Not Airing America

Conservative talk dominates radio hereabouts, but Air America's negotiating.

Minnesota may not be the only place where Al Franken is moving. On Monday, Nov. 21, Air America Radio representatives were in Tampa negotiating with a local station, the identity of which they would not reveal. The network is also tight-lipped about how much of their lineup will make it onto Tampa Bay's airwaves. But The Al Franken Show, they say, is part of the negotiations. According to an Air America spokesperson, most affiliates pick up a minimum of 75 percent of the network's programming. Currently, 72 stations nationwide air at least one show.

Air America Radio has been trying to crack the Tampa market since its launch in the spring of 2004. Unlike WMNF-88.5 FM or WUSF-89.7 FM, both listener-supported stations, Air America is a for-profit network, and thus far, adopting its format apparently hasn't been financially worthwhile for any local stations. As of now, the only Air America program broadcast on commercial radio anywhere in the Central Florida coastal region is Jerry Springer's morning show, which airs Monday-Friday on WSRQ-1450 AM in Sarasota.

Tampa is the 19th largest radio market in the country, and it is dominated — at least in its talk format — by conservative voices. They range from such nationally syndicated shows as top-rated Rush Limbaugh, a cash cow for 970 WFLA, to conservative local talker Todd Schnitt on 970 (more widely known as MJ on his highly rated WFLZ-FM morning show) and Libertarian Mark Larsen on WWBA 1040. Other than Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" show (syndicated by Pacifica) on the non-commercial WMNF, there are no nationally known liberal voices on any radio stations in Tampa Bay.

That doesn't mean, however, that Progressive Talk (its industry-given name) is not on the move.

MediaWeek magazine reported that stations running PT programming have seen their total audience increase 45.4 percent in one year, based on Arbitron reports. "The format has another year or so to go to fully develop, but it's clear to me it's viable," Clear Channel vice president Gabe Hobbs told MediaWeek. "This isn't about blue or red, it's about green."

It's possible that commercial stations are leery of booking Progressive Talk because they fear WMNF already owns that audience. Besides Goodman, WMNF's lineup also includes Radioactivity, News Director Rob Lorei's live call-in show, plus a Monday-Friday evening news hour and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. But the schedule is otherwise weighted toward music, and Air America is all talk. Station Manager Vicki Santa says that Air America wouldn't threaten WMNF's listening base, and she'd welcome the network in the local radio landscape. "It seems to me there would be fertile ground here for someone to pick it up," she says.

One obvious fit would be at 1010 "The Buzz," whose anchor program is going bye-bye on Dec. 16 when Howard Stern leaves earthbound radio for the rarified — and doubtless obscenity-laced — air of satellite broadcasting on Sirius. An official with 1010's parent company, Infinity Broadcasting, did not return a telephone inquiry about his station's new lineup in the post-Stern era.

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