Air America Hits a Sour Note

Encouraging preliminary ratings for all-liberal Air America (search) in New York have collapsed along with the fledgling radio network's finances.

An unofficial "extrapolation" of Arbitron data released last Friday — which Air America's hosts crowed about last month but virtually ignored yesterday — showed New York's WLIB's ratings dropping back to their lowly levels before the net's April launch.

Arbitron cautions stations and advertisers not to read too much into this interim monthly data — but that didn't stop Air America star Al Franken (search) from boasting last month that he'd beaten WABC's Rush Limbaugh (search) among the 25- to 54-year-old listeners chased by radio advertisers.

Instead of ratings yesterday, Franken discussed a Wall Street Journal (search) article that provided frightening details about alleged phantom finances — including purported promises of major backing from liberal moneybags Norman Lear and Larry David — that resulted in a near-complete shakeup of Air America's executive suite last month.

According to the article, many Air America investors thought the network had raised $30 million — when, in fact, only $6 million had been raised before the network launched.

"We have a new influx of cash coming up," said Franken, whose contract promises more than $1 million a year, according to the Journal.

"I am being paid now," he told listeners Monday. "I've been paid for weeks."

Air America president Jon Sinton, who declined comment through a spokesman Monday, told The New York Post in April that it would be unfair to make too many judgments too soon.

"It takes a long time to develop a [talk radio] audience," Sinton said, echoing the sentiments of many talk radio experts. "This is a long-term project."

The lefty network, which hopes to counter the election-year influence of high-rated conservative talk radio, is still without affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago after noisy disputes over station lease payments.

Except for New York's WLIB (1190 AM), its 15 affiliates are in medium to small markets.