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Talk may be cheap, but talking to listeners all around the country isn't. Which is why Progress Media Inc., a new radio broadcast company, plans to sink hundreds of millions of dollars this year to build a national liberal talk radio show to take on such popular conservative rivals as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

The timing couldn't be more auspicious. Progress Media expects to go on the air in March with Central Air network on five AM stations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, just as the 2004 presidential race starts to get down and dirty. Central Air will provide around-the-clock talk shows with a liberal political bent. It will be the first of its kind, as no politically partisan network, conservative or liberal, has even been launched.

But if talk radio is considered the bastion of right-wing commentators who lash out against “feminazis,� “red-diaper doper babies� and “leftopathics,� who's going to tune in to listen to a bunch of whiney and liberal extremists? “The short answer is, as strange as this may sound, the 51 percent of Americans who did not vote for the current president,� says Walsh, Progress Media's CEO, who is the Democratic National Committee's former chief technology adviser and a former AOL executive.

To face off against Limbaugh and other airwave provocateurs, Progress Media plans to sign high profile political comedians like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo as commentators. Franken, a Saturday Night Live alum, has already sparred with O'Reilly, who also has a TV show on News Corp.'s Fox News. In his best seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton, 2003), Franken has a chapter focusing on O'Reilly, titled, “Lying, Splotchy Bully.� O'Reilly was so outraged that Franken's book included his photo that he reportedly persuaded News Corp. to sue for trademark infringement of “fair and balanced.� The lawsuit was dismissed.

Walsh says Central Air will try to target what he calls a “double-humped camel� of demographic groups. On one end, the network will aim for 18- to 25-year-olds, that highly desirable, tech-savvy demographic that gathers information via multiple formats. The other hump would aim for an older, more affluent demographic, listeners who are 40 to 55 and have a taste for humor perhaps edgier than what's offered by National Public Radio. Currently, talk radio listeners are mainly white men over the age of 35, many of whom consider themselves conservative — but not all. A full 11 percent of talk show listeners say they're either “liberal� or “ultra liberal� and 21 percent say they're “fiscal conservative/social liberal,� according to a study done by Talkers, a talk radio trade magazine in Springfield, Mass.

Walsh says he hopes Central Air's programming will tap in to people's feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusion that are being stoked by the sluggish economy and the war in Iraq. The company also aims to attract women listeners — a demographic that has traditionally been less served in the format — through female commentators or with content that appeals specifically to them.

Although Progress Media will target listeners it identifies as liberals, a more fundamental component of its success will depend on whether it can entertain an audience, says Walter Sabo, a radio consultant in New York. “People listen to Rush Limbaugh because he's funny and he's entertaining,'' he says. “That's the only reason. William F. Buckley is a better conservative than Rush, but no one would listen to him, because he's not entertaining.�

Indeed, Limbaugh's show had some of its highest ratings when he returned to the airwaves after a five-week hiatus, following a stay in a rehab clinic for his addiction to painkillers. Limbaugh's listeners didn't abandon the staunch supporter of law and order when he later told them that federal prosecutors in Florida where investigating him on allegations of money laundering.

To attract a younger audience, Progress Media will be Webcentric, featuring Webstreaming on its site ( Listeners will be able to download “the MP3 of an Al Franken broadcast and listen while driving home from college,� says Walsh. The content of the show will also reflect the tastes of a younger demographic. “We believe in our sense of humor, which will be similar to — but we hope a lot more biting — than Jon Stewart's sense of humor on [Comedy Central's] The Daily Show,� Walsh says. “That sense of humor appeals to a more youthful audience because, in a good way, it makes fun of sort of the totems of society that has really disaffected youthful voters.�

Progress Media has enlisted a former Harvard Lampoon editor Martin Kaplan, now an associate dean at University of Southern California of the Annenberg School for Communications, to host a show about the news media. Other hirees include Lizz Winstead, one of the creators of The Daily Show, who will be in charge of entertainment programming; Shelly Lewis, a news producer who has worked at CNN and on ABC's American Morning, to head news programming; and former Chicago radio executive Dave Logan as executive vice president of programming and operations.

Progress Media is a relative newcomer to broadcasting. In November, Walsh and a group of investors bought out Chicago philanthropists Anita and Sheldon Drobny's $10 million investment in AnShell Media LLC, a venture to start a liberal talk radio network to counter conservative shows. The Drobnys, who remain minority shareholders in Central Air, received considerable press for their fledgling enterprise, especially in the summer of 2003, when former Vice President Al Gore was one of their advisers, introducing them to politically active Hollywood executives and possible financial backers.

Shortly afterward, Walsh went on a media blitz promoting the company's grandiose plan to purchase five radio stations by the end of January to form the basis of its Central Air network. Walsh refused to identify any of the properties or even reveal whether they would be AM or FM stations. By the end of December, the company hadn't bought a single radio station or completed construction of its Manhattan studios. Walsh's circumspection led many radio industry observers to believe that he was more involved in a publicity stunt than in the introduction of a viable company.

Scoffing at such skepticism, Walsh calls Progress Media's unconventional inception “a multi-city, cold-engine, hand-cranked start.�

Jon Sinton, a former Atlanta broadcasting executive who is now Progress Media's president, is more forthcoming. As of early January, he says the company completed the purchase of an AM station, has definitive agreements to buy four others and has tentative deals for two more. (All sales are subject to regulatory approval.) “We have seven in the shopping cart and some on the shelf,� he says. “We plan to buy as many as we can get. And I'm not being coy.�

Sinton wouldn't disclose how much Progress Media paid for the stations, however, industry observers who are familiar with the company's operations say the first set of transactions may be worth around $150 million, or $30 million for each station. Within the past year, Robin Flynn, a TV and radio analyst at Kagan Worldwide Media, in Carmel, Calif., says an AM station in New York City went for $38 million.

Sinton also refuses to discuss how much Progress Media has to invest. However, he's quick to point out that one of the lead investors is Evan Cohen, a New York venture capitalist. “What is interesting about our project is that we have investors at the high level, who have invested millions and millions, and we have some, who are equally important to us, but much smaller investors, who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars.�

Progress Media's more heavyweight investors weren't concerned about Central Air's political agenda, he says. “In general terms, those with lower investments are more emotional investors,� he says. “On the other side of the coin, the high-dollar investors are not emotional; they're dispassionate and they're making a purely business decision. They're as likely to be Republicans as anything. They think we have a competent business plan. They see a hole in the marketplace and a business opportunity. It's all about ROI.�

Several national advertisers have already signed up to run commercials on Central Air, Sinton says, adding that they're more drawn to the potential audience than they are to the network's politics. “Advertisers are pretty smart and they can tell that there is a lot of buzz around this project and they're excited by the prospects,� he says. “Down the road, it'll be more a function of ratings.�

Progress Media has enough capital to fund Central Air until it becomes a profitable business, Sinton says, adding that that may take as long as three years. In the meantime, the company plans to buy more stations to add to its network. But, at some point, he says, Progress Media will expand by syndicating its shows to other stations. “It's impossible to own stations in every single market,� he says. “The gap is always filled with affiliates.�

Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, questions the basic premise on which Progress Media is building its future: that such well-known conservatives as Limbaugh, Hannity and Michael Savage dominate talk radio. Right-wing talk radio, he says, is just one slice of the bigger radio pie. Its stratified makeup also includes urban talk radio and sports talk radio. Harrison believes that a liberal network can exist, but it ideally would develop organically.

“If there is an identified niche of people who say, ‘Wow! This guy on the radio is talking to me,’ that's what it comes down to,'' Harrison says. “That's how the conservatives did it over 15 years ago. They were angry people who felt outside of the loop.�

In the 1950s, Barry Gray originated the format, blasting bigotry and the Red scare. But it wasn't until the ‘80s that conservative talk radio hosts helped fuel its popularity. In 1983, Sabo says, there were 59 talk show stations in the U.S.; today there are more than 1,200. While talk radio's market share hasn't grown over the past five years, according to Arbitron, it is stable.

Harrison doesn't think there's room for more liberal talk shows. “There are liberals in talk radio,'' he adds. “It's not that they don't exist and it's not that liberalism isn't expressed on the radio in general.�

Harrison's right. Limbaugh may have the highest name recognition of talk radio personalities, but his show isn't the top syndicated one. In fact, quite a few less politically strident ones are more popular. As of October 2002, NPR's All Things Considered aired on 1,200 stations, Paul Harvey's show was on 1,152, NPR's Morning Edition was on 1,075, NPR's Car Talk was on 651 and Limbaugh's was on 600, according to Kagan's research.

Although many talk show hosts are not conservative and NPR offers liberal programming, the time is right for a 24-hour liberal talk network, Walsh says. “There is an underserved audience that doesn't have any meaningful national voice echoing anything they believe in,� he says. “All they hear are Rush's dittoheads echoing the opposite of what they believe.

“I'm not suggesting we'll have one person in front of a mic screaming to our dittoheads, which I think is a recipe for disaster,� Walsh says. “People on the liberal slide are best entertained by comedy that skewers what's going on as opposed to pontificating and shouting about it. I think we have entertaining programming that will hit those people where they sit as a reasonable alternative.�

Reasonable or not, we'll soon find out if there is a market for Limbaugh's liberal alter ego on the air.

Mark de la Vina, an arts and entertainment writer at the San Jose Mercury News, has written about radio talk show host Michael Savage and comedian Al Franken.

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