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COVER STORY | Vol. 5, No. 3, January 20, 2005
(Air America)

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Air America

by Duwayne Escobedo

Air America Radio:
"Leaking the Truth 24 hours a day"

MANHATTAN, N.Y. —The music leading up to a fiery Hitler speech needs to sound more spooky to Mike Papantonio.

Playing it over and over again in a cramped, makeshift studio on the fifth floor in his downtown Pensacola office, Papantonio wants the bells to echo more.

The scary tune will lead the "Ring of Fire" radio show that Papantonio co-hosts with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Air America Radio. The music fittingly introduces an investigative piece about white supremacist Ron Wilson, a David Duke follower, who recently earned appointment to South Carolina's state Board of Education.

The 51-year-old estimates he spends about 80 percent of his time working on producing his weekly radio show or working on growing Air America Radio, which was launched in March 2004 as an alternative to conservative-dominated AM talk radio.

"I've always wanted to do this type of journalism," says Papantonio, who also does a short commentary three times a week called "Pap Attack." "But I had a pretty good knack for the law."

In fact, after earning a University of Florida journalism degree, Papantonio spent the next 25 years becoming one of the country's most respected trial lawyers. As head of mass torts at Pensacola's Levin Papantonio law firm he has handled major cases throughout the nation, including asbestos, breast implants, Fen-Phen and Florida's tobacco litigation.

TRUE PATRIOTS

Then, he heard about the creation of Air America Radio. He didn't need to see a business plan, he simply believes in the product.

"People in Pensacola ask me why I'm doing this," he says. "I could be on my boat in the Bahamas, smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and living in Pleasantville. But our country needs true patriots, people who will ask questions about what's going on around us. When I'm at Air America, I'm in a room of true patriots like the ones who fought for our freedom in 1776. We don't want to be part of the establishment. We don't want to be mindless, driveling fools. That's why I've taken time out of my practice to do this thing."

And Air America insiders are glad he did.

During the first week, Papantonio recalls a 2 a.m. meeting in New York with a handful of Air America executives where the fledgling, liberal-leaning network was hours from shutting down without a quick cash infusion.

"There wasn't a week that went by that we weren't scrambling around trying to put together short-term funding," Papantonio recalls.    

The network's chief executive at the time, Mark Walsh, and its primary backer, Evan Cohen, a venture capitalist, had insisted the start-up had more than $60 million invested. Papantonio says bluntly, "that wasn't reality."

SHAKY START

After five weeks on the air, Cohen and five other top executives were ousted. Air America was dropped from two major markets, Los Angeles and Chicago, which they have yet to regain.

Carl Ginsburg, Air America's No. 2 exec, says he's thankful for Papantonio and a few others stepping in and rescuing the network during its shaky debut.

"We were literally on our knees," says Ginsburg, a former "60 Minutes," CBS "Nightly News," and "48 Hours" news producer. "If Mike Papantonio and other new investors had not come forward, it would have been truly a disaster. Imagine how it would have been interpreted by conservative American radio? Putting up money then was truly risky. Now, we're a viable business. We have enough funding we believe to take us into the black."

Last month, the network, which offers 17 hours of programming a day, announced $13 million in new investment. It signed its top two superstars, Al Franken and Randi Rhodes to new contracts. It recently added Washington, D.C., Cincinatti and Brattleboro, Vt., to its radio affiliates and plans to add Detroit soon.

MOVING ON UP

Plus, Air America is moving from its original office and studios on the 40th floor of a Park Avenue high rise to the fifth floor of an office being renovated in the trendy Chelsea section of Manhattan.

Ginsburg says the 46 affiliates that now broadcast Air America reach about a third of the country.  By the end of the year, he predicts 80 percent of the nation will be able to listen to the progressive network's brand of witty, funny, rabblerousing talk shows. The network started out with just six radio station affiliates. Currently, another 4.5 million listen each month on the Internet.

Besides Papantonio, among the investors are Doug Kreeger, an early investor whose entrepreneurial efforts have included founding a chain of outerwear stores, Kreeger & Sons; Rob Glaser, a CEO of Seattle technology company RealNetworks; New York investment banker Eugene Keilin; and Sheldon Drobny, a Chicago venture capitalist.

Papantonio, Drobny, Ginsburg and others predict the network will turn a profit by the middle of the year. Papantonio asserts the network could survive another two years without a dollar from advertising.

"We are not going away," Papantonio insists. "I don't feel any big pressure now, like I did the first six months. That's the first time I'm able to say that honestly."

Air America employees admit the first year has been a tough one with problems with paychecks and uncertainty about their jobs.

"It would be nice to have a budget to produce higher quality programs," says Joe Zefran, producer of "Unfiltered," after the show's hosts Lizz Winstead and Rachel Maddow decide to skip a New Orleans event that would come out of their own pocket.

Winstead, a former comedy writer for Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," adds: "I've survived on Top Ramen before and I can do it again."

GUERILLA OPERATION

Its offices still have the feeling of a guerilla operation with light purple walls, normal-sized offices crammed with up to six radio show hosts and producers and a studio door that isn't soundproof, requiring people to whisper outside of it.

And there's enough anti-Bush memorabilia to start a museum. Items littering the walls of the headquarters include a palm-sized President George W. Bush "dumbass paper head" on a string that's hanging from a screw, a Bush aviator blow up doll with a Pinocchio nose, which rests behind the front desk, and Bush pictured in a poster holding a bomb and wondering, "Or was it hug babies and drop bombs?"

Maddow rants recently about Michael Chertoff's nomination as the Secretary of Homeland Security for lying about the existence of an ethics report that warned against questioning Johnny Lynn Walker about his Taliban involvement without his lawyer present. She has no doubt about her mission at Air America.

"It's for stories like this that the mainstream, corporate-controlled press doesn't want to cover," Maddow says. "That's why we need progressive radio. This is a big deal."

THE ENEMY

Chuck D, who co-hosts "Unfiltered" with Maddow and Winstead, says public enemy No. 1 is conservative radio talk shows that refuse to challenge the Bush administration.

"All my life I've been trying to get my voice across against the status quo," says the former Public Enemy rapper, who many consider a founding father of rap music. "We can't have one voice talking to all of America and not let other voices be heard."

Steve Earle, who's in the studio with Chuck D taping his Sunday program, "The Revolution Starts Now," says he didn't have to think twice about joining Air America.

"I was there when we stopped Richard Nixon and stopped the Vietnam War," says the Grammy-nominated activist singer. "I saw it done and we'll stop Bush and the Iraqi War."

NOT THE 'ANGRY LEFT'

Although many refer to the network as an "angry left" organization, don't tell that to Ginsburg, who bucks at the label during an interview in his stuffy corner office where he pops open the window to let the 30-degree weather outside cool it off. He rattles off about 20 issues, including health care, education and jobs that he says must be debated nationally.

"From where I sit this is not the left," he maintains. "It is not. If you listen to our programs you'll hear moderate politics and left politics. This is an issue-oriented effort."

Kennedy, Papantonio's co-host on "Ring of Fire" and close friend, agrees.

He says, "80 percent of Republicans are Democrats who don't know what's going on. We're helping get them the information to make rational decisions."

But the "effort" is still far from reaching the dominance that conservative radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh enjoy. He's heard on more than 600 stations and generates about $50 million a year in ad revenue.

Air America recently celebrated signing on Geico and American Express as advertisers.

PENSACOLA OR BUST?

Air America's Randi Rhodes, who hosts a four-hour daily show, promises listeners tuning into her Internet blog that liberal radio will overtake conservative radio. She points to WKVT-AM in Brattleboro, Vt., dropping Limbaugh and FOX's Bill O'Riley recently to begin airing Air America.

"We get to look at things squarely the way they are, and we don't have to invent tiresome rationalizations and smear campaigns, or wear ourselves out making arguments that we ourselves can't possibly believe," she writes. "So stay tuned. Agree with us or disagree with us. But let's have an honest discussion for a change."

After finishing his show for the week and completing interviews with reporters, a worn-out Franken says he's upbeat about the future. That's why he's at Air America "basically all the time. You can ask my wife."

But Franken is not complaining. He enjoys going up against conservative talk radio.

"What other liberal media is there?" asks the "Saturday Night Live" veteran and author. "I consider NPR down the middle. There's just right-wing media. I'm in this for the long-run. So, I'm grateful that when we were on the ropes that investors like Mike (Papantonio) came through. I'd sure love to air in Pensacola soon."

duwayne@inweekly.net

Air America Radio On The Air

Nationally
XM Satellite Radio - ch. 167
Sirius Satellite Radio - ch. 144     

West
Albany/Corvallis, OR - KTHH 990 AM
Eugene, OR - KOPT 1450 AM
Phoenix, AZ - KXXT 1010 AM
Portland, OR - KPOJ 620 AM
Riverside, CA - KCAA 1050 AM
Sacramento, CA - KSQR 1240 AM
Santa Barbara, CA - KTLK 1340 AM
San Diego, CA - 1360 AM KLSD
San Luis Obisbo, CA - 1340 AM KYNS
San Francisco, CA - 960 AM KQKE
Seattle, WA - 1090 AM KPTK
South Lake Tahoe, NV - KTHO 590 AM
Spokane, WA - KAQQ 1280 AM

Central
Albuquerque, NM - KABQ 1350 AM
Ann Arbor, MI - WLBY 1290 AM
Cincinnati, OH - WCKY 1530 AM
Columbus, OH - WTPG 1230 AM
Denver, CO - KKZN 760 AM
Madison, WI - WXXM 92.1 FM
Minneapolis, MN - KTNF 950 AM
Petoskey, MI - WWKK 750 AM
Santa Fe, NM - KTRC 1260 AM

East
Asheville, NC - WPEK 880 AM
Atlanta, GA - WWAA 1690 AM
Boston, MA - WKOX 1200 AM and WXKS 1430 AM
Brattleboro, VT - WKVT 1490 AM
Chapel Hill, NC - WCHL 1360 AM
Charleston, SC - WLTQ 730 AM
Key West, FL - WKIZ 1500 AM
Miami, FL - WINZ 940 AM
New Haven, CT - WAVZ 1300 AM
New York City - WLIB 1190 AM
Northampton, MA - WHMP 1400 AM
Philadelphia, PA - WHAT 1340 AM
Plattsburgh, NY/Burlington, VT - WTWK 1070 AM
Portland, ME - WLVP 870 AM
Providence, RI - WHJJ 920 AM
Rochester, NY - WROC 950 AM
Washington D.C. - WWRC 1260 AM
West Palm Beach, FL - WJNO 1290 AM

Alaska and Hawaii
Anchorage, AK - KUDO 1080 AM
Honolulu, HI - KUMU 1500 AM
Maui, HI - KAOI 1110 AM
Kauai, HI - KQNG 570 AM