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Progress?

With troubles at Air America and sluggish ratings, AM 760 struggles to convince liberals that they have a place on talk radio.

There's less to AM 760 talk-show host Jay Marvin than there used to be. Due to concerns over Type 2 diabetes, he put himself on a diet-and-exercise regimen last year and managed to drop a modest amount of weight. Unfortunately, this reduction didn't significantly improve his health -- so at the recommendation of his doctors, he had gastric bypass surgery in late December. Since then, he's freed himself of eighty pounds, with more falling by the wayside on a daily basis; he stepped on the scale one mid-March morning to discover another four pounds had vanished overnight. As a result, he says, "I've got a serious pants problem."

To date, AM 760's audience isn't experiencing similar shrinkage, even though the outlet recently lost its best-known program -- the midday block hosted by Al Franken, who walked away from the broadcast last month in order to run for the Senate in Minnesota. But neither is listenership booming. Despite signs of a leftward course correction among a significant portion of the populace (epitomized by the results of the 2006 election and President George W. Bush's anemic poll numbers), AM 760, like many other progressive talk-radio stations around the country, continues to limp along ratings-wise. Moreover, financial uncertainties at Air America Radio, which supplies much of AM 760's programming, don't bode well for the future, particularly given the fact that Franken, the face of the network since its launch, has moved on. Air America filed for bankruptcy in October; on March 6, a newly formed company called Green Family Media formally purchased the remnants for just $4.25 million.

At present, folks at the Denver branch of Clear Channel, the Texas-based mega-conglomerate that owns the signal, insist that they're still behind the project, and there's evidence to support this claim. Late last year, Kris Olinger, the head of AM programming for Clear Channel's local properties, took over as AM 760's program director from longtimer Jerry Bell, who was named managing editor of the cluster's news department.

Olinger says the switch was driven by corporate restructuring, not any dissatisfaction with Bell's performance. But upon taking charge, she immediately began tweaking Marvin's morning-drive show, most notably by assigning veteran KOA personality John Emm to act as a newsman and sometime foil. Even so, she denies that such changes reflect urgency on her part to speed the station's growth. "No one was expecting that progressive talk would come out of the gate and have huge ratings," she says. "We all knew it was going to be a building process."

Air America launched in March 2004, several months before taking root in Denver, with a mission to break the right wing's stranglehold on talk radio and perhaps even land a Democrat in the White House come November. That didn't happen, of course, and while Air America kept adding stations (its website currently lists about seventy affiliates, down by approximately a dozen since last summer), it also lost the services of big-name talent such as Public Enemy leader Chuck D and comic Janeane Garofalo, who left in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Since then, Sam Seder, Garofalo's former co-host, has seen his profile rise thanks to occasional appearances on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, but most of his cohorts remain little known among talk-radio aficionados. That includes Franken's replacement, Portland, Oregon's Thom Hartmann.

This dearth of stars makes Marvin's presence on AM 760 all the more important. He already was known in Denver from a KHOW gig circa the late '90s, and his February 2005 return suggested that Clear Channel saw the station as more than a cog in the failed campaign to elect John Kerry. Two years later, Marvin has established a sizable following; his show is typically jammed with callers. Still, he acknowledges that his Arbitrons aren't spectacular. "I lag behind the rest of the station at times," he says. "Some of that has to do with the strength of our signal, and some of it has to do with how competitive the mornings are. I have to compete against the Colorado Morning News [on KOA] and Peter Boyles [on KHOW], but also against things like NPR."

Indeed, KCFR-AM, Colorado Public Radio's news arm, may be AM 760's prime challenger for progressive listeners -- although some diehard lefties actually think National Public Radio programming is too conservative. According to an analysis by a public-radio insider who merged public stations' listenership data with figures from commercial broadcasters, KCFR sometimes drew more than double AM 760's audience share over portions of 2005 and 2006. No doubt Morning Edition, NPR's popular early staple, accounted for a hefty chunk of that crowd.

Olinger thinks one way to counter KCFR's syndicated fare is with additional local programming; she says she'd like to find a place for more of it in AM 760's lineup, albeit without specifying when she might succeed at doing so. In the meantime, she's looking for ways to expand the signal's appeal by making it clear that there's more on tap than a gusher of Bush bashing.

"We'll still talk about the presidential race and the war in Iraq -- but I'd like to see the product broaden a little bit, so that we're talking about any of the issues that are affecting our listeners," she notes. "Obviously, we're going to be talking about them from a perspective that might be a little left of center. But we're also going to talk about anything that might be interesting and important, whether it's lifestyle issues, entertainment, the stock market, what's happening with the economy, the city's performance removing snow or fixing potholes..."

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