By Ben Goddard - 02/03/05 12:00 AM EST
One of the many reasons we still call George W. Bush Mr. President is that the Republican campaign made a lot better use of radio than the Democrats did in the 2004 election.
The Republicans bought more radio time in target states (Sen. John Kerry wasn’t even on the air in most) and made sophisticated use of talk-radio programs, especially those with conservative hosts.
Republicans have a long history with the power of radio to deliver their message. Rush Limbaugh generated heat, e-mails and talking points to support a conservative agenda. He was the catalyst for hundreds of like-minded talkers on network, syndicated and local radio over the past decade and a half.
Several years ago, a pair of liberal Chicago activists with a healthy bank account decided to quit complaining about the dominance of conservative views on radio and do something. Anita and Sheldon Drobny helped create Air America to tell their side of the story. They achieved a high-profile launch immediately followed by a sickening crash, and now, under the leadership of Jon Sinton and a cadre of more experienced radio hands, Air America is flying once again.
You can now hear the results in Washington, D.C., at 1260 AM, where you’ll hear such hosts as Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, syndicated talker Stephanie Miller and Steve Earle, who mixes music and opinion in what he calls a “breath of air” every Sunday at 10 p.m. local time. To listen for a day is to experience an eclectic mix of comedy, news, radical opinion, blues guitar and spirited debates. This is radio from before the days of homogenized play lists and narrow demographic targets.
“We’ve proven there is a national audience for progressive radio” if it is “smart, enlightened and entertaining,” says Carl Ginsburg, executive vice president of the network.
Populist musician Earle, who tapes his show during breaks from touring with his band, has a more basic standard for success. “We’re still here!” he says. And he’s on the air in markets that reach half of America.
Ginsburg predicts that the signal will reach 80 percent of Americans by the end of the year “and there’s a strong possibility we’ll be profitable by then.” That’s important to the staff. Both Earle and Randi Rhodes, one of the most outspoken personalities on the network, emphasized that “this is commercial radio.”
The new investors, who put up $20 million to bail out the venture when checks started bouncing shortly after the first airdate, probably think that’s important as well. It also sends a powerful message to media critics.
Before the launch, and especially after the highly visible economic meltdown, media pundits and industry experts patiently explained that while conservative radio had a narrow but loyal base, there was no cohesive audience for “liberal talk.” Air America wants to prove them wrong.
Rhodes thinks there are millions of Americans who feel just as she does about President Bush, the war in Iraq and the conservative agenda. “I get people calling up to say, ‘Oh my God! You make me feel sane!’” she says. But her goal isn’t just giving comfort to true believers. “I gotta convert moderates,” she insists. “I get at least one every day.”
One thing you will hear on the network is a lot of diverse opinions. “I don’t screen calls,” Rhodes says. Ginsburg points out that he schedules Franken to appear before conservative audiences — a strategy that is both provocative and thought provoking. On my air checks over a couple of days last week, I heard many spirited debates between conservative listeners and liberal hosts.
Ginsburg is committed to the message but focused on the numbers right now. He says the network is reaching the important 25-54 demographic with a gender balance you don’t see on conservative radio. While it seems unlikely they’ll be putting up big numbers right away, Ginsburg and his team are optimistic about the fall and spring books. He says their audience listens at work, on the way to and from work and while at home.
“They listen for longer periods of time, and that’s important to advertisers,” he says. If he’s right about his audience, he’s also right about advertisers.
If this fledgling network does continue to prosper, there is an important message for the mainstream media and for Democrats. For the media: There is an audience beyond the narrow niches favored by format consultants. For Democrats: You’re missing a big opportunity if you continue to concede radio to the right.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: email@example.com