Liberals may have to look beyond radio

Air America Radio hit the airwaves in spring 2004 with great fanfare.

Air America Radio hit the airwaves in spring 2004 with great fanfare.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was in a tight race with George W. Bush, and the liberal wing of the party was more energized than ever - and Air America aimed to ride that enthusiasm into the big leagues of the radio broadcasting market.

Two and a half years later, the limping radio network has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its investors reportedly said enough was enough after three straight years of multimillion-dollar losses, including a deficit of more than $13 million this year. The station is continuing to broadcast as it seeks more funding, but any large investment seems unlikely, barring a radical change in its business model. Air America Radio, at least in its first incarnation, must be viewed as a failed experiment.

Of course, media properties falter all the time. There's nothing especially noteworthy about that. The bigger question, the one that everyone who touted the network as the answer to the right-wing domination of talk radio must be asking themselves now, is whether the company's losses signal that the imagined market for liberal talk radio simply does not exist.

The answer to that question is worth millions. Activists, investors, and communicators who play in the ideological spectrum must decide if their limited resources could be better spent elsewhere. That move would effectively cede the talk radio medium to conservatives, but investments elsewhere - the blogosphere, for example - could potentially make up for the loss of Air America. The network reports that it reached 2.4 million listeners per week, a number that could be overtaken by a few popular Web sites at far less expense.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that it's time to write the company off as a failed experiment. Air America has not been particularly well-managed as a business over its short history and has ousted several members of its management in the midst of financial crises. Oddly, the network's weak performance may be liberal talk radio's saving grace because it is easy to pin the problem on bad management rather than on an inherent lack of a market.

"I really think that there is a market for liberal talk; it is just a young format," says Marc Maron, a former Air America host, via e-mail. Maron pins the blame instead on recently departed CEO Danny Goldberg, whom he accuses of "extreme mismanagement and recklessness."

A representative for Air America did not respond to messages seeking comment by press time.

For public affairs professionals, sentiments on the future of the network are mixed. Those with liberal clients could certainly consider it a huge loss, but only if it is a viable enough business to provide a broad reach into the electorate.

"Air America answered the need for more diverse voices in talk radio - a need that remains," says Bill Wasserman, president of liberal-oriented DC firm M&R Strategic Services, via e-mail. "At a time when six conglomerates own roughly 90% of the media outlets, [it's] no surprise that new, independent voices struggle to compete with the corporate media."

Others, though, are less sanguine. "The country could use a significant radio outlet for a free exchange of political opinions, but this wasn't it," says DC veteran Wes Pedersen, who heads Wes Pedersen Communications. "A number of liberals will complain, but they have little right to, for they have stinted in their support of this media outlet that has stood up in support of their beliefs."

Ultimately, the decline of Air America may not be a significant blow. Sinking millions into talk radio in the Internet age is like building a home for a dinosaur you hope will come wandering into your backyard.

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