Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Air America sale: What's next?

Two days have passed since the official announcement of the sale of Air America Radio to Stephen and Mark Green, as well as Al Franken's announcement of his departure from the network. Since then, many people, both inside and outside the political spectrum have weighed in, as well as quite a few in the industry.

The wingnut bloggers have been sounding the same silliness, questioning why anyone would want to invest in a 'failing' network. Which is ironic, since quite a few conservative media ventures have had far less success and lost way more money. The irony seems to be that these so-called 'conservative' critics don't really understand the way business works, or that they really aren't champions of entreprenural achievement. Or they're incapable of looking at the color of their own pot. In their eyes, free enterprise is only acceptable for people named Weyrich, Scaife or Murdoch. Not surprising.

People in the industry are also chiming in about the sale. Paul Woodhull, speaking to the New York Daily News, gave his assessment. "I hope they can make it viable," says Woodhull, president of Washington-based Media Syndication Services, which creates and produces radio shows. "But it won't happen unless Mr. Green listens to people who understand how radio works."

Air America's original network plan, says Woodhull, "was based on the idea they could control programs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on someone else's station. That's just not the way it works."

"The idea that Air America is a 'network' is a myth anyway," says Michael Harrison, editor of the trade magazine Talkers. "As a syndicator, it could work."

What radio insiders don't realize though is that Air America could be considered comparable to full-service syndicators like ESPN Radio, FOX Sports Radio and Talk Radio Network, all of which offer a full schedule of programming around the clock, but allow individual affiliates to pick and choose programming, or just leave it running full-time. In essence, they help fill out station lineups. Think of it as the radio equivalent of 'Hamburger Helper.' Since signing on almost three years ago, Air America, which had initially tried to force affiliates to carry the entire slate of programming, has since given much more leeway to affiliates in structuring their schedules, even allowing some of them to drop Al Franken's show for Thom Hartmann, or to carry programming from other syndicators. Several Air America affiliates even carry programming from conservative talkers such as Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz and Bill O'Reilly.

Both Woodhull and Harrison agree that the programming has to be worth listening to. Woodhull agrees that progressive talk is no different than any other type of talk radio programming, in that it has to actually be good. "It has to be entertaining and compelling. It can't start with a political agenda. It can't start by trying to get somebody elected," says Woodhull.

Harrison thinks there is a niche for liberal talk, and there will always be. He also disagrees with the notion that talk radio is dominated by conservatives. "It's not," claims Harrison. "Conservatives have a niche, and it's a very profitable niche — but it's still a niche. You also have NPR, you have 'shock jocks,' you have sports talk. There's room for all of it.

"None of those shows succeed because the hosts are well-intentioned. They succeed because they work as a business."

Air America will need to strengthen it's affiliate base, which is chock full of many weak and non-supportive stations, as well. "To build a radio network you need to start from a solid base and then expand," says Andrew Ettinger, media supervisor at EarthQuake Media in New York, speaking to Media Life Magazine. "Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Sean Hannity, etc. did not appear overnight as dominant radio personalities. Rather, they built their following one station at a time, one market at a time. By doing so they grew from strength, not artificial station clearances."

In the other big Air America story, Franken's retirement from radio has gotten the predictable snide reaction from the wingnut media. Some say he's giving up, or that he's jumping off a sinking ship. Keep in mind that Franken never intended to do radio forever, as he initially signed a one year contract with then-owner Progress Media (as they were working under the provisional name Central Air), and had previously hinted at not making radio his life's work. Considering his other jobs such as writing, comedy and soon, possibly politics, his departure is no surprise. And his official announcement and the network's immediate naming of Hartmann as his successor should remove quite a bit of distraction from their operations.

In regard to his future plans, rumored to include a 2008 run for the Senate from his home state of Minnesota, Franken and his people have been mum about it. Franken has admitted that he is strongly considering challenging Norm Coleman for the seat, and has hinted that he could formally announce his intentions on-air in the runup to the end of his show February 14.

Some of Air America's affiliates have already announced their intentions for life after Franken. KTNF, fresh off a rather remarkable Fall ratings book, was the first, as they announced yesterday the move of Hartmann from the station's evening delay to the afternoon slot being vacated. In his place, KTNF will expand it's local "Minnesota Matters" show by an hour (to be 5-7PM) and add Air America's Rachel Maddow to evenings, 7-9PM. Entercom-owned WROC in Rochester, NY will give Ed Schultz a live clearance, moving him in to the 12-3PM slot, and soliciting listener opinions to fill the 3-6PM shift.

Meanwhile, up the road at WROC's sister station WWKB, the schedule on their recently updated website is a bit vague. At this time, the on-air schedule for this week omits local midday host Leslie Marshall and shows two daily airings of the syndicated shows from Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz. Whether this will be permanent remains to be seen. Previously, the station aired a rerun of Marshall's show in the evenings. WWKB recently lost a competitor when Air America affiliate WHLD switched to gospel, so there are indeed more programming options available from which the station could choose from.

KPTK in Seattle sent out an email to listeners enlisting their help in making adjustments to the daily lineup. WCPT in Chicago will announce their intentions shortly. Other stations have yet to announce their replacements for Franken, though it's expected that many will just continue with Hartmann, such as KYNS in San Luis Obispo, CA. In the past few months, some stations already have already moved Hartmann into the slot. Some stations that currently carry only Franken, including WMLB in Atlanta and WWWI in Brainerd, MN could possibly pass on replacing him with any other Air America offering.

And no word from Air America on how they'll handle overnight and weekend replays of Franken's show.

Speaking of KYNS, in an unrelated move, they will add Mike Malloy to their schedule, airing it on delay from 8-11PM starting next Monday.


Anonymous said...

Lt, you seem to be skating very close to the AAR-IS-progressive talk mind-set. That has not been close to true for some time. AAR has already lost control of three of six weekday dayparts - time periods in which non-AAR programs predominate in the progressive talk universe. The only sure foothold they have is Randi Rhodes. I like Hartmann but the slot is wide-open and he's up against the 500 pound gorilla of progressive talk, Big Ed.

I agree, AAR can be seen as a 24/7 format like ESPN, Fox Sports, Salem Talk Network or Radio Disney (TRN does not belong in this group, it has a classic syndication business model and they don't provide a wall to wall feed for turnkeys like AAR and Salem). But all of the above are bottom-feeder operations. All, like AAR turnkeys, are getting minimal ratings at minimal cost on minimal signals and hoping to show a minimal profit. I don't think that's a market position fans of liberal talk would want the company to aspire to. Drobny's idea was to provide a liberal counterpoint to right-wing heavyweights like Rush. Not right-wing lightweights like Dennis Praeger.
In some ways, however, your TRN metaphor may be apt. TRN puts shows like Ingraham and Savage and the number two or three right-wing talk station in a market - or gets shows cleared on delay on some number one stations. Jones and Nova M may well be set to become the Premiere and ABC of Liberal Talk; AAR the TRN.

William said...

Actually, the stories on ratings on this blog show that several progressive talk stations are doing well. Some, like WINZ and KPOJ, have strong signals. Others do have weaker signals but compete with conservative talkers.

Anonymous said...

William, Please re-read my post. My comment (and the original article) were about AAR as a program producer/distributor, and its ability to produce and clear programs - NOT about local stations.
One of the things previous AAR managements never figured out is they were wholesalers - not retailers (outside New York). But then, they never really "got" the radio biz.

ltr said...

In the article, I merely pointed out that AAR is basically a 'network', similar to the way that ESPN, FSR, Sporting News Radio and TRN operate. Meaning that they put something besides dead air over their satellite signal, allowing affiliates to access it whenever.

And no, AAR, as I have stated time and time again here, is not the be-all, end-all of liberal talk. But they are often seen by many as the 800 lb. gorilla of the format, for better or worse. I know you really, really, really hate AAR, and I certainly have been highly criticle of them in the past, but I'm sure that without them providing an around-the-clock schedule of programming, the progressive talk format and all related that followed would likely not have happened. AAR is what got many stations to flip in the first place, and thankfully, they've got increased competition nowadays to give station owners confidence, so they don't throw all their eggs in one basket (namely AAR). Quite frankly, I feel the best liberal talk stations out there are the ones that cherry pick from the best available shows around, and even do some local stuff.

And while you sing Shel Drobny's praises to spite AAR, keep in mind that he is responsible for some of the mess that is AAR today. Namely, too many disagreeing cooks ruining the broth. And Nova M isn't quite a force yet, but they are growing little by little. So far, they've got Malloy, who's on ten or so stations, Newcomb, who will likely remain solely on KPHX, and some TBA weekend shows. They're certainly not a powerhouse.

JRN has emerged as the strongest syndicator in the format as of late. The nine-hour combo of Press, Miller and Schultz is pretty good and tough to beat. They're also adding more liberal talk weekend shows like "Workin' It" from AAR. But they are certainly not a full-service operation. Although they do dabble in some talk programming, most of their offerings are music-oriented.

Premiere could easily have jumped into the fray over the past few years. After all, they had Rhodes, Schultz, Miller, Springer, Elliott and others on Clear Channel's various payrolls. But the only thing resembling liberal talk from them is a weekend show from Jesse Jackson and some behind-the-scenes dealing with other syndicators. Allegedly, their big gun, Rush Limbaugh, will not allow them to syndicate liberal talk shows on a large scale. Too bad, since CC has some phenomenal local talent on some of their stations that deserve to be syndicated. Guys like Stacy Taylor, Jay Marvin and Cary Harrison.

And certainly, liberal talk is found on way too many weak peashooter stations. And the inexpensive nature of carrying syndicated liberal talk is a temptation to just stuff an automation computer in the station's broom closet and let it run. Keep in mind, though, that the format was really picked up on AM stations that basically had no other alternatives in regard to competitive programming. The big 50kw sticks are, for the most part, doing well across the country with whatever formats they're running. That mostly leaves the little guys - the 1000-5000 watt local sticks, most of them not getting much in the way of listeners. Or the suburban rimshots. And even a few higher-powered stations in places like Portland, Miami, San Diego, L.A. and other places that for some reason or another didn't have many other options. They needed a shot in the arm.

In general, when done right, liberal talk has helped out quite a few struggling stations. KPOJ is the most notable example. Also KPTK, KKZN, WCPT, WLIB, WWRL, KIST, WXXM and most recently, little KTNF in Minneapolis, whose recent ratings rivaled those of a big CC 100,000 watt FM conservotalk station with tons of billboards all over town. I lived in the Twin Cities for quite a few years and AM950, a format-of-the-month station for decades, has never done that! Much of the time, they merely reverted to simulcasting their then-sister FM station (I contributed to some of the station's history on the Wikipedia article on the station). They've always been a bottom-dweller. There are quite a few other examples as well.

Unfotunately, the stations that are struggling with it are often the ones that are taking the lazy approach, or that just aren't doing anything substantial with it. As with any format, you get out what you put into it. And if liberal talk is languishing on a weak, forgotten frequency and being ignored, well of course it will fail.

Jill said...

I know this is injecting levity into a serious conversation, but am I the only one who thinks Stacy Taylor sounds disconcertingly like Brian the Dog from Family Guy?

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