Rarely has more attention been devoted to a broadcasting-related topic than to the latest attempt at making liberal talk radio work. But how is it really faring?

Where a number of national left-wing programs had failed one after another over the years, 2004 saw a concerted effort, backed by partisan funding, to make the Air America Network fly. Other radio syndication companies have since stepped into the mix with their own offerings.

Some pretty bold claims are being made at the moment: Jones Radio’s Ed Schultz, of Fargo, N.D., claims his show grew faster than Rush Limbaugh’s did in his first year of national syndication, for example. Wild proclamations about ratings growth at some stations have also generated headlines in recent months.

Corporate giant Clear Channel Radio has been converting small, also-ran radio stations around the country to a new liberal format featuring a varying blend of Air America and leftist programs originating from other radio networks.

In some cities such as San Diego and Portland, Ore., initial indications are that the format might be drawing an audience. San Diego’s KLSD-AM (no typo there) moved into 16th place in the latest Arbitron radio ratings survey, down slightly from the previous reporting period but up somewhat from the station’s old format.

Air America has a noisy band of activist fans who flood radio-industry Internet chat boards with impassioned defenses of every hiccup the firm faces. Since I’m familiar with some of these people, I can tell you they are the same ones who spent the last decade complaining about “Rush-clone wanna-be blowhards” and the general state of conservative-dominated talk radio. You don’t hear the same gripes from them about Al Franken and the others on the fledgling liberal network no matter what they say on the air.

There’s a clear difference between what led to the success of conservative talk radio programs such as Rush Limbaugh’s and what this crop of liberal hopefuls are doing.

Limbaugh and other successful hosts on the right were road-tested in individual cities first, and only after the demand was there were they syndicated to a waiting national audience. They didn’t create supply until there was demand.

When in later years, conservative programs were placed into national status without the host having the on-air seasoning and proven ability to draw an audience at the local level, the result has almost always been eventual failure.

In Air America’s case, the cart has been placed before the horse. “Hosts” without a minute of talk radio experience were placed on their network based mostly on marquee value rather than demonstrated talent. Then the hope was to see radio operators pick up the programming for their various stations. “Building on spec” is a risky way to do business.

So what about these claims of huge ratings growth at individual liberal stations? The problem is many of the stations that converted to the “progressive” format were so tiny, they often didn’t show up in Arbitron radio ratings results.

If it previously had a miniscule 0.1 share (percentage) of the radio listening audience age 12 and over and with Air America have a 1.0 share, sure, you can honestly tout your 1000 percent ratings increase. But it causes laughter in the radio industry.

And Ed Schultz’s claims of growing faster than Rush Limbaugh are hilarious for this reason: Rush Limbaugh was tacking on one major-market powerhouse after another in his early syndication days, while Schultz’s additions have been little flyswatter operations, many in remote locations. To make a comparison based on just a numerical count of affiliates is disingenuous at best.

Two important pieces of data have come about this month that shed a tremendous amount of light on Air America’s real performance: One, in key Fall 2004 Arbitron ratings figures recently released, their flagship station, WLIB-AM in New York City, saw flat ratings results compared to the station’s previous Caribbean format.

Perhaps more significant, but overlooked by the press so far, is what has happened in Providence, R.I.

There, Clear Channel’s WHJJ-AM did something few others have dared to try so far: dump a reasonably successful conservative lineup for this liberal one.

The results for WHJJ have been truly disastrous so far, a huge ratings decline from a 3.5 share of the 12 and older audience to a 2.6, for 12th place overall. That’s fairly considered a crisis, especially when it hits during the Fall Arbitron Ratings Survey, key for determining future advertising rates.

Its primarily conservative competition in Providence, Citadel’s WPRO-AM, home to Rush Limbaugh, saw a surge during the survey period from a 4.4 to a 5.1 audience share, good for sixth place in the metro area. While WHJJ chased listeners away with liberal offerings, WPRO got an opportunity to grab thousands of new fans overnight in head-to-head competition.

What’s next for liberal radio? This week, several new stations signed on with the format, and a station in TV trashmeister Jerry Springer’s hometown of Cincinnati debuted his new leftist radio program, said to be an upcoming addition to “progressive” syndicated talk radio.

More risky “building on spec,” or a radio format with staying power? My money’s on the former. But one thing liberal radio has in its favor is a decent number of politically sympathetic radio company executives and station programmers who’ve been trapped in positions for years running shows they personally hate.

Emotions can cloud good judgment in such situations, and the result may be the addition of more Air America stations even when the results so far are less than stellar.

Brian Maloney is a Cape Cod, Mass., based radio talk-show host and writer who maintains a blog at http://radioequalizer.blogspot.com. He can be reached at [email protected]

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