Monday, January 29, 2007

Air America Radio was rescued from bankruptcy yesterday, but still faces the impending loss of Al Franken, its most popular talker.

The liberal network will be sold to Stephen Green, a Manhattan real estate investment mogul with heavy Democratic ties, including his brother Mark Green, who ran for mayor against Michael R. Bloomberg in 2001. The sale of the network — deemed a “personal investment” by the two brothers — will be completed in mid-February for an undisclosed sum.

Mr. Green is intent on bringing solvency to Air America, which has been troubled by flagging ratings, cash deficits and management turmoil since it was founded almost three years ago as a foil to popular conservative talk radio.

The network was often called “Err America” by critics.

“In the long run, content is king,” said Mr. Green, vowing to stabilize the network’s finances, beef up the talent roster and extend the Air America “brand” into other marketing or broadcast opportunities. The network’s weekly audience has been stuck at just under 2 million since the beginning — about one-tenth the number of listeners who tune in each week to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“The current idea in radio is that you have to think outside the box, and find other ways to get content across,” said Joe Howard, editor of Radio Ink, an industry publication. “With Air America, you have to wonder if there is enough audience for it to thrive, or if the network is a niche product.”

Niche or not, the on-air lineup will suffer when Mr. Franken leaves. He told his listeners he would depart Feb. 14 but was coy about whether he would run against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in 2008 for the U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Minnesota.

“I’m definitely giving it some serious consideration, and I’ll make my decision soon,” Mr. Franken said yesterday.

He has regarded Air America as a political platform since the beginning.

“Today is both an ending and a beginning — an end to the right-wing dominance of talk radio, a beginning of a battle for truth, a battle for justice, a battle indeed for America,” Mr. Franken said on his first broadcast when the network signed on with five affiliates on March 31, 2004.

He founded the Midwest Values PAC two years ago to provide support to “progressive candidates, activists and causes” around the country, according to his personal Web site. Mr. Franken will be replaced in his noon-3 p.m. time slot by Thom Hartmann.

Meanwhile, Sheldon Drobny, Air America’s original founder, left the company and is busy with a Nova M Radio, a national progressive talk-radio network in partnership Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager. The fledgling network broadcasts in 12 cities, funded by “grass-roots membership,” according to publicity materials.

“Air America at best will be another content company with a name tarnished by bad-management bankruptcy. And the prospective rescuers have no experience in radio,” Mr. Drobny wrote at the online Huffington Post yesterday, later concluding, “Relying on mega-millionaire liberals to put ego aside for the common good is almost impossible.”

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