Air America Hype Versus Reality
Which Side Will Prevail?
(April 18 Update Here)
A new batch of radio ratings have just been released, so how's liberal talk radio faring now?
Last month's Radio Equalizer report is still circulating around the Internet, including at Air America discussion sites, but new figures give an even more complete picture of its state of affairs. Here's a chance also to address some debate points from readers.
The liberal talk radio hype machine is even more sophisticated than a month ago, with near full control of radio industry trade publications, who dare not publish anything about the format's lack of ratings growth for fear of losing syndication advertising. On radio chat boards, every announced move is trumpeted, no matter how insignificant.
Credibility is becoming a big issue. At one site, Radio-Info.com, posters relentlessly plugging liberal syndicated programming are beginning to be taken to task over accuracy, but it's still largely mob rule for now. One poster has placed hundreds of messages on the site announcing liberal talk show launches.
The talking points memo distributed to this rabid pack of supporters must surely give these excuses for the lack of ratings: that it's still too new, that stations are still coming on line or that the next programming change will finally work wonders, because that's what's repeated in many places.
Air America now lists 51 mostly tiny affiliates, which is not very impressive after a full year of media attention, industry affection and trade publication hype. Many smaller conservative radio networks can boast twice that number and still not be taken very seriously by radio professionals.
There are dozens of syndicated talk program providers for conservative programming, sports and specialty shows. Many hundreds are available for stations to take and you never read about them in newspapers. Yet lots of them are carried on more stations than Air America.
And it isn't too new to measure, especially not in New York City, where WLIB's just-released numbers show, in the broadest audience measurement of adults 12+, that Air America's flagship station has declined to a tiny 1.1 share of the audience. There's a full year of data to look at now and the picture isn't pretty for lib talk.
This is below where the station stood a year ago with its previous Caribbean specialty format and a drop from a 1.2 share last month. In the Fall 2004 Arbitron survey, WLIB had a 1.4 share of the radio listening audience, so it is safe to say it's actually shrinking in popularity.
This figure gives WLIB a ranking of 24th place overall in the New York City metro area, a place that ought to be liberal radio-friendly. In Los Angeles, KTLK didn't show up in newly released numbers. More results will be released each day for the next week or so and once again we will update it here.
Another reason to spend a lot of time looking at New York City figures is that it's where Arbitron ratings data is the most accurate. That's due to the huge sample size used in the nation's largest radio market.
A big development since last month is the major hypefest surrounding the deal reached to bring Jerry Springer's radio show to 45 of Air America's affiliates. But Springer is still relatively untested in talk radio and won't rule out running for office in his native Ohio next year.
Why do "progressives" want to be associated with Springer, anyway? He's still doing his trashy TV show, how does this help their cause? How much credibility does he bring to radio?
Let's address some of the challenges made to my last piece on the subject:
Brian, why don't you mention that New York City's conservative talker WABC is also declining in the ratings?
It's true and I haven't heard a good theory as to what's going on at WABC to cause a full share audience drop in the last two months. But WABC has maintained big ratings in NYC for years and WLIB has yet to develop a significant, sustainable listenership. WABC's decline did not result in any gains for WLIB, so there's no dial-switching happening.
WABC might need to examine which particular conservative shows are working well and which ones need to be cancelled. Air America, however, has yet to deliver even one bona fide hit for WLIB.
Why do you use "liberal talk radio" and "Air America" as interchangeable terms? Don't you know that not all of the shows are syndicated by Air America?
It's true, there are a few other companies attempting to distribute leftist talk shows, but almost all of the stations are using at least some genuine Air America Radio content. In the media liberal talk radio is "Air America" so it will be here as well.
Why are stations still signing on to the format if there isn't any ratings growth?
There are a variety of reasons: to place free content on tiny, hard-to-program automated AM stations, to placate political opponents, to put placeholder formats on stations in advance of selling them, or to hear your own ideological viewpoints on the radio.
Why do you list 12+ ratings numbers, rather than targeted demographics?
First, we don't have access to more specific age group breakdowns, because they aren't released to the media. Second, from what has been leaked, they don't look any better than these broad audience measurements. Sales departments use the specific data, but for our purposes, looking at all listeners 12 and older provides the most accurate examination we can make of liberal talk radio performance.
Finally, somebody else in the media willing to speak the truth! John Mainelli, widely respected talk radio programmer, turned New York Post columnist, reviews the new HBO Air America documentary "Left of the Dial" and has this to say:
"Left of the Dial" has a fairy-tale finale — fresh financing, 50 affiliates, encouraging ratings — even if Kerry did lose the election, something many of Air America talkers are seen taking personally.
But since shooting stopped last December, massive media coverage has faded, ratings have sagged, record-industry exec Danny Goldberg took control — and Jerry Springer was just inked.
Mainelli is saying what many in the industry are thinking but won't say out loud. Since he isn't tied to a trade publication, Mainelli's in a better position to be honest about Air America's future.
Update: New ratings, just released, show that in Boston, Air America outlet WKOX shows no growth from last month with a tiny 0.6 share of the audience. Its simulcast partner is a no-show.
In San Diego, the much-hyped liberal talk station KLSD continues its ratings collapse, from a 2.3 to a 1.9 to a 1.6 audience share in brand new figures.
In Philadelphia, Air America affiliate WHAT-AM drops from a tiny 0.8 to a miniscule 0.6 overall audience share.
In Detroit, lib talker WTDW-AM is a no-show again. Even Canadian talk radio (Ontario's CKLW-AM) is doing better than Air America in Detroit!
March 31 update: Air America in deep trouble in San Francisco: a flat 1.0 share, tied for 25th place overall, no audience gain from last month and a small fraction of the audience KQKE's predecessor had on the same frequency, playing adult standards.
In Washington, DC: liberal outlet WWRC is not present in the latest figures with any measurable audience.
This data overall paints a very bleak picture of liberal talk radio's future. There wasn't one sign of growth, not a fraction of ratings point in any city and many were down from already anemic levels. It's time to start confronting the liberal talk radio hype machine head-on with the facts. I can't wait to see what their excuses are this time for this miserable performance.
In the meantime, Seattle-based writer Michael Hood has launched a talk radio blog, from his leftist perspective. It's very interesting to see his angle on these issues. Welcome to readers from Orbusmax, Michelle Malkin, and American Thinker!
Update: The Boston Globe has published a mess of a glowing piece on liberal talk radio's future that's so inaccurate, I think it should be retracted or at least corrected. It completely ignores ratings data from the last two monthly trends.
It even paints a rosy picture of Providence's WHJJ-AM, where a successful conservative station was flushed down the toilet in favor of Air America, with nightmarish results. Some industry leaders I respect greatly are, unfortunately, here defending it. Liberals are in denial about Air America's clear ratings failure:
Air America is about to get another marquee name. Starting tomorrow, the network will carry the radio show hosted by the trash-TV icon and former Cincinnati mayor, Jerry Springer.
''When you hear him on the radio, it's very intimate," said Jon Sinton, Air America's president of programming. ''We think he's right on the issues. He's heavily enough anti-Bush to be credible for our audience."
Asked to evaluate Air America on its first birthday, Sinton is effusive. ''It's a smashing success," he insists. ''It turns out that, in the words of Sally Field, people like us, they really like us."
'In theory, with the numbers [Schultz] is getting, there ought to be clearances on stations like WRKO and WTKK," (Scott) Fybush (Editor of NorthEast Radio Watch) said. Yet while Democracy Radio touts the fact that Schultz is on nearly 100 stations, his conservative counterparts Limbaugh and Hannity are on four to five times that many outlets.
I can tell you right now, based on the ratings, that adding Schultz would be suicidal for any of these major talk stations! The article adds the built-in liberal excuse that the Air America stations have small signals, therefore will have a difficult time generating numbers. Many conservative stations were built on small signals, such as San Francisco's KSFO and Seattle's KVI-AM.
The problem: with all the free publicity liberal talk radio has getting, such as today's Globe feature, there's no excuse for the lack of ratings. Conservative talk radio never received this type of glowing coverage, it's been attacked for years.
Update: Boston-area DJ Bob Nelson notes another glaring error in the Globe report: it's not true that the two local Air America stations are daytime-only operations! They are 24-7 radio stations. This story is full of holes from top to bottom.
Update: fresh numbers released show Denver's liberal KKZN-AM dropping to a tiny 1.1 share from a 1.3 for adults 12 and older. In the Fall it had a 1.6. It's now in 24th place for the Denver-Boulder metro area.
In Minneapolis: Air America affiliate KTNF-AM generates no ratings or ranking in just-released figures. Isn't this Al Franken's hometown?
Also: reader John Jensen brings to my attention another slanted, pro-Air America piece in today's Oregonian newspaper (no direct link):
But as it turns out, losing the election hasn't killed the progressive radio format, as many expected. In fact, just the opposite happened. "If Kerry had won, it would have hurt liberal talk radio, no question about it," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers the talk radio industry. "Liberal talk radio works when conservatives are in power. People like to gravitate toward something that's in their interest when the power is against them."
Too bad there isn't one piece of evidence to back up this statement that proponents have produced.
So far, not one increase we've been able to find for Air America, or liberal talk stations, in these ratings.