Air America woes worry advertisers

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Air America has problems. And they have nothing to do with host Randi Rhodes calling the president the Fredo of the Bush clan's Corleone family-then suggesting that George W. Bush, like Fredo, be taken on a fishing trip and shot.

In fact, if media attention could be focused on the liberal radio network's politics rather than its business model, things might be looking up.

But the spotlight seems to be on the network's many stumbles since its launch March 31. In April, Air America's was involved in a public dispute with Multicultural Broadcasting, the owner of its Chicago and Los Angeles affiliates. That led to Air America losing two major markets. By month's end, co-founder and CEO Mark Walsh stepped down to take a smaller role, David Logan was replaced as head of programming. April showers brought only May headaches. Air America failed to make payroll May 7. That same week, Chairman Evan Cohen and partner and Vice Chair Rex Sorensen departed. Last week, the station shuttered sales offices in Chicago and Los Angeles.

no critical mass

Natalie Swed Stone, director-national radio services at Omnicom Group's OMD, said her clients were taking a wait-and-see approach at the time of launch and opinions haven't changed. "Our clients look for critical mass and [Air America] isn't there yet." Oddly, spots for OMD marketers-McDonald's Corp. and Tyson Chicken, among others-were some of the first heard on Air America. And it isn't quite clear how they got there. (One agency insider said that early ads on Air America could be had-literally-for free.)

General Motors Corp. might provide a clue. Spots for the company were running on Air America in the New York market, unbeknownst to GM, said Ryndee Carney, manager-marketing communications. According to Ms. Carney, the company had bought time on station WLIB when it was still an affiliate of American Urban Radio Network specifically in order to reach its African-America and Caribbean market. WLIB, she said, changed to a "new, untested format," yet kept running GM ads. Those ads were pulled last week. "They're going to have to have some kind of track record. ... We use advertising to reach specific audiences and need to know who's listening and if we're spending on advertising wisely."

That decision, she said, had nothing to do with Air America's politics.

The woes of its business model do seem to come down to politics of a sort. From the start, Air America's business mission seemed tied to its political mission-officially to answer the supposed right-wing lock on talk radio, unofficially to unseat the current administration (according to its stable of talent). But talk radio, said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, "is a long-term commitment, not a gig to get a president unelected." Mr. Harrison still holds that the PR campaign leading up to the launch of Air America was "historic" (AA, April 5). Unfortunately, he said, it's looking like Air America doesn't have the goods to back that up.

He faults the business model. "It doesn't fit the industry. They're fund-raising based. They're set up like a political campaign. And a political campaign is only popular as long as it's successful."

Repeated calls to Air America went unanswered. Indeed, operators didn't answer calls to the switchboard, voicemail boxes were apparently filled to capacity-even call-in lines to the radio shows seemed tied up. In numerous reports in the press, President Jon Sinton chalked up the troubles to growing pains and a changing business model.

"Startups are supposed to show stability," said Mr. Harrison, adding that not having a presence in two major markets like Chicago and L.A. is hard to overcome. Even the minor affiliates (14 at last count) and the satellite and Internet penetration aren't enough to impress or comfort advertisers.

"We wish that they would have been able to obtain major market clearance, which would help establish the program more solidly," said Aaron Cohen, exec VP-director of broadcast for Horizon Media, New York, who counts among his clients Geico Insurance and who's placed ads on Air America. "We have continuing concerns about the seeming instability of the organization, and are therefore concerned about making a long-term investment in the programming."

contributing: jon fine

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