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The Air Out There

The mainstream media may be close to discovering the Air America scandal.

8:00 AM, Aug 4, 2005 • By HUGH HEWITT
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WHAT DID AL FRANKEN KNOW, and when did he know it?

When Air America launched last year, it was the beneficiary of more free publicity than any radio show or network launch had ever received. So desperate was the mainstream media to find some left-leaning response to the Limbaugh-led revolution in talk radio that the many and obvious flaws in the network's offerings went largely unreported. Those of us who have been around radio studios for a few years know, though, that launch hype and selective reading of Arbitron results can never mask the key question: Is a show profitable? Do the ads sell? Do sponsors arrive and stay, year after year? Does the affiliate list grow and grow?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes, yes, and yes for Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and, yes, me. About Air America it is very hard to say because, well, the numbers are hard to come by. When the Philadelphia Inquirer took a hard look in July, the assessment wasn't rosy:

Now that it's possible to compare ratings for this spring to last year's start-up, it's clear that [Air America] has yet to climb out of the cellar.

Air America's overall ratings, which rose initially after all the free publicity, faded before the November election and haven't recovered. . . .

Limbaugh, still the giant among talkers, with 14.75 million listeners on 600 stations, has squashed Franken like a bug.

Franken's ratings have dropped 50 percent in Boston since spring 2004, and he is down 14 percent in New York, where his listeners now number fewer than 188,000.

To its troubles over audience decline must now be added the very strong smell of scandal. Though you, and apparently New York's publicity-addicted Attorney General Elliott Spitzer, may not have heard, Air America is in some serious trouble for its creative start-up financing.

The full details are available from bloggers Radio Equalizer, Michelle Malkin, and Ed Morrissey, and New York Sun reporter David Lombino is digging as well. Short version: Not-for-profits that exist to serve kids and Alzheimer's' patients, overwhelmingly via the funds obtained from government grants, should not be "investing" in incredibly risky start-up radio networks. But the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club--apparently now defunct--did just that last spring, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Air America's coffers.

Here's the most recent IRS Form 990 for the Club. Here's the one from the year before. The Club does not appear to have made any prior "investments" of this sort, and if there are "investment guidelines" from which the Club's Board of Directors was operating, I will be very, very surprised. My producer and I have spent a lot of time trying to get a member of the board on the record about the investment. The only one who agreed to talk to us referred us to Rubenstein Public Relations. An assistant to Richard Rubenstein called me to relay that he didn't know anything about the "Gloria Wise story." Odd.

But nothing is so odd as the black-out of the story in the mainstream media. It took about a week from the first television mention of Eason Jordan's Davos speech for that story to break out into the mainstream media. CNN's Inside Politics blog segment covered the Air America story on July 29, so we may be getting close to break-out day. There is every indication--conflicting accounts, big names, big money--that the story has legs.

We know a lot about the medications Rush Limbaugh has taken.

We know a great deal about Bill O'Reilly's troubles.

But thus far we don't know much about how Al Franken got paid the big bucks last year, when all of the mainstream media seemed to be cheering his debut.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.