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Making Radio Waves

April 14 was a dark day for L.A. liberals, and a dark day for L.A. radio.

It was the day that Air America, the fledgling left-of-Bush network, went dark in L.A. Air America got yanked from KBLA 1580 AM because of a contract dispute with that station’s owner, MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting. Portions of that dispute have now been settled, but Air America also has announced that it will sever ties with MultiCultural.

In Chicago, Air America will air on a MultiCultural-owned station through the end of the month. In L.A., Air America won’t return to the air until it finds another outlet. The network predicted it would have a new affiliate in L.A., the nation’s second largest radio market, within days.

How did it all go so wrong? Was this the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”?

You’d think so, based on the account of Joe Trippi, one-time mastermind of one-time wunder-candidate Howard Dean. By the time Trippi tripped, bloggers already had posted information about the alleged donations to Republicans made by MultiCultural owner Arthur Liu, who owns about 40 radio stations. Trippi completed the loop in a blog posting, noting that MultiCultural’s lawyer belonged to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, “a firm that lists Kenneth Starr and Ted Olsen as its alumni.” Trippi continued: “This is a right-wing blackout, and we can’t let it happen.”

The immediate cause of the blackout was Liu’s desire to make money by selling radio airtime, and, allegedly, to make money by selling the same airtime twice. Air America contends that it intentionally withheld payments to KBLA, because KBLA was illegally reselling airtime already paid for by Air America. The disputed airtime rolled by in February and March, before Air America began broadcasting. MultiCultural has denied any wrongdoing.

When Liu unplugged L.A., he also silenced Chicago station WNTD 950 AM, where the bills had been paid, apparently to gain leverage in the dispute. In that gambit, he may have overreached. A New York Supreme Court justice quickly issued a temporary restraining order that returned Chicago to the air. Air America also had to pay $156,000 and post a bond worth $156,000, conditions that Air America complied with, according to both a MultiCultural attorney and a source with the network.

Air America’s court motion was silent on the merits of the dispute in L.A., and there’s been no public movement since. L.A. listeners can still listen in via the Internet — though that connection can falter because of heavy use — and through satellite radio. Overall, the network started with four affiliates, now has six, and looks to have eight more within a week or two.

The parting with MultiCultural looked inevitable given the rhetoric. Liu, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, seemed almost gleeful in accusing Air America of bouncing a check and begging him not to cash others. Air America defended its cash flow, then offered its own invective, including, “We got screwed, Liu’d, and tattooed.”