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AM-760 lives on despite Air America's death

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Air America, the liberal radio network, has seemed gravebound plenty of times over the past few years -- and now even the folks there admit the project is dead.

But AM-760, a Clear Channel Denver outlet originally seen as Colorado's Air America station, still survives, if not necessarily thrives. And Clear Channel Denver exec Kris Olinger, who oversees the signal, says the network's demise will have little impact on the local operation. "The only Air America shows we are currently carrying are Ron Reagan Jr. [from 10 p.m. to midnight] and Rachel Maddow does an hour show we carry overnight," she says. "That's it. And if another company doesn't pick up and distribute those shows, we've got good options to replace them."

As for AM-760's ratings, Olinger understates the situation: "We all wish they were better."

Clear Channel's talk stations have traditionally specialized in conservative programming, which made sense considering that founder/chairman Lowry Mays is a personal friend of both former presidents named Bush. Hence, the move by some stations in its portfolio to sign up with Air America was seen as a way to muzzle critics of its right-wing focus.

In Denver, though, Olinger says the rationale was different.

"I can't speak for the company," she says. "But our motives here had to do with us having three AMs -- and finding a format that works on the third AM can be somewhat challenging. You've got sports, you've got business, but we felt, after researching the market, that progressive talk would be a strong choice, especially when you look at the makeup of the population in Colorado politically. It's a third Democrat and a third Republican and a third independent. So it made sense to give people who are progressive, liberal, what have you, with a radio product that reflected their values."

At the same time, Olinger didn't want to hand over the entire schedule to Air America: "We felt that was very risky for a number of reasons." In addition, she wanted to anchor the station with a local morning drive personality, eventually choosing market veteran Jay Marvin to do the honors.

Unfortunately, Marvin was stricken by a serious of debilitating health crises beginning in late February 2009, and he remains in rehabilitation treatment.

Given this situation, columnist/author David Sirota, Marvin's most frequent sub, was named permanent host in December.

Olinger concedes that these circumstances made it difficult for AM-760 to build much momentum over the past year.

"As time went on, Jay kept developing more medical problems that prevented him from coming back," she says. "We really wanted to stand behind him and support him, and we felt he would eventually be well enough to come back. So I don't regret what we did there -- not at all. But it did slow us down, probably, because David was maintaining the show and really couldn't put his own mark on it for a period of time.

"Now, he can. He can build the show the way he wants to, and I think that's a better situation to be in."

Meanwhile, Mario Solis-Marich has been handed the reins to the afternoon drive show, which is unique to AM-760 even though it typically originates from Los Angeles. Olinger admits that the program needs some work.

"Mario is doing fine," she says, "but as with all the shows, we're working to make some changes within that. I think I would like it to be a little more local than it's been -- but I think that's very doable."

Don't expect any other local hosts to be added to the lineup anytime soon; Olinger is pleased with syndicated programming from the likes of Ed Schulz and Thom Hartman. But even she can't make the overall audience numbers seem impressive.

"It has been challenging," she allows. "KCFR is another radio station that appeals to people who are more liberal or progressive, and that's a tough competitor. But I think we've got some good product on the air."

That's more than Air America can say these days.

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