Politics & Policy

Air America’s Year of Decline

The liberal network scores its lowest-ever ratings.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This story has been updated since its original posting to reflect newly available ratings figures.

The latest radio ratings are in, and they show continued bad news for Air America, the liberal talk radio network featuring Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Janeane Garofolo, and others.

While it is difficult to pinpoint Air America’s ratings nationally–it is on the air in about 50 stations across the country, and has been on some of them for just the last few months–it is possible to measure the network’s performance in the nation’s number one market, New York City. And in the new ratings, Air America hits an all-time low in a key demographic measurement.

The new Arbitron figures for Winter 2005, which covers January, February, and March, show that WLIB, the station which carries Air America in New York, won a 1.2-percent share of all listeners 12 years and older. That is down one tenth of one point from the station’s 1.3 rating in Winter 2004, the last period when it aired its old format of Caribbean music and talk.

Air America debuted on March 31, 2004. In the network’s first quarter on the air, Spring of 2004, which covered April, May, and June, Air America won a 1.3 percent share of the market audience. That number rose slightly to 1.4 percent in the Summer 2004 July/August/September period, and fell back to 1.2 percent in the Fall 2004 October/November/December period, where it remains today.

Those numbers are, again, for all listeners 12 years and older. Air America executives, however, often point to the network’s performance among listeners 25 to 54 years of age, the preferred demographic target for radio advertisers. But in that area, too, Air America is struggling.

Between the hours of 10 A.M. and 3 P.M., for example, the daypart that includes Al Franken’s program, Air America drew a 1.4-percent share of the New York audience aged 25 to 54 in Winter 2005. That number is the latest in a nearly year-long decline. In Spring of 2004, Air America’s first quarter on the air, it drew a 2.2-percent share of the audience. That rose to 2.3 percent in the Summer of 2004, then fell to 1.6 percent in the Fall of 2004, and is now 1.4 percent–Air America’s lowest-ever quarterly rating in that time and demographic slot.

The numbers are just as striking when narrowed to the specific period from noon to 3 P.M., when Franken’s program airs on WLIB opposite Rush Limbaugh on WABC. Even though Franken once claimed to be beating the conservative host in New York, in the Winter 2005 figures, his program attracted a 1.9-percent share of the audience to Limbaugh’s 3.2 percent in the 25 to 54 age group.

Franken’s performance against Limbaugh in the most recent ratings is significantly lower than in Air America’s first months. In Spring 2004, Air America’s first quarter on the air, Franken scored a 2.6-percent share to Limbaugh’s 3.2-percent share. In Summer 2004, he scored a 2.8-percent share to Limbaugh’s 3.2 percent. But in Fall 2004, Franken dropped to a 1.8 percent share to Limbaugh’s 4.1-percent share, all within the 25 to 54 age group.

That last number surprised some observers because it showed Air America faltering in October and November 2004, the period when the presidential election was reaching its finish and political passions were presumably at their highest. But even then, Air America’s decline continued.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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