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Why Air America doesn't fly

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The liberal Air America Radio, just past its first birthday, has probably enjoyed more free publicity than any other enterprise in recent history. But don't believe the hype: Air America's left-wing answer to conservative talk radio is failing, just as previous efforts to find liberal Rush Limbaughs have failed.

Wait a second, you say, didn't I read that Air America has expanded to more than 50 markets? That's true, but let's put things in perspective: The morning talk show hosted by William Bennett, conservative pundit and former Reagan administration official, launched at the same time as Air America and reaches nearly 124 markets, including 18 of the top 20, joining the growing ranks of successful right-of-center talk programs (Mr. Limbaugh is still the ratings leader, drawing more than 15 million listeners a week).

And look at Air America's ratings: They're pitifully weak, even in places where you would think they'd be strong. WLIB, its flagship in New York City, has sunk to 24th in the metro area Arbitron ratings - worse than the all-Caribbean format it replaced, notes the blog "radioequalizer." In the liberal meccas of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Air America is doing lousier still.

So why do liberals fare so poorly on air? Some on the left say it's because liberals are, well, smarter and can't convey their sophisticated ideas to the rubes who listen to talk radio. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose own stint as a talk-show host was a ratings disaster, gave canonical expression to this self-serving view. Conservatives "write their messages with crayons," he maintained. "We use fine-point quills."

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