June 28, 2004,
In recent weeks, Air America, the startup liberal talk-radio network, has claimed early ratings success in the battle against conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. The network says that Al Franken, host of Air America's O'Franken Factor, which airs on station WLIB in New York City, beat Limbaugh, whose program appears on WABC, in New York in the key audience demographic of listeners age 25 to 54.
"We beat him," Franken told CNBC's Tina Brown in early June. "We got these Arbitron ratings for the month of April, and from 10 to 3, the I'm on from noon to 3, the period we're opposite Rush, we we beat WABC, so we think we beat Rush."
The early ratings they were not actually ratings but extrapolations made by Air America from preliminary-ratings data spurred a lot of enthusiastic talk among Air America supporters. But since Franken spoke, Air America executives have received ratings for the month of May, and the network has not claimed any advantage, nationally or in any particular city, over Limbaugh.
So just what are Air America's ratings? There are no definitive measures for the time Air America has been in operation since its premiere March 31. Arbitron, the radio-ratings service, publishes quarterly ratings. The first quarter of 2004 January, February, and March was before Air America went on the air, and the second quarter April, May, and June is not quite finished.
But there is some information about Air America's audience that is available now. In addition to its standard quarterly measure, Arbitron keeps track of rolling three-month ratings. For example, along with the January/February/March quarterly rating, Arbitron compiles a preliminary February/March/April rating and a March/April/May rating. Those measures provide a glimpse of how the ratings are progressing between the standard quarterly periods.
In New York, those rolling three-month ratings suggest that changing to the Air America format has improved WLIB's ratings, but not dramatically. It has not vaulted the station past WABC.
While Arbitron does not make public a demographic breakdown of the audience (that is reserved for paying customers), the ratings for the entire body of listeners age 12 and over are as follows: In the January/February/March period, a time when WLIB broadcast its old Caribbean music and talk format, the station earned a 1.3-percent share of the New York audience in the time period from 10 A.M. until 3 P.M., placing it 25th among the New York market's radio stations. During that time, WABC earned a 4.4-percent share, making it tied for fourth place in the market.
In the February/March/April period, which measured two months of the old WLIB format and one month of the new Air America format, WLIB earned a 1.6-percent share of the audience in the 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. time slot, ranking 23rd in the market. WABC earned a 4.9-percent share, ranking third.
In the March/April/May period, which measured one month of the old WLIB format and two months of the new Air America format, WLIB again earned a 1.8-percent share of the audience, putting it tied for 22nd in the market. WABC earned a 4.9-percent share, putting it tied for third place.
These numbers cannot be precisely compared to the demographic figures in the ratings claimed by Air America. Nevertheless, they suggest that Air America was likely premature in claiming victory over WABC and Limbaugh. More will be known on July 16, when Arbitron releases its final ratings for the second quarter of this year.
Whatever its ratings, Air America's more serious problem at the moment is financial. Last week the Wall Street Journal published a devastating account of what appeared to be gross financial misrepresentations by some of the network's founding executives (they have since left the company). The bottom line is that Air America appears to have far less money than it originally claimed.
The situation is so serious that radio experts suggest the network will have to abandon its current business plan if it is to survive. Specifically, Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, says Air America must stop insisting that stations air its entire day of programming and instead offer specific programs, like The O'Franken Factor or The Randi Rhodes Show, to stations that might want to air them.
"The answer is clear," says Harrison. "Get rid of the idea of the network, take the best shows Franken, Rhodes, and maybe [Janeane] Garafalo and syndicate them....They have to come around to it soon, or they're going to run out of money."
The larger problem, Harrison explains, is that Air America seems to have focused more on making a political point than in crafting a viable business plan. "Beating Rush Limbaugh, knocking George Bush out of business it's so out of whack with the way the [radio] world operates," Harrison says.