Liberals Tune in Radio

We're going to put it to Bush. Bush is going down in November. We are putting it to right-wing media." With that, satirist Al Franken and the backers of Air America Radio proclaimed the March 31 launch of their planned "progressive" antidote to conservative talk radio.

The radio network has lined up four of the top five markets—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—on satellite radio and TV (audio channel). It expects to have more station clearances at launch. It will also be streamed and archived on the Web. Not surprisingly, the network will lean toward comedy and social satire but will also include commentary and some news.

Network executives say they have raised tens of millions of dollars and are in negotiations to buy stations in Boston and Philadelphia to help grow the network, which had the working title Central Air.

Throwing down the gauntlet to his conservative counterparts, Evan Cohen, chairman of Air America parent Progress Media, says the business plan "allows us to operate in the red for years, not months. But we do have the company turning profitable in a horizon that is appealing to current shareholders." Those shareholders are all individuals and include Cohen, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser, and former media executive Norman Wain.

Look for Air America Radio to strike a deal for satellite radio carriage on either Sirius or XM and for satellite audio carriage on either EchoStar or DirecTV, according to Air America executives.

Going up against Rush Limbaugh in the noon-3 slot will be Franken's The O'Franken Factor. That's a shot at Fox's Bill O'Reilly, who protested the publication of Franken's book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Franken says he "will be baiting Bill O'Reilly as often as possible." Other Air America shows will include an 8-11 p.m. stint by comedian/activist Janeane Garofolo and program offerings from hip-hopper Chuck D, humorist Sam Seder, and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

"I've been going to the red states and the blue states, and people are not happy with this administration," says Franken. "The right wing has captured talk radio, and we are going after them and going after them hard."

Sticking with the red-and-blue theme, Air America executives say it is the first time a radio network has launched with stations in all top three markets since back in the days of the NBC Red and Blue networks of the 1930s.

At launch, the stations are WLIB(AM) New York, WNTD(AM) Chicago, and KBLA(AM) Los Angeles, with a station in San Francisco to be named later. That represents about 20% of the country. The network is leasing time in Chicago and L.A. In New York, it is partnering with parent Inner City Broadcasting.

Air America is targeting the 25-54 demo but expects to skew to the younger end. "We believe we appeal to the more disaffected in our society, who have found some of the debate off-putting," says CEO Mark Walsh. "We want to reengage those listeners."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.