Politics & Policy

Liberal Radio Talks, Nobody Listens

The real story about liberal radio is the size of its audience.

As the new liberal talk-radio network finishes its first week in operation, industry insiders say the most impressive thing about the effort is not its performance–that has gotten mixed-to-negative reviews–but the fact that the network, Air America, has received such extensive press coverage relative to the tiny size of its audience.

”It was off the charts in terms of how much ballyhoo and hoopla it generated, considering what it is,” says Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, which tracks the talk radio business. “It’s a modest startup, and it was treated like some kind of revolution.”

While it is not possible to measure the audience for a radio network that has just begun operations–radio ratings just don’t work that way–it is possible to make some estimates about the size of that audience from information about the stations which carry Air America programming.

The management of Air America originally said the company would purchase a group of stations which would broadcast the liberal network, but, at least so far, that has not happened. Instead, Air America is heard on five stations: WLIB in New York, KBLA in Los Angeles, WNTD in Chicago, KPOJ in Portland, Oregon, and KCAA in Inland Empire, California. That means the network’s programming is on the air in five of the 285 radio markets in the United States. It is also available on the Internet and on XM radio.

All the broadcast outlets are AM stations, and in the past all have been rated near the bottom in their respective markets. According to published ratings from Arbitron, the company that measures radio audiences, WLIB was ranked 25th (out of 38 stations measured) in the New York market in the last quarter. KBLA, which broadcast Spanish-language programming before switching to Air America, was ranked 38th (out of 51 stations measured) in Los Angeles. WNTD, which also broadcast in Spanish, was rated 36th (out of 43 stations measured) in Chicago. KPOJ was rated 25th (out of 28 stations measured) in Portland. And KCAA did not have ratings high enough to be measured.

In terms of actual numbers, Arbitron officials say the so-called “cume” rating, which refers to the cumulative number of listeners who tune in to a station each week, was 315,000 for WLIB in the fall of 2003. For KBLA, it was 201,000. For WNTD, it was 74,000. And for KPOJ, it was 41,000. Again, KCAA was too small to measure.

Each station was struggling before the switch–after all, it is unlikely a station that is doing really well would change its format. It is not clear whether the change will result in more or less listeners in the long run, but it seems reasonable to conclude that in the short run, each station will lose a portion of its old listenership.

For example, there is a growing controversy in New York over the new identity of WLIB. Some listeners who were loyal to the black-oriented message of the station–as well as its Caribbean-music programming–are angry at the ownership for leasing most of WLIB’s broadcast day to the mostly-white Air America team. “Air America is in no way offering a satisfactory substitute for local community programming,” one activist told the New York Daily News.

In Los Angeles and Chicago, listeners who tuned in to hear Spanish-language programming now hear politically oriented talk in English. It seems likely that both stations, along with WLIB, have lost at least some of the listeners who enjoyed the old programming, and it is not clear if that loss has been compensated by the addition of new listeners who want to hear Air America. (Another station, WMNN in Minneapolis, Minnesota, broadcasts the program of Air America’s top talent, Minnesota native Al Franken, but does not carry the rest of the network’s programming).

In any event, given the stations’ performance in the past, plus the effect of the recent changes, it is unlikely that the entire nationwide listenership of Air America exceeds the number of people watching the local TV news on any given evening in a single large–or perhaps even medium-sized–television market. And that casts a new light on Franken’s stated ambition to use his radio program to defeat President Bush in November.

“This show is about taking back our country,” Franken said on the first day of his program, The O’Franken Factor. “It’s about relentlessly hammering away at the Bush administration until they crack and crumble this November, because, don’t get me wrong, friends, they are going down.”

Given the size of the Air America audience–one radio expert called it “microscopic”–it seems reasonable to say that if the president indeed goes down, it won’t be because of the new liberal talk radio network. After the intense media attention that surrounded Air America’s debut fades away, the network will likely spend the rest of this year trying to build a tiny listenership into a small one, and then to go from there. In any event, it won’t be shaking the world. “Everybody deals with it based on the premise that it is big, that is somehow has a chance to make an impact on the world on a level that is far beyond its physical ability,” says Michael Harrison. “It’s not a national audience.”

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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