Finally, liberals can rant, too

Progress Radio signs Al Franken, plans to launch at end of the month


March 14, 2004|By Liz Halloran | Liz Halloran,HARTFORD COURANT

Are American radio listeners ready for The O'Franken Factor? Moreover, is The O'Franken Factor really ready for them?

This past week, after more than a year of planning and pitfalls, the Air America radio network, comprising a handful of politically liberal shows airing on four stations, announced plans to begin operations March 31.

"We are not ceding this territory any more," comedian and writer Al Franken said from the network's New York offices Wednesday. "To their credit, the right wing has captured radio. We are going at them, and going hard."

The network will be heard initially on WLIB in New York, WNTD in Chicago, KBLA in Los Angeles and a San Francisco station to be named later, according to Mark Walsh, chief executive officer of Progress Media, Air America's parent.

Walsh, a former television anchor and Internet entrepreneur whose previous jobs include stints at HBO and America Online, also announced the network's full lineup.

Franken's show, whose title is a takeoff on Fox News' popular The O'Reilly Factor, is set for noon to 3 p.m., with co-host Katherine Lanpher; satirist Mark Maron will be host for the 6-9 a.m. morning show, with co- hosts Sue Ellicott and Mark Riley; Lizz Winstead, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, will be joined by rapper Chuck D and co-host Laura Flanders from 9 a.m. to noon.

Veteran Florida talker Randi Rhodes will be on from 3 to 6 p.m. followed by a one-hour, Los Angeles-based news commentary show with Marty Kaplan as host. Comedian Janeane Garofalo, with co-host Sam Seder, finishes up from 8 to 11 p.m.

Weekend programming is to include "Champions of Justice," a show about legal and social issues with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mike Papatanio.

"The nation is more divided than anyone can remember, and in division is a media opportunity," Walsh, 49, said. "We want to have a full broadcast day - not just one liberal show bobbing in the bile and spew of conservative talk."

The network lineup, which will also include a daily report from online magazine Salon, is meant to be "entertaining, informing and comedic," and a counterpoint to what's already on the air, said Walsh.

Bumps in the road

The new network was conceived more than a year ago as a way to get liberal voices on radio airwaves dominated by conservative talk shows like Rush Limbaugh's syndicated program, heard on about 600 stations. It prompted a flurry of media attention but encountered several bumps in its development.

In December, the original owners sold their venture to investors, including Walsh and Evan Cohen, a New York venture capitalist. The new team signed up several hosts, but ran into difficulty acquiring stations.

"It's the best of times and the worst of times for acquisitions and leasing," Walsh said. "There are not a lot of great AM or FM stations for sale that have a fantastic footprint or don't already have ongoing, cash-generating programming." Chicago's WNTD-AM for months had been the network's only station.

There will be no "flagship" station for Air America, Walsh said, although all programming except Kaplan's show will be produced and broadcast from the WLIB studios in Manhattan. Walsh said he expects about five more stations "in the top 20 markets" will be announced by the launch date or soon afterward, including outlets in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Longtime observers of the radio industry say they are not surprised that the new network struggled to get up and running in time to have an influence on political debate during this presidential election year.

"It's difficult to put any network together; it has nothing to do with the fact that it's liberal," said Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine, the bible of talk radio. "They have to develop marketing, programming and talent. That takes time. ... That still doesn't mean they can't succeed."

They can't ignore it

Once Air America gets on the air, it will have a good chance of influencing political discussion, even though its reach may be limited, said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, because the "reigning talkers won't be able to ignore them."

"Nobody's ever been there, day to day, to respond to the issues from a liberal view," he said.

But attracting an audience large enough to create revenue will be difficult, especially initially, Taylor said, and for an interesting reason: Politically moderate or liberal listeners will tune in to conservative shows if they are entertaining, he said, but conservatives tend not to listen to liberal shows.

"The question is, can you persuade conservative listeners to sit down and give some radio time to Al Franken?" he said. "Progress Media is inventing something that a lot of people say can't be invented."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Tribune newspapers Newsday and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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