
Its conservative critics claim it’s shooting air balls, but it’s beginning to look like Air America Radio is hitting nothing but net. After a shaky start two years ago, the fledgling liberal talk-radio network has now expanded to 88 cities nationwide, including Sacramento, where it airs daily on KCTC 1320 AM. After more than a decade of suffering through abrasive right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, liberals finally have a team to root for—and a network to tune in to, which listeners in Sacramento and across the country appear to be doing with increasing regularity, according to network insiders.
“We have experienced enormous growth from one year ago,” said Air America President Gary Krantz via telephone from the network’s New York City headquarters. In just the first two months of 2006, Krantz says, the network has already booked 85 percent of the revenue it made for all of last year. Swish! The number of nationwide affiliates has more than doubled from 36 to 88. Swish! Its audience has enjoyed a similar increase, from 1.5 million listeners per week to 3.3 million listeners per week. Swish!
Not that the network threatens to topple Limbaugh, the Shaquille O’Neal of political talk radio, with more listeners daily than Air America claims in a week, anytime soon. Nevertheless, the results so far have been encouraging. “Overall, the progressive format is up; our network is up,” Krantz said.
For Air America, it’s been a sharp turnaround from a bumpy start that included a multimillion-dollar deception by two of its original financial backers as well as a flawed business model two years ago. The network has done what not too long ago was considered improbable, if not impossible: carve a sizable niche out of a market dominated by white, male conservatives.
“We really don’t see our audience coming from conservative radio,” Krantz said. “They are people who really didn’t hear this kind of content on the radio.”
Unquestionably, they like what they hear. The network’s national success is being duplicated locally, according to John Geary, a vice president for Entercom, the broadcasting chain that owns KCTC and several other local stations. Geary supervises Entercom’s Sacramento operations and likes what he’s been seeing since KCTC partnered with Air America last November.
“We’re in the black; we’re clearly ahead of our plan,” Geary said. Air America’s original business model required affiliates to take most or all of the network’s programming “off the bird.” Hosts such as Al Franken and Randi Rhodes have demonstrated widespread national appeal—even besting conservative competitors like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity in some markets—but talk radio is still a local animal. “Franken and Rhodes are popular here, and we want to build our morning and afternoon drives around them,” Geary explained. “But our focus is to make this a locally originated format.”
To that end, in January KCTC hired host Enid Goldstein, who’s no stranger to Sacramento, having served successful stints at KFBK and KSTE in the 1990s. For Goldstein, who follows Rhodes in the 4-7 p.m. time slot and describes her welcome back to Sacramento as warm, liberal talk radio’s continued financial success is a slam dunk.
“From a business standpoint, if everybody’s conservative, why give the market something it already has?” she asked. “There’s 50 million conservative shows, so why would you put on another one?”
Goldstein understands what Fox News curmudgeon Bill O’Reilly and a host of Air America’s conservative detractors do not: Liberal talk-radio listeners represent an untapped market, perhaps a vast one. O’Reilly has run dozens of segments questioning Air America’s survival, and the network is a favorite target of conservative bloggers. It may come as a surprise to them—and more than a few liberals—that one of Air America’s biggest supporters is Clear Channel, the giant national radio chain often criticized (especially by progressives) for its alleged predatory business practices.
“It shouldn’t be surprising at all,” Krantz said. “Clear Channel was part of the birth of Air America.” The chain helped establish original Air America affiliates in Portland and Miami and continues to partner with the network. Besides KCTC in Sacramento, Entercom operates Air America affiliates in Memphis and in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. “The formula for looking at affiliation is really rather simple,” Krantz added. “If the city has a state capital, a university and an NPR station, it’s a good city for an Air America station.”
The industry myth that corporate advertisers won’t support liberal programming seems to be going by the wayside as well. The network counts Ford, Subaru, AT&T, Oreck, Bose, HBO, NBC, A&E and 7-Eleven among its major national clients. It also provides an outlet for organizations that haven’t traditionally advertised on mainstream networks, such as People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Employees International Union. The list of advertisers continues to grow, as does the number of affiliates.
The network hasn’t hit all of its jump shots. Air America began with a major clang off the rim two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported, when it was discovered that former owners Evan Cohen and Rex Sorensen told prospective investors they had raised more than $30 million for the project when in fact they had raised only $6 million. Cohen and Sorensen eventually were asked to resign by Air America’s executives and investors, and the network has since righted its financial vessel.
Air America got off to a similar rough start in Sacramento, when the local affiliate jumped ship from Talk City 1240 AM (KSAC), one of the last independently owned local stations, to Entercom-owned KCTC last November. The transition temporarily left listeners in the lurch, searching in vain for Franken, Rhodes and Mike Malloy on the dial. KCTC station manager Charley Weiss says the move was necessary to take advantage of the new station’s stronger signal and the economies of scale available through Entercom’s marketing department.
According to local press reports, KSAC general manager Paula Nelson-Redfield was less than thrilled with Air America’s move. Still, Talk City has retained the progressive format, and Sacramento listeners now enjoy the luxury of two liberal talk-radio stations competing head to head. Thom Hartmann vs. Al Franken in the nine-to-noon slot. Ed Schultz vs. Randi Rhodes in the afternoon. Enid Goldstein vs. her good friend Christine Craft during the afternoon drive. The brisk competition, and the realities of re-launching Air America on KCTC, have kept Weiss busy.
“There’s a new challenge every day; it really gets your juices flowing,” said Weiss, who formerly worked at the Sacramento Theatre Company and Capital Public Radio. Since November, he’s added Goldstein’s show, networked with local Democrats and progressives, and “worked to make sure everybody who supports the station has a voice.” He’s preparing to re-launch the station’s Web site as well as debut a new morning show—Morning Retort, featuring local hosts Andy Sims and Scott Forrington—in the 5-9 a.m. slot before Franken. He’s also found time to record his own three-minute “Moment of Truth” spots, featuring short interviews with politicians such as Barbara Boxer and Jackie Speier as well as members of the local arts community. “I think local programming is the key to making this work,” Weiss said. “We’re a lot further along than we were in November.”
So far, KCTC hasn’t been threatened with the fate that befell Air America affiliates in Missoula, Mont., and Phoenix, which recently shut down in part because of conservative backlash. Although the format was popular with Montana listeners, local advertisers refused to support it. In Phoenix, where Air America also was drawing listeners, a Christian broadcasting company purchased the station and planned to convert it to a conservative religious format. Krantz expects Air America to have a new station up and running in Phoenix by April.
Ironically, Weiss welcomes attacks from conservatives. In the long run, it’s good for business. “If you really want to get the phones lit up, have a conservative call in,” he said. “Then everybody wants to respond.”
Goldstein likewise enjoys sparring with right-leaning callers. After more than a decade of conservative domination, she’s optimistic that talk radio may be approaching a turning point. “I think it has had a large effect in turning the country conservative the last two elections,” she said, noting the medium’s political power. Can it be turned left? “I do think it’s possible. If Kerry had taken Ohio … even with all their power, even with a sitting president, it was very close.”
How soon the broadcasting battle will be truly joined remains to be seen. Nationally, Air America continues to grow at what Krantz terms an exponential rate. KCTC’s first quarterly Arbitron ratings won’t be out until early April, but the consensus among station insiders is that it has maintained its audience share, no mean feat in light of the format switch. Though the initial ratings may pose no immediate threat to powerhouse local conservative talk station KFBK, the liberals have taken the court, and they’ve got their game on. May the best team win.