Affable and authoritative, clear-eyed and coifed, Mark Walsh looks like the small-market network affiliate anchorman he once was. Looks are deceiving. Walsh may be calm, but he's also driven. As CEO of Air America, he's about to launch the first self-proclaimed liberal radio network.
Yet with its cramped, caffeinated feel, Air America seems more dotcom-startup-meets- political-campaign than radio powerhouse. Comedian/author Al Franken air-kisses co-host Katherine Lampher. A young woman in jeans and a T-shirt bangs away on a laptop. Is this a business or a movement?
"Business. Period. End of quote," says Walsh. "There are social and political overtones, but this will be a dependable, sustainable, and profitable media franchise."
He has accessed nearly $60 million in equity and debt capacity and is ready to launch March 31 in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Then he plans to air AA in 36 markets through a combination of station leases, purchases, and syndication deals by year's end. And he's eyeing satellite radio.
So it's no surprise that his vision extends to his bottom line. Walsh plans to make money the new-fashioned way: "We want to be one-sided," he states. "And biased. We'd like to mimic the one-sided success of Fox News."
Is it good business simply to target liberals while writing off half your potential audience? "We don't care about them," Walsh says. "They're not our market. If someone believes Brit Hume is telling the truth, I don't believe they'll buy us."
Who will? "We're not blindly following the Democratic Party line," says the one-time fulltime John Kerry volunteer. "It's not just dyed-in-the-wool liberals who will listen. We can also appeal to fair-minded people in the center, people who want an entertainment product that is fun and tells them the truth."
At the same time, Walsh argues that Air America doesn't need mega-listeners to make money. "The first thing I have to do is to secure my base. All we need is a reasonably sized audience that advertisers care about. We get that by offering a product that will entertain, entice, and invite that audience back. "We know we won't get any Halliburton ads," he jokes. "But so far, we're getting reasonable traction. It looks like fertile ground for our ad pitch."
What exactly is Air America pitching? That depends on whom you ask. In the great Democratic tradition, even Walsh's chief programmers—Comedy Central veteran Lizz Winstead and ex-network TV exec Shelley Lewis—disagree
somewhat. Winstead dubs it "fact-based opinion" and says the audience will be composed of "some of Howard Stern's listeners who might find him too sex-obsessed, some of NPR's, who find it too boring, and people who want to hear an unembedded information service—independents, moderate Republicans, a little of everything."
Fellow Senior Vice President for Programming Lewis has a different take. "Our primary mission is not to be informative but to be entertaining, interesting, and compelling. To speak to, for, and with an audience that feels isolated and underserved." Lewis says she "won't run from the word 'liberal'" but quickly adds, "We're more centrist than people think. And we don't intend to be far left."
Will Air America be as "fair and balanced" as Fox? "We will definitely be fair," Lewis responds. "Do you have to be balanced to be fair? You have to be honest."
Adds Walsh, "The easy hook to our story is that 'Air America is the liberal response to Rush.' That's a dismissive right-wing argument and not what we're doing. Besides, Democrats won't listen to us because they should."
But Democrats are at the heart of his launch strategy. "The essence of it is trial and then sustain," he says. "Heat as opposed to light."
"This an election year, and we can't ignore that." Walsh says. "No matter who wins in November, we have a good business model. Whether George Bush or John Kerry is elected, Tom Delay, Scalia and Co. remain. Either way, we'll have lots to talk about."