Air America Gears up for Digital Relevance

ClickZ_Campaign08_katefinal.jpg If its digital makeover comes out a success, Air America Media just might be a factor in the presidential election — of 2012, that is.

The media firm has hired its first chief digital officer and plans to launch a small vertical ad network with like-minded left-leaning publications. But gaining ground in an increasingly crowded online political field could make this year’s presidential race look like a cakewalk.

Four years ago Air America launched in the hopes beating conservatives at their own terrestrial talk radio game. Today another do-or-die presidential election is in full force, and although terrestrial talk radio still matters, online audio and video has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of adoption and influence. While Air America was struggling through ownership changes and a bankruptcy in 2006, competitors like The Huffington Post and Politico have grabbed the audience it could have built.

Under a new owner, and with promotional juice from air personalities like Rachel Maddow — also a talking head on MSNBC — the liberal media outfit is putting its resources behind becoming a global media brand with a focus on digital multimedia and old-school radio.

“Air America doesn’t view itself as just a radio company,” said CEO Bennett Zier. “We want listeners, viewers, and readers.”

“The differentiating piece…is that Air America views the Internet piece as the centerpiece of this new media company,” said Michael Bassik, the company’s new chief digital officer. Starting next month in the firm’s New York offices, Bassik will guide the strategy behind those efforts, alongside the firm’s head of sales, head of programming and newly-named Web site editor-in-chief Beau Friedlander.

Bassik most recently has served as VP of interactive marketing for political direct marketing firm MSHC Partners. Friedlander takes over for Sam Seder, an original Air America host who now can be seen live every afternoon on chattering about current events with co-pundit Marc Maron.

“Maron v. Seder” could act as a trial run for other Air America shows, which will all be available on video in the future, according to Bassik. Ads on the site today are limited to display units from advertisers such as Angie’s List and on-air health and beauty product advertisers, in addition to some served by Google’s ad network. The company intends to offer pre-, mid-, and post-roll audio and video spots. Sponsorships and premium subscriptions are also in its revenue plans.

Along with exploring opportunities for mobile distribution, the firm plans to unveil a vertical ad network in conjunction with three other progressive political publishers.

“There are unlimited areas for monetization,” through the Web, said Bassik.

He hopes that money comes from all types of advertisers, not just the political and advocacy advertisers typically associated with progressive political media. “There’s a belief among progressive Web sites that advertisers are usually other progressives,” Bassik explained. “Fox News has no problem attracting commercial advertisers, and Air America should have no trouble attracting them,” he added.

“We believe that on the digital side, for advertisers there’s a real opportunity to supply the viewer on the Web site with a range of things that are micro-marketed as well as macro-marketed.”

Bassik suggested any commercial advertiser looking to reach an “educated, passionate audience” might be interested. The site today can boast a significant portion of college-educated visitors. According to Quantcast, nearly 70 percent of’s audience has a college education. But site traffic is a big hurdle. Compared to 9.3 million unique monthly U.S. visitors to TheHuffington Post, Quantcast pegs at a mere 101,000 per month. Politico attracts 2.7 million.

Though Air America aims to compete with “other left-of-center publishers,” said Zier, “As we build this company we’re trying to compete with right-of-center, news and pop culture.” He admitted, “We have some catching up to do.”

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