Is liberal lucrative? Air America tries to turn hype into cash

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Buoyed by a staggering amount of media coverage, the liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh went live from New York on March 31, cheered by the left and jeered by the right. Judging by the hype, it would seem Air America was the biggest thing to hit the airwaves since "The War of the Worlds," but in reality the five-station network is a long way off matching the established players.

"It's talk radio. This whole idea that liberal talk radio and conservative talk radio are apples and oranges is bogus," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. Talk radio, he said, is first and foremost a business, the primary purpose of which is to attract ratings and generate revenue.

great pr

So far, he said, Air America's been great at generating revenue-and even better at generating PR. "I would judge their PR campaign as historic," he said. The effort, handled by Dan Klores Communications, resulted in a frenzy of coverage for what is, in essence, a startup company with fewer than 100 employees.

Jackie Rossinsky, exec VP-sales and marketing for Air America, called the effort "brilliant." For its first round of advertising, agency North Woods Advertising, Minneapolis, plastered New York's Grand Central Terminal with posters on the day of the launch, aimed, according to Bill Hillsman, president-chief creative officer, not just at consumers but at media buyers.

Still, PR success has to "transcend into the earnings arena" said Mr. Harrison, and entertainment, not pure politics, is the key.

Judging by Air America's lineup, it seems to grasp that concept, eschewing policy wonks for entertainers. Included in its stable are Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, talk vet Randi Rhodes, Lizz Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," and rapper Chuck D.

"That blend is attractive" to marketers, according to Chris Boothe, senior VP-media director at Starcom USA, who nonetheless said that Starcom clients are taking a wait-and-see approach.

And marketers are approaching it. During the first two days of airtime, ads ran for, among others, XM Satellite, the U.S. Navy, Tyson, Caltrate, American Express, Travelocity and McDonald's.

According to Ms. Rossinsky, rates range from $300 to $500 a spot, depending on the market. With a five-station network so far, that puts network buys in the neighborhood of $1,500 per minute in radio prime time. Marketers are getting discounted ad time for the first couple of weeks.

aggressive pricing

"They're pretty aggressive," said Natalie Swed Stone, director of national radio services, Omnicom Group's OMD, referring to ad rates that are on par with those for shows that reach a much wider audience. "The Rush Limbaugh Show," she pointed out, makes for a more cost-effective national buy since the show airs on more than 600 stations. But Mr. Limbaugh's show reaches 20 million people a week, according to Premiere Radio, the network that carries the show. "They've got a way to go," Ms. Swed Stone said of Air America.

So far, Air America has made leasing arrangements with stations in New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and Inland Empire, Calif., but Mr. Harrison said that the small number of stations isn't necessarily a huge concern. "One top 10 market is worth a barrelful of smaller markets." A San Francisco affiliate will be announced April 8 and will go on the air April 15. Air America is also being carried by XM Satellite Radio and can be heard on the Web at

According to Ms. Swed Stone, the Web could be key to success. Her clients, she said, don't necessarily seek out political talk and are waiting to see how audiences react to the unproven network. But, she said, "the thing that can change the traditional model is if people go to the Internet." If Air America can hook up with a young Web-savvy crowd, stay on top of the technical issues, remain entertaining without being too insulting, and sustain its buzz, "it could take on a life of its own."

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