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A year after the launch of the Air America radio network, progressive talk is making progress

It's morning drive time in Boston, and talk-show host Stephanie Miller is blasting away, criticizing the forces pushing to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube restored, mocking Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly, and attacking Senator Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican. A year after the left launched a major effort to combat Rush Limbaugh and conservative dominance of the airwaves, liberal talk is taking hold here and in scores of other cities.

While the big talk stations WRKO-AM (680) and WTKK-FM (96.9) remain strongholds of conservative voices, such left-of-center hosts as Miller, Ed Schultz, Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, and Janeane Garofalo are luring listeners to what is billed as ''Boston's new progressive talk radio network."

That network consists of two ratings-challenged stations -- Framingham's WKOX-AM (1200) and Medford's WXKS-AM (1430) -- that operate with sunrise-to-sundown licenses. But the mere fact that the network exists prompts analysts to deem the embryonic experiment in liberal talk a promising, if qualified, success.

''There's obviously a niche that was not being filled, and they found that niche," said Scott Fybush, editor of the publication NorthEast Radio Watch. ''The question now is: Can they grow it?"

One year ago today, amid much media hoopla, a new liberal radio network called Air America began broadcasting on five stations, pinning its hopes on the star power of Franken and Garofalo, and on an ambitious plan to buy outlets in major markets.

Naysayers viewed the venture with skepticism, arguing, among other things, that liberals were generally too humorless to succeed in what is essentially an entertainment medium. As the new HBO documentary ''Left of the Dial" (which airs tonight) reports, the early days of Air America were marked by financial chaos, management turnover, and the constant threat of extinction. Today, however, the Air America lineup is heard on 54 stations in cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, as well as Boston.

''Generally, you can say there seems to be an appetite for progressive, at least nonconservative, talk," said Tom Taylor, editor of the newsletter Inside Radio, which is owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications. ''I think you give Air America a lot of credit for surviving."

Air America is about to get another marquee name. Starting tomorrow, the network will carry the radio show hosted by the trash-TV icon and former Cincinnati mayor, Jerry Springer.

''When you hear him on the radio, it's very intimate," said Jon Sinton, Air America's president of programming. ''We think he's right on the issues. He's heavily enough anti-Bush to be credible for our audience."

Asked to evaluate Air America on its first birthday, Sinton is effusive. ''It's a smashing success," he insists. ''It turns out that, in the words of Sally Field, people like us, they really like us."

More left jabs

Air America isn't the only liberal radio operation trying to establish a voice. Founded by former Congressional staffer Tom Athans, Democracy Radio cultivates and helps syndicate liberal talk radio talent, and last year it launched Schultz and Miller to wider audiences.

Schultz, a veteran talker from Fargo, N.D., promoted as ''the most widely carried liberal on radio," is on 95 stations. Miller, a TV talk host, stand-up comic, and the daughter of obscure 1964 Republican vice presidential nominee William Miller, is on 20 stations.

Like Sinton, Athans is enthusiastic about liberal talk. ''I think it's been nothing short of historic," he said. ''A year ago the category of progressive talk radio really didn't exist."

Mike Elder, director of programming at WRKO, agrees that liberal talk is a viable concept. ''I think there's definitely room and a desire for people to have an alternative opinion in talk radio," he said. Yet, with a lineup driven by conservatives Limbaugh, Howie Carr, and Michael Savage, Elder has not inserted a left-winger into his weekday rotation.

He acknowledges that the industry is watching and waiting until one radio operator ''has the guts corporately, to take one of the major stations and flip it and make it liberal." And, of course, get good ratings in the process.

Matt Mills, general manager of Greater Media, which operates WTKK, is more skeptical about the drawing power of liberal talk, noting that Air America and Democracy Radio personalities tend to be on small AM stations.

That is the case in Boston, where Clear Channel stations WKOX and WXKS began broadcasting the liberal talk lineup in October. Before the switch, WKOX had offered primarily Spanish programming, and WXKS was featuring Frank Sinatra tunes. Neither station had much to lose.

The fall 2004 Arbitron numbers for listeners 12 and older showed the ''progressive talk radio network" lagging near the bottom but making notable progress over the numbers generated by previous formats, said spokesman Joe Mazzei.

While liberal talk is making inroads across the country, those programs are often heard on stations that have been hampered by poor signals or low ratings. The effort has gotten a boost from Clear Channel, which has programmed liberal talk on 24 of its 1,200 stations. But Gabe Hobbs, a Clear Channel vice president of programming, acknowledges that some of that reformatting has occurred at outlets with less than stellar track records.

''When you have eight stations in a market, you're always looking for fresh ideas for station number seven or number eight," he said.

Fear of mixed reception

A bigger problem may be the reluctance of programmers to dilute the ideological mix by putting a liberal talk host in a lineup where entrenched conservatives hold court.

''Right now, there's a real hesitancy by program directors to mix formats," Athans said. That makes it hard for liberals to crack into stations where right-wing chat has developed a strong foothold.

''In theory, with the numbers [Schultz] is getting, there ought to be clearances on stations like WRKO and WTKK," Fybush said. Yet while Democracy Radio touts the fact that Schultz is on nearly 100 stations, his conservative counterparts Limbaugh and Hannity are on four to five times that many outlets.

One station that has become the poster child for liberal talk is Clear Channel's KPOJ-AM (620) in Portland, Ore. KPOJ, a former oldies operation, saw its ratings more than quadruple after switching to liberal talk a year ago, Hobbs said.

Providence talk station WHJJ-AM (920), also owned by Clear Channel, went to a more liberal lineup with several Air America shows in October. ''We found that Air America is a real opportunity for us," said program director Bill George. ''I think the time is right. I think the talk world is much larger than the narrow right-wing views we hear from Rush and Hannity."

Clear Channel's Hobbs sounded bullish on his company's plans to convert more stations to the liberal talk roster. ''Intellectually I don't think you can argue against the niche. There's a theoretical hole big enough to drive a truck through," he said. ''So far our batting average is pretty high. I see no reason to slow down or stop at all."

Slowing down isn't in Air America's plans either. ''In five years we'll be on 600 radio stations," Sinton boasted. ''The brand will be pervasive, and I think it will be a quaint memory when people said, 'Boy, what a stupid idea.' "

Left of center, right of the dial

A year after the great liberal talk-radio experiment began, four stations in Massachusetts now air some of the content developed by Air America or by Democracy Radio. Here's how to find them:

WKOX-AM (1200) in Framingham; simulcasts with WXKS-AM (1430) in Medford
Broadcasts: Feature Air America hosts Marc Maron and Mark Riley, Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, and Janeane Garofalo, as well as shows hosted by Democracy Radio talkers Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

WMAS-AM (1450) in Springfield
The personalities include a mix of hosts, such as Rhodes, Miller, and Schultz.
Hours: 24 hours a day.

WHMP-AM (1400) in Northampton
The hosts include Franken, Garofalo, and, starting tomorrow, Jerry Springer.
Hours: 24 hours a day.
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