World: Medium of the week - Advertisers play the waiting game with Air America

The lack of audience data is putting some advertisers off the station, Ann Cooper says. Since its launch on 31 March 2004, Air America Radio has delighted the Ad Council, a leading producer of public service announcements, if no-one else. Because so far, most of the US liberal talk radio station's ads have been PSAs on behalf of keeping children in school or preventing forest fires.

However, according to Jon Sinton, the president of Air America: "A lot of ad schedules don't start for another week and we didn't expect to have many advertisers for the first few weeks." Sinton claims to have $2 million of ads on the books. "I've been amazed by the interest," he says. "We didn't expect to see any black ink for another three years. But Shell has come in with a major local buy. Advertisers are recognising this is a huge debut and they want to be in on it."

So far, that remains to be seen. The start-up, fronted by the liberal media darling Al Franken, with help from the likes of the comedian Janeane Garofalo and the rapper Chuck D, has had a rocky start.

Its co-founder and chairman, Evan Cohen, and the investment partner and chairman, Rex Sorensen, have left the network, along with its co-founder and chief executive, Mark Walsh, and its programming chief, Dave Logan.

Amid claims of unpaid salaries, it has been off-air since mid-April in Los Angeles and Chicago, where it has closed its sales offices.

"National and local media are two separate issues," Sinton argues. "Affiliate problems mean we lose the ability to sell in just one area. But we have 24 other stations. It's a different sales proposition on a national level, though obviously it lowers the rate." Sinton says the network is close to replacing both stations. "I look at this as a marathon, not a sprint. It'll take years, not weeks," he adds.

Media buyers are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "It's only in a few markets and there's not much coverage so far," Maribeth Papuga, the senior vice-president and director of local broadcast at MediaVest, the North American unit of Publicis, says. "There's no ratings history to go by, so it will take time. We don't know who is listening."

The station's left-wing politics may or may not be an issue. "Most advertisers like to stay in neutral territory. If Air can't get the right audience, then they may tone down the message," she says, although she concedes that some advertisers will use the station simply to make a statement, like those who advertise with controversial figures such as Howard Stern.

Sinton agrees: "Look at Rush Limbaugh and the number of advertisers who have him on their schedule. On the other hand, there are those advertisers who won't buy Howard Stern and they probably won't buy us."

As for the all-important numbers, Arbitron figures are still months off.

The station targets adults aged 25 and over and Sinton claims to have 3.5 million online listeners. "If you have a weekly audience of one million, you're considered healthy," he says. Papuga adds: "Longevity depends on funding. If they can't attract paying advertisers, it'll have to be revamped to make it more palatable. It's not an environment we're eager to move into, especially not in a political year."

LISTENING FIGURES

Claims: 3.5 million streaming listeners

Advertisers: Ad Council and local businesses

Ownership: Progress Media

Brand extensions: None

Frequency: Daily from 6am to 11pm

Rival stations: Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern

Price per ad: Undisclosed

Target audience: Adults aged 25+

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