Until a few weeks ago, the biggest worry for executives at Air America was what to do about the liberal radio network's alarmingly low ratings. Launched amid much hype on March 31, 2004, Air America, with Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Randi Rhodes, and a host of other anti-Bush personalities at the microphone, has, with the exception of a few cities, had great difficulty finding an audience. Even in New York, where the network's true-blue message should be welcome, its daily average ratings are actually lower than those of the Caribbean talk-and-music station it replaced a year and a half ago .........
The ratings have not been kind to Air America's flagship station, WLIB in New York. In spring 2004, when WLIB broadcast a mixture of Caribbean music and talk, it won a 1.3 percent share of the New York audience. In summer 2004, after the much-advertised switch to Air America, WLIB's share rose to 1.4 percent. Then it fell to 1.2 percent in fall 2004, and stayed at that figure in winter 2005. Spring 2005, which ended on June 30, has seen its rating fall further to 1.0 percent — significantly below spring 2004.
The situation is similar in a number of other cities, although Air America is on the air only in about 70 markets — just a fraction of those reached by conservative radio king Rush Limbaugh. Given its expenses — Al Franken, for example, is paid at least $1 million per year — Air America almost certainly needs better ratings than it currently attracts if it is to survive.
It is not surprising, then, that network executives are a little sensitive about the ratings. For all the positive coverage they have received in venues like the New York Times, Air America executives feel that the network has not been given a fair shake in a number of articles about the ratings — including some in National Review. So NR asked Sinton to list five places where the network is doing well. He was happy to answer. "Portland, Oregon, is a big success," he said. "We are especially happy about Denver. . . Miami is a great success story. . . Phoenix had a nice increase. . . We absolutely love the growth in Los Angeles."
Portland, Oregon — perhaps America's most liberal city — is indeed a big success for Air America. The station KPOJ had a 3.7 share of the audience in spring 2004, before switching to liberal talk. It rose to 4.0 percent in summer 2004 with Air America. Then, after falling a bit in the next two quarters, it surged to a 4.5 share in spring 2005 — a clear improvement over its pre-Air America performance.
Denver is another bright spot. In spring 2004, KKZN had a 0.5 percent audience share. It switched to Air America during the summer 2004 period, and its share rose to 0.9 percent. Then it jumped to 1.6 percent in fall 2004 — and then to 2.0 percent in spring 2005.
In Miami, WINZ has gone from a 0.7 percent share to 2.0 percent under Air America. In Phoenix, KXXT went from what was essentially zero percent of the market to a 1.1 percent share. And in Los Angeles, where Air America has been on the air only since February, KTLK has gone from 0.3 percent to 0.8 percent.
As Sinton said, all those numbers indicate growth. But in a number of cases, they indicate growth that began virtually at zero. For example, a recent Air America press release touted "73 percent growth" in one audience segment in Los Angeles. But that growth began at a very, very low baseline — almost no audience at all. So Air America could improve greatly on that number — double or triple its audience — and still not attract enough listeners to make money. And whether this type of increase can sustain the network is an open question.