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The Big Apple Snubs Air America By: Byron York
The Hill | Thursday, May 05, 2005

“This show is about...relentlessly hammering away at the Bush administration until they crack and crumble this November because, don’t get me wrong, friends, they are going down!”

So said Al Franken, the comedian-turned-radio host-turned-political prognosticator, opening his very first show on the liberal Air America radio network March 31, 2004.

Well, as it turned out, George W. Bush didn’t go down in November. But Air America’s ratings did.

The numbers are now in for Air America’s first year of broadcasting, and they aren’t good.

For one thing, the network is only on the air in about 50 of the nation’s 285 radio markets. And in most of those, it is broadcast on small stations, often with weak signals. So it is impossible to compare Air America’s ratings to those of its conservative competitors, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who are heard on hundreds of stations.

But we can compare them in at least one place — New York City.

Last year, Franken, whose program airs on WLIB in New York, boasted that he was beating Limbaugh, who is heard on WABC.

“We beat him,” Franken said of Limbaugh in June 2004. “The period we’re opposite Rush, we — we beat WABC, so we think we beat Rush.”

Turns out that wasn’t the case. When the final ratings came in, Limbaugh remained unscathed.

But there’s no doubt that Franken, aided by an astonishing hype campaign led by The New York Times, had a good start. In his first quarterly ratings, spring 2004 (made up of April, May and June), he won a 2.6 percent share of the audience of listeners age 25 to 54 — the most important group for radio advertisers — to Limbaugh’s 3.2 percent share.

In summer 2004 (July, August and September), Franken did even better, winning a 2.8 percent share of the 25-to-54 audience against Limbaugh’s 3.2 percent. About that time, officials at WABC gave Air America credit for a decent showing.

“They’re doing better than I expected,” Phil Boyce, the program director at WABC, told me last September. “Obviously there is a market for this in New York.”

But then something happened. October came, and then November — months Franken might have been expected to do well, since the presidential campaign was reaching its final stage and his audience was almost beside itself with anti-Bush fervor. But his ratings in New York went down.

When the fall 2004 (October, November and December) ratings came out, they revealed that Franken had pulled just a 1.8 percent share of the 25-to-54 audience — well behind Limbaugh’s 4.1 percent share.

Boyce was a happy man.

“Rush captured the election’s excitement,” Boyce said in January. “Franken didn’t.”

Now we have ratings for January, February and March of this year, and they show Franken with a 1.9 percent share to Limbaugh’s 3.2 percent share.

And that’s just Franken versus Limbaugh. Air America’s overall ratings in New York are far, far worse.

The station on which it is heard, WLIB, used to broadcast a mix of Caribbean music and talk. In its last quarter before switching to Air America, it won 1.3 percent of the total audience in New York. Despite all the publicity, Air America is now actually drawing lower ratings than the old music format; in the most recent figures, Air America score a 1.2 percent share of the New York audience.

And that is in true-blue New York City, where you might expect a liberal talk network to do well.

Now it should be said that Air America is succeeding in a few places. It is going gangbusters, for example, in Portland, Ore. But its overall failure to mount a challenge to conservative talk radio raises an obvious question: Why?

For one thing, many of the network’s hosts aren’t terribly good. While talented, they didn’t have any background in radio, and their passionate interest in politics wasn’t enough to make them polished radio performers. They’ve gotten better in the past year, but not that much better.

Second, even though Air America officials firmly believe that their hosts are more civil than those hard-liners you hear on conservative talk radio, Air America has at times served up a pretty ugly message. Take the time in May of last year when host Randi Rhodes suggested that President Bush be assassinated the way Fredo Corleone was assassinated in The Godfather, Part II. Now Rhodes has done it again, bringing up the kill-Bush idea in a skit aired this week.

Of course, part of the problem could be Franken’s inclination to refer to the president as a “moron,” an “idiot putz” and a “stupid schmuck.” Who knows?

Whatever the problem, Air America, bolstered by some of the same investors who brought you the Democratic 527 groups, will soldier on. And maybe some day they’ll figure it out.

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