Politics & Policy

Al Franken and Air America: Who’s Listening?

New ratings show a small audience for liberal talk radio.

Just six weeks ago, Al Franken boasted that the new liberal radio network, Air America, was beating conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in the ratings in the nation’s largest media market, New York City. “We beat him,” the host of The Al Franken Show told CNBC’s Tina Brown in early June. “The period we’re opposite Rush, we–we beat WABC, so we think we beat Rush.”

Franken based his statement on calculations done by Air America executives analyzing early and incomplete ratings for the demographic group of listeners between the ages of 25 and 54. Now, however, Arbitron, the audience-research firm, has released final ratings for Spring 2004–the April/May/June time period that coincides precisely with Air America’s first months on the air. And the news is not nearly as good for Air America as Franken and others had led the public to believe.

In New York, Air America’s programming is heard on WLIB, a station which until the end of March provided listeners with Caribbean-oriented music and talk. In January, February, and March, the quarter before WLIB switched to Air America, the old format earned a 1.3-percent share of the New York audience in the period from 10 A.M. until 3 P.M. That placed WLIB 25th among New York radio stations.

During that same time, WABC, which broadcasts Limbaugh, earned a 4.4-percent share of the audience, putting it in fourth place in the New York market. (The ratings figures, provided by Arbitron, are for all listeners over 12 years old; the company does not release its detailed demographic breakdowns of audiences in each market.)

According to new figures released Friday by Arbitron, Air America has slightly improved WLIB’s ratings in the 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. period but has not managed to gain ground on Limbaugh and WABC. In the April/May/June period, WLIB earned a 1.7-percent share of the New York audience in the late morning and early afternoon, putting it in 23rd place in the overall market. For its part, WABC earned a 4.8 share of the audience, making it tied for second place in the market.

It is possible that the ratings might be somewhat different for specific demographic groups, but it seems reasonable to conclude that, Air America’s early claims aside, Limbaugh’s dominance is safe for now.

In addition, Air America claimed victory, however fleeting, only in the New York City market. Arbitron has not yet released ratings for most other cities. But much of that will be irrelevant for Air America. Even after the extensive publicity that accompanied its launch, the network’s programming is still heard in just 17 of the nation’s 287 radio markets. It is available on the air in just one of the nation’s top-ten markets–New York. Miami, where Air America programming was only recently made available, and Minneapolis, where only part of the network’s programs are available, are the only other cities in the top 20 markets where Air America is heard on the air.

None of that would be terribly newsworthy if Air America had billed itself as a modest startup venture. But Franken and others at the network openly challenged Limbaugh and the entire conservative talk-radio establishment. They even said they were winning. But the new numbers show they have a long, long way to go.


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