LIBERAL CITY LOSES LIBERAL RADIO STATION CLEAR CHANNEL CANCELS AL FRANKEN'S AIR AMERICA IN THE MADISON MARKET.

2006-11-11T00:00:00Z LIBERAL CITY LOSES LIBERAL RADIO STATION CLEAR CHANNEL CANCELS AL FRANKEN'S AIR AMERICA IN THE MADISON MARKET.BARRY ADAMS badams@madison.com 608-252-6148 madison.com

Al Franken is being dumped for Wisconsin Badgers volleyball and high school baseball.

Just three days after Madison's left celebrated wins by the Democrats, broadcasting behemoth Clear Channel Radio delivered a stunning right hook Friday, announcing it would silence Air America in the Madison market and replace the liberal talk-show format on WXXM-FM (92.1) The Mic with an all-sports format from Fox Radio Sports.

So long, political debate and comment. Hello, serve, set, spike and point.

"I find it puzzling as to the timing given the election results," said Terry Kelly, one of the founding members of the Air America network and a longtime Madison businessman. "There is no business reason that is apparent to me (for the change), therefore, one wonders what the real reasons may be."

The move by Clear Channel, which operates 1,140 radio stations in the United States, comes after the radio station posted a solid gain in the Arbitron ratings, going from a 2.3 share in the summer of 2005 to 3.7 this summer, placing 11th in the market for listeners 12 and older. It also means that beginning on Jan. 1, one of the most liberal cities in the country will be without a commercial radio network of the same tilt.

"To me, it's dumbing down the market," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had a Sunday morning talk show in the Madison market. "It's not at all meeting local expectations. Of all the markets in the country, Air America ought to have a Madison affiliate."

Gaylor said she was at the studio Wednesday to record two shows for the station but was not told of any changes.

"Our programming decisions are based entirely on audience research and our knowledge of the communities we serve," said Madison radio veteran Jeff Tyler, vice president and market manager for Clear Channel, which operates six of about 20 stations serving the Madison market.

This "will allow us to carry more of what sports fans in the Madison area want, more programming that highlights the local sports scene and more top sports programs live," Tyler said in a statement.

Earlier this month, in a Wisconsin State Journal story about the talk-radio market in Madison, The Mic program director Brian Turany admitted that it was difficult attracting listeners because of the many options in the market, but he also seemed confident in the product.

"In eight months or eight years from now," Turany said, "there will still be progressive talk because there are different (syndicated) places and local shows to get progressive talk."

It was not clear late Friday if another radio station in the market would pick up the nationally syndicated programs offered by Air America -- like Franken's and Randi Rhodes' -- and other program providers, including Ed Schultz.

Glen Gardner, program director at news talk station WTDY-AM (1670), said his station would likely continue to focus on locally produced shows.

"We now have the opportunity to court the audience that is going to get chased off that station," Gardner said. "We want to be live and local. We can talk about Madison."

Air America, which has 92 affiliates -- 25 of which are on stations owned by Clear Channel -- reaches more than 5 million listeners a week, Kelly said. But last month, the network filed for bankruptcy. Kelly and other investors are pumping money into the network until more investors can be found, but he said the network's future is "not yet determined" because of the financial difficulties.

"It's shocking to me, as a good progressive Democrat, the lack of support from wealthy Democrats. That's the main reason why the company is in financial difficulty," Kelly said. "I do not know if our efforts will be successful to re-capitalize the company, but I certainly hope so."

The format change on the Madison dial means Clear Channel will have three stations heavily programmed with sports in the market.

WIBA-AM (1310) is news and talk, but also carries Badgers football, basketball and hockey, Green Bay Packers football and Brewers baseball, plus a variety of coaches shows.

Clear Channel also operates WTSO-AM (1070), an all sports talk station affiliated with ESPN Radio but which also carries Milwaukee Bucks basketball, NASCAR and high school sporting events.

The ratings for WTSO-AM are below that of WXXM-FM The Mic. For the 2005 summer rating's book, WTSO posted a 2.0 share. This summer the station posted a 2.5 share, for 13th place in the market.

Tyler, who did not return repeated calls Friday, said in a statement that "research indicated that listeners want more coverage of local high school and collegiate sports, not currently carried on local radio."

It was unclear Friday if sports programming would be shuffled on the Clear Channel stations because of the format change to WXXM.

Craig Karmazin, owner of a Columbus radio station that is a Fox Sports affiliate, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear Friday if his station, WTLX-FM (100.5), would remain with the network.

Stuart Levitan, a journalist, public official and broadcaster in Madison since 1975, hosted locally produced shows on The Mic for about a year before quitting last year to write a book about Madison's history.

"Sports has a positive place in society, but it comes as a surprise," Levitan said of Friday's announcement. "It's unfortunate. I thought that the station and the community were a good fit."

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