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Air America, Touching Down in D.C.

Programming to Debut On WRC Next Month

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page C01

Air America, the liberal radio network that had a rocky takeoff last spring, has struck a deal to land in Washington.

The arrangement with WRC-AM comes as the fledgling network is gaining altitude, announcing yesterday that it has re-signed star personality Al Franken to a multiyear contract, raised $13 million in new financing and named Rob Glaser, chief executive of RealNetworks, as its chairman.

Al Franken says that in Washington "you don't exist unless you're on." (Gregory Bull -- AP)

WRC (1260) plans to drop its syndicated sports talk programming in favor of Franken and some of the rest of Air America's left-leaning lineup while adding other liberal commentators, say people familiar with the matter. This would give WRC's owner, Clear Channel Communications, a "blue state" station to balance its "red state" programs on WTNT (570), which includes conservative hosts Laura Ingraham, G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Savage.

Don Imus, the acid-tongued morning host heard on WTNT, will be simulcast on WRC. Neither station has been a powerhouse in the Arbitron ratings, with WTNT ranked 17th in the market last summer, with an average of 74,500 listeners. WRC, which has a weaker signal, was last at No. 40, averaging 29,800 listeners.

Air America's Beltway debut will be Jan. 20, with Franken broadcasting from President Bush's second inauguration. WRC and WTNT hope to have many of their liberal and conservative hosts broadcasting live that day from the Mandarin Hotel.

Air America is on in 40 cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, as well as on Sirius and XM satellite radio.

"The original CEO said we had enough money not to make money for three years, and it turned out it was actually three weeks," Franken said yesterday. "Now we're just loaded with new money from investors and we're kicking [butt]." The $13 million cash infusion represents about two-thirds of Air America's fundraising goal.

Franken, an activist and satirist, said he originally signed for one year because "I didn't know if I'd like it," not because he wanted to be on the air only during the presidential campaign. "It turned out I love it. I love the three hours on the air. I'm proud of the show. I like the mix of humor and seriousness and sometimes emotion." The decision douses speculation that Franken might run for a Senate seat from Minnesota in 2006.

The new affiliate is important, Franken said, because "in Washington, which as you know is our nation's capital, you don't exist unless you're on." Franken's noon show will compete here with Rush Limbaugh on WMAL-AM and Bill O'Reilly on WJFK-FM.

Asked for comment, Bennett Zier, who oversees WRC and WTNT as Clear Channel's regional vice president, said, "We broadcast what the people want to hear. After the election, people in this area have a lot to say and we want to make sure we're providing outlets for all opinions."

Sheldon Drobny, the Illinois venture capitalist who founded the network, sold it and then helped raise money when the original management was ousted, said in an e-mail to the political newsletter Hotline: "Competition for our network in the market allowed us to do this deal without compensation!" (Radio syndicators pay local stations to carry their programming in exchange for a share of advertising revenue.) Drobny's wife, Anita, has served as interim chairwoman. Glaser, whose RealNetworks streams the network on the Internet, has also been an investor.

Many analysts wrote off Air America last spring when it hit financial turbulence and lost its stations in Chicago and Los Angeles. But it has mounted a comeback, abandoning its original strategy of buying stations and signing affiliates instead.

The lineup, which includes actress Janeane Garofalo and radio veteran Randi Rhodes, who has also signed a new contract, has drawn respectable ratings in a medium long dominated by the right. Among listeners ages 25 to 54, Air America says, it has been in the top five in San Diego, Miami and Portland, Ore.

"Air America has been something of a phenomenon," said Michael Harrison, editor of the industry magazine Talkers. "Their accomplishment has to be measured in more than revenue and ratings. They've had a tremendous impact on changing the culture of talk radio and the way talk radio is perceived by the public. They've really opened the door to major industry licensees and program producers recognizing that talk radio has a huge potential market beyond just conservative hosts."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company