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The Death of Air America: Why Liberals Fail at Talk Radio

03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's been a bad week for liberals. First, there was Scott Brown. The Cosmo centerfold turned Republican Senator from Massachusetts will be busy all weekend moving Ted Kennedy's desk across the aisle in the Senate chamber. And now Air America, the great liberal hope in talk radio, has flatlined. And it looks like it's dead for real this time.

Air America's financial woes are well publicized. It went through a high-profile bankruptcy in 2007. That was right around the time their star host Al Franken's $360,749 paycheck bounced. (Wouldn't you hate to have been Franken's bank teller that day?)

Air America looked like a sure thing when it took to the airwaves in 2004. Americans were souring on W. and the Iraq War. John Kerry was about to become president. Finding a liberal Limbaugh seemed like a great idea.

It didn't work out so well.

Rush Limbaugh's personal financial trajectory poses quite a contrast to that of Air America. A few months after Al Franken's $360,479 non-payday, Limbaugh signed a contract that pays him $50 million per year. He has 12 million daily listeners, including plenty of liberals.

Limbaugh's success has paved the way for a legion of other conservative radio personalities at the local and national levels. Six years after the founding of Air America, conservatives continue to rule the radio airwaves.

Even Air America's biggest stars, like Franken and Rachel Maddow, never approached the audience numbers of talk radio's leading conservative hosts.

So the question is: Why can't liberals make it on talk radio?

In part, it's an age issue.

Conservative talk radio listeners have an average age of 67. Meanwhile, the 65 and over bracket is the Republican party's strongest demographic. Younger (and typically more liberal) individuals are not as likely to listen to talk radio.

Another problem is the existence of NPR, which produces, on the whole, better and more varied programming than Air America ever did. NPR exudes an understated but very real leftward tilt. Personalities like Garrison Keillor and Ira Glass are (like Limbaugh) entertaining to listen to. Ultimately, they offered consumers of left-leaning radio more appealing options than Air America did.

Even though NPR's liberal leaning favors a younger audience, the median age of an NPR listener is still 50. To find a young audience, you have to turn to television, which offers the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. As recently as 2008, Stewart's audience had a median age of 36, although it has now crept up to 41.

Talk radio is a tough gig. You have to sustain three hours of conversation, five days a week, in defense of your ideas. Conservatives like to say that liberals aren't successful on the radio simply because their ideas don't hold up.

But I have a formula that better explains the fate of liberal talk radio:

Radio trends older.
Liberals trend younger.
X and Y plus NPR = The Death of Air America.

So, my liberal friends, dry your eyes. You lost Air America. You lost the safest Democratic Senate seat in the nation. But all is not lost. You still have the young on your side. And you still have Terry Gross.