America's left-wing radio network falls into bankruptcy before election

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The Independent US

The liberal Air America network has filed for bankruptcy, after almost unremitting financial and management problems since it was launched in March 2004 to counter the conservative dominance of talk radio.

In its two-and-a-half year life, the network has often provided a feisty alternative to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, with programming led by the comedian and best-selling author Al Franken. But in financial terms, it has been a disaster, losing some $42m (£22.6m) over that span. Only last month, the network had to deny reports that bankruptcy was imminent, and Mr Franken himself confessed publicly that he had not been paid for two weeks.

Last Friday, however, it took the fateful step, when a station that carries Air America programming blocked its accounts after the network failed to make a $550,000 (£296,000) payment due under an earlier agreement.

Under the Chapter 11 filing, Air America will be able to continue broadcasting as it seeks to put its financial affairs in order. "No one likes to file for bankruptcy," said Scott Elberg who last Monday became the latest in a line of Air America chief executives.

However, Mr Elberg went on, "this move will allow us to concentrate on informing and entertaining our audience during the coming months" - months, he had no need to add, which will see mid-term elections in which Air America will be doing its best to help Democrats recapture control of Congress.

Almost from its inception, the network has been in turmoil. A central financial mistake, experts say, was the expensive strategy of buying up individual stations, in the belief this was the only way to prevent its programmes being drowned out by their established conservative rivals. But some stations in important markets turned out to have weak signals and poor coverage, making it even harder for Air America to gain listeners.

Backers of Air America claim its ratings have been no disgrace, pointing to 2.4m weekly listeners, and the 92 stations across the country which carry its programming. They insist that whatever now happens to the network, the liberal talk format is here to stay.

The fact however is that with the exception of Mr Franken, Air America has attracted few marquee names to compete with the stars who populate conservative radio.

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