By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; C08
Air America, the liberal talk-radio network that helped boost the careers of Al Franken and Rachel Maddow, said Thursday that it was declaring bankruptcy and going off the air.
The company, founded in 2004 and based in New York, strove to provide left-leaning commentary and call-in programs as an alternative to such popular conservative radio talkers as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage.
It was troubled almost from the start. The company had difficulty lining up affiliates and attracting a sizable audience. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection just 30 months after its inception and was resold to an investor group in early 2007 for $4.25 million.
Charlie Kireker, one of Air America's principal owners and its chairman, said in a memo to employees Thursday that the company was done in by "a perfect storm" of plunging ad revenues, intense competition, high debt and poor prospects for new financing. A search for new investors, he said, has been fruitless. The company declined further comment.
Air America's chief executive is Bennett Zier, who previously founded and headed Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's broadcasting company, Red Zebra, and was the top executive of Clear Channel Broadcasting's cluster of eight major stations in the Washington area. The company's programming director, Bill Hess, is also a longtime Washington radio executive.
Since last summer, Air America has been heard in the Washington area on WZAA (1050 AM). Its audience has been so small that Arbitron, which compiles radio ratings, was unable to detect any listeners for WZAA during several weeks in December.
Franken was one of Air America's earliest program hosts; he left the network in 2007 to launch his successful bid for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota. Maddow, another host, made the transition to television and hosts a nightly show on MSNBC. Ron Reagan Jr., Arianna Huffington and Montel Williams have also had Air America programs.
Ana Marie Cox, who has hosted a one-hour program on Air America on Saturday and Sundays for the past year, said on Thursday that news of the network's demise took her by surprise. She said that the programming, as well as Air America's Web site, had begun to improve of late but that people hadn't caught up to it.
"I'd gotten used to people saying: 'Oh, Air America. Is that still around?'" Cox said. "One of my standard jokey responses was, 'Well, my paycheck still clears.' I guess that will stop."
The network, she said, had tried to incorporate more humor and move away from being an "angry" liberal version of conservative talk radio, which can be argumentative and aggressive. "I think the progressive or liberal audience likes a different type of discussion," she said.
Kireker said in his memo that Air America will carry reruns of earlier programs until it goes off the air at 9 p.m. Monday.