Long Time Listener, First Time Creditor

It's no secret--and perhaps no surprise--that Air America, the fledgling talk-radio network, has been a little light in the wallet lately. First, stations in two of the top three radio markets--Los Angeles and Chicago--dropped programming just weeks after the network's launch two months ago. Then, earlier this month, employee paychecks were delayed after a financial rejiggering and a wave of staff layoffs.

Word got around next that legendary local adman Bill Hillsman, whose TV spots helped Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura win offices, was still waiting for a payday. Hillsman's Northwoods Advertising is handling all the rollout marketing and advertising for Air America, and last week rumors circulated that Hillsman had been shortchanged as much as $60,000.

"Yeah, they owe us money," Hillsman says, declining to confirm any numbers. "But I'm confident we'll get it. It's not a big deal."

Still, Hillsman makes it clear that his downtown Minneapolis firm's services, which include "pretty much everything"--an "integrated marketing" plan, outdoor advertising, and logo design--is hardly charity work. "This is not political for us," Hillsman says. "This is very much commercial work."

Hillsman insists that Air America's business plan is "bulletproof," likening it to a cable-channel model for TNT or TBS. But there's increasing speculation that that's not the case. The network's strategy has been unusual for radio. Air America has focused less on national syndication than on trying to buy radio stations in major markets--a costly endeavor that might euphemistically be termed ambitious. And marquee personality Al Franken recently admitted that management overestimated how much money was in the pot. While Air America has as many as 13 affiliates signed on, some observers believe New York is the only market where the network can look for any near-term success.

And that's enough for Hillsman, who points to recent Arbitron ratings showing that Franken can already boast more 25- to-54-year-old listeners than Rush Limbaugh on the network's New York station, WLIB. (Franken's show is the only one currently airing in the Minnesota market, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays on KSMM AM-1530.)

Hillsman concludes that he doesn't "anticipate any problems," and is flying to New York to meet with Air America honchos this week. There, presumably, he'd be wise to ask for a check.

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