BOB GARFIELD: Six months ago, on March 31st, 2004, Air America began. [TAPE PLAYS]
AL FRANKEN: Broadcasting from an underground bunker, 3500 feet below Dick Cheney's bunker, Air America Radio is On the Air. I'm Al Franken, and welcome to the O'Franken Factor. Today is both an ending... [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: But Air America was never just one show, hosted by Al Franken. It was and remains an entire network, with new show after new show, bound together by the common goal of ousting the President from the White House, and the common belief that there should be loud and raucous liberal talk radio, just the way there is loud and rowdy conservative talk radio. Here's what that's sounded like lately, in case you haven't heard. [TAPE PLAYS]
MAN: The question remains: do the Democrats have what it takes to win against the filthy, disgusting politics of Karl Rove. [END TAPE] [TAPE PLAYS]
JANEANE GAROFALO: It kills me. They go yeah, but you're good--you're Democrat, right? Oh, yeah, but you're liberal. That doesn't change historical fact. [END TAPE] [TAPE PLAYS]
AL FRANKEN: And I've challenged Bill O'Reilly--
KATHERINE LANPHER: The Great American Bowloff.
AL FRANKEN: Yeah. That, is that what it's called?
KATHERINE LANPHER: Yeah.
AL FRANKEN: It's a good thing. And I've challenged Bill O'Reilly to, to a match and-- he won't do it. He's-- Buck, buck, buck, buck. [TAPE PLAYS]
RANDI RHODES: Is the Bush family now, for all intents, purposes -- intents and purposes -- are they now the Saudi royal family? Are they now a monarchy? Do they really think they're that special? [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: Paula Span surveyed Air America for the Washington Post Magazine, and she joins me now. Paula, welcome to OTM.
PAULA SPAN: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Six months ago, when the station was going on the air, Chuck Dee, co-host of the show Unfiltered, told us that at first they'd be reaching the converted and curious. They began on 16 stations. Have they gone beyond the converted, at least? What's the latest tally?
PAULA SPAN: They began on 16, and they lost two of the biggest -- Los Angeles and Chicago -- in a contract dispute. Now they're on 33 stations including two satellite stations, and their in San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia. This week they added San Francisco. Next week they're adding Boston. So they're getting there.
BOB GARFIELD: Evidently, they know something about the audience in New York. Can you tell me about it?
PAULA SPAN: New York, actually, it's drawing an audience that looks a lot like an NPR station. It's an affluent, educated audience, more female than talk radio usually draws. In this case, in New York it was about 50-50, male and female. About a third of the audience was Republican or independent, and it was younger than most talk radio stations can pull. So they were excited about that. And it did fairly well in the ratings, too.
BOB GARFIELD: Excited because it expands the political base for liberal voters, or excited because advertisers so covet the youth audience?
PAULA SPAN: Well, exactly. Remember, it, it wants to make money, and when it can pull affluent, educated listeners who are 25 to 54, that's what advertisers wanted to see. And as the months went on, you could listen and hear advertising for pretty big blue chip national advertisers -- American Express, Ford, Sirius, Home Depot. Originally, there were a lot of public service announcements for fighting forest fires. Not any more.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it's quite a stark contrast to the early days when the network, it looked like, might not survive the first month or two. Tell me about the fiscal fiasco that ensued.
PAULA SPAN: Early on, Air America felt very confident that it had enough money to weather several years of lawsuits. Its ad reps were told that even if they didn't sell a single spot to a single advertiser, they would be fine for a couple of years. Then, suddenly, in late April, only a month after they'd gone on the air, a few paychecks bounced. And then in May, it was announced that they couldn't meet the payroll. There was a series of resignations and firings, and things looked grim. For a couple of weeks, people didn't know if they were going to be on the air the next day or not. They got some new investors, they re-organized. Things have stabilized. And part of what kept them going, I think -- virtually none of the staff left, even though they were afraid of not getting paid -- no one could stand to think about what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would say if the much ballyhooed liberal radio network went kaput after a month.
BOB GARFIELD: When Air America debuted, most of the attention was on Janeane Garofalo, and especially I think, Al Franken. Your story in the Post Magazine focused on Randi Rhodes, who had been a host of a local talk show in Florida.
PAULA SPAN: She was almost the only person in the whole Air America lineup that had any background at all in commercial talk radio. Her show in West Palm Beach, Florida consistently beat Rush Limbaugh for the past five years, so she had a track record. But she didn't have a high public profile. So for the first couple of months, people didn't pay that much attention to her. But she's getting ratings in the places where there are ratings to be gotten.
BOB GARFIELD: From the very beginning, the discussion about Air America was the search for the "Limbaugh of the Left." Has Air America found that person? Is it Randi Rhodes? Is it Al Franken? Who is it?
PAULA SPAN: I don't know if there could be another Limbaugh, left or right, because he came along at a time when no one else was doing this kind of radio, and he's on 600 plus stations. He almost can't grow into any more markets without competing with himself. But people will certainly be able to have a future in talk radio. Franken is doing very well, and probably can if he wants to. Of course, he does a lot of other things, and he's talking about a Senate race in Minnesota. How many of these folks want to go on after the next year or two is unclear to me. Randi Rhodes probably will. She's a radio person before. Like Limbaugh, she trained herself in a lot of small markets, and like Limbaugh, she works alone. No co-hosts. It's basically all-Randi, all the time. [TAPE PLAYS]
RANDI RHODES: So apparently the only people who can't get near the president, is the press. Me! We're not permitted to answer or ask questions, or we're not permitted to get near the president. This is amazing. This is sick. [END TAPE]
PAULA SPAN: If there is a liberal Limbaugh, maybe it's Randi.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Paula, thanks very much.
PAULA SPAN: You're very welcome. Good to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Paula Span is a staff writer at the Washington Post. She also teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.