Air America banks on buzz to get message across

To help build awareness and credibility for its liberal radio network in a sea of conservative ones, Air America and DKC implemented a strategy that included big doses of PR early on.

To help build awareness and credibility for its liberal radio network in a sea of conservative ones, Air America and DKC implemented a strategy that included big doses of PR early on.

Starting a new business is difficult at any time. But when that business is a radio network with a definitive liberal slant, and it launches during a Republican presidency and heated election season, it creates a very interesting challenge.

Air America officially took to the airwaves on March 30, 2004, positioned as an alternative and anecdote to conservative talk radio. But the PR efforts had been going on for months before then. The company has no in-house PR team, so it hired Dan Klores Communications (DKC) to organize PR efforts almost a full year before Air America launched, explains Matthew Traub, GM and chief of staff at DKC. At that point, PR was the main vehicle to get the word out, as Air America ran only a few print and billboard ads.

PR remains the company's primary method of spreading its message, says Jon Sinton, president of Air America. And although assembling an in-house PR team is planned for the future, DKC currently takes the lead on the network's PR efforts.

"In our moments of lull, they are really good at picking a direction and pushing us along that path," Sinton says. "In our crazier moments, when everybody wants access to us, they've been awfully good at [finding] a fair way to keep people from getting angry and still getting our message out there."

And PR certainly has been the most effective way for Air America to get out its message. In fact, it accounts for almost the entire marketing budget.

"We frankly have not had a big ad budget," Sinton says. "Our ability to make news ... has been critical to our creating some degree of top-of-mind awareness among our audience and potential audience."

While some might consider Air America's message to be controversial, one thing that most people agree on is the amount of publicity the network has received.

PR has been the company's most shining achievement, says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine.

"Students in PR and marketing should look back at this chapter of history as something to learn from," he adds. "It defies the law of physics."

The Franken factor

The amount of press and publicity the unveiling of the company received was significant for a radio-station launch, Harrison adds. But he attributes the visibility of the company and apparent success of PR efforts to the company's most famous employee.

"It's a testament to the magic of Al Franken," he says, adding that Franken's current role in popular culture and politics makes him a huge selling point. "Had Franken not been the key figure in the whole Air America story and history, it might have not turned out this way."

Indeed, it is difficult to think of Air America without Franken coming to mind. At the height of publicity for the launch of Air America, the comedian and author was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Today, Good Morning America, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among others.

But such a close connection created challenges for Air America to set up an identity separate of Franken. Traub acknowledges that Franken did play a big part in the attention given to Air America before and immediately following its launch.

"Al Franken was critical to the success of the network and happened to be the best-known host of the network," he says. "As a result, he garnered the most ink, which was beneficial."

The danger in having Franken be such an integral part of the network's identity is that some view him as a "bombastic, far-left, out-of-the-mainstream hack," says Michael Saffran, a radio industry veteran who writes the On the Radio column for Business Strategies Magazine.

But is it possible that the network could inherit the label of its star?

"Since Franken's is the most prominent public 'face' of Air America, I believe public perception of the network is likely the same - out of the mainstream," says Saffran.

However, Traub stresses that DKC does make use of the other hosts, including Randi Rhodes, Marc Maron, and Janeane Garofalo, in helping to publicize Air America.

"There has always been an effort to focus on the range of talent of Air America," Traub says. "It's important to raise the profile of all of the shows."

Much of Air America's awareness came from press coverage of the network and its impending launch. Before the launch, Sinton says, Air America employed a two-tiered approach. The first step was to make repeated business announcements about such events as raising funds, hiring executives, and securing affiliates, things that brought the idea of the network to life.

Next, DKC made a series of announcements about the talent that had been signed to the network, including Franken and Rhodes, a Florida radio personality. At the time, Franken was involved in a lawsuit with Fox News over using the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Rhodes, while not as visible as Franken, was familiar to liberals for her broadcasts during the presidential vote recount in Florida in 2000.

But even before Air America got off the ground, there were some hurdles to overcome.

"There is clearly some challenge in promoting a business with an ideological message. But the larger challenge has been convincing people of a revolutionary business," admits Sinton. "The larger challenge was not with the public, but with the pundits and industry who were so used to just conservative talk."

Introducing the idea of liberal talk radio as something that could succeed when others had failed proved to be a compelling challenge, Traub says.

"Much of the challenge was in trying to fashion a communications campaign in a way that made it clear that this was real and that this was happening," he says. "The David and Goliath notion of starting a fledgling network ... was definitely something that made it an interesting story."

A straightforward strategy

The astounding amount of press coverage and attention given to Air America continued through the launch. But soon after, the network ran into an obstacle when news of a financial crisis at the network hit the press. Investors ousted cofounder and chairman Evan Cohen and vice chairman Rex Sorensen after it was revealed that the network was in debt. During that time, Air America was forced to cease broadcasting in Chicago and Los Angeles, the second and third largest markets in the country. "It was a really unfortunate situation which, because of how well we had publicized the launch of the network, was an interesting story to people," Traub says.

Sinton says the strategy during that time was to "not sugarcoat anything," but to be as forthcoming as possible.

That idea translated into DKC's PR strategy. "As the facts were being explained to us, we needed to go out and explain them to reporters," Traub says. "We switched very quickly into crisis mode, but it was about being as forthright as possible and communicating as clearly as possible about what was going on."

The most important thing was that Air America stayed on the air in most markets during that time, Sinton adds. "The proof was always there - all you had to do was turn a radio on. That serves you better than any spin you can manufacture."

Air America eventually managed to survive that crisis and recently launched again in Los Angeles.

Sinton acknowledges that Air America will probably never make the conversion among conservatives, but he's confident that the network is being taken seriously.

"I think in this world you want a niche, and our niche is ideological," says Sinton. "We are what we are - we're unashamed, and we're proud, so it's not a problem for us."

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PR contacts

PR agency

Dan Klores Communications

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