Sunday, November 20, 2005

How Clear Channel Saved Air America Radio

Air American Radio launched in April 2004 and immediately fell flat on its face. In less than two months the fledgling liberal network lost its affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago, started bouncing checks for everything from payroll to studio rentals, and fired their CEO and several other members of top management.

Then something funny happened. While the media, especially the incumbent right wing talk radio pundits, were writing Air America Radio’s obituary, AAR researchers discovered some good news in a ratings report for the networks Portland, OR affiliate. It seems that Clear Channel Communications decided to give AAR a chance on a weak AM stations that it owned in Portland, OR. The station, KPOJ, 620 AM was struggling playing adult standards and generating an average share of less than a buck. Clear Channel decided to give AAR a chance. Afterall, Portland was considered a "liberal" market and there were already three talk radio stations there programming conservative talk radio. Well after one book, KPOJ, improved its average share by 1,000% and Clear Channel took notice. So while AAR’s backers were desperately trying to keep the struggling network from going under, the good news from the left coast provided a helpful surge.

With CC on board AAR’s fortunes started to improve. It seems that CC had bought so many stations over the past half dozen years that they suddenly realized that they owned a lot of AM dogs in some top markets around the country. Most of these stations played oldies rock n’ roll or standards and their miniscule audiences were literally dying off each month. So when CC struck gold with AAR in Portland they started converting AM stations in other markets to liberal talk radio. Eventually 21 CC stations became AAR affiliates and while this only represented 30% of all stations carrying AAR programming, these stations accounted for almost 70% of AAR’s ratings. While most of CC’s AAR stations are not doing as well as KPOJ, which now getting shares over 4, these stations are doing well enough.

CC seems to be happy with the performance of their AAR stations. However, one CC station, WHJJ in Providence has dropped most of the AAR programs including Al Franken’s Show in favor of locally produced talk. Also all CC stations offer Jones’ Liberal talkers Ed Schultz and several offer Stephanie Miller. What is most disturbing is that AAR has not been acquiring many new affiliates for several months now.

For the first year of the liberal talk radio networks existence they gained coverage on stations serving 100.000.000 radio listeners. However, in the last five months while AAR has acquired about a half dozen new affiliates they have not been able to expand their total coverage at all. This is largely due to the lose of WHJJ and two non-CC affiliates in Philadelphia and Charleston, SC. Now it is rumored that AAR will be losing its affiliate in Phoenix – KXXT.

Has AAR hit a plateau and will it be stuck here for awhile or is their lack of growth something more disturbing? What they must now do is concentrate on improving ratings. While it is not reasonable to expect liberal talk radio to establish parity with the leading conservative talk stations – which reach virtually all 200,000 12+ radio listeners in the measured markets. They won’t be able to do this, if for no other reason, than the quality of the stations carrying AAR and other liberal talk programming is significantly less than the stations carrying top conservatives talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. For example, here in Los Angeles, Rush Limbaugh is on the 50,000-watt blowtorch station KFI 640-AM, that can be heard from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. I can't even get the liberal talk stations from San Diego, KLSD and Los Angeles, KTLK on my car radio here in South Orange County (which is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.)

However, these stations must figure out a way to increase their ratings before starting a new push for increased distribution.

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