Air America: talk radio from the left


April 07, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

A roster of semi-famous liberal talk-show hosts has kicked off Air America Radio with the lofty mission of countering conservative talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and their ilk.

One week in, the newcomers have succeeded in making the microphones work - an improvement over their first few days on the air. As comedian Al Franken, the fledgling network's marquee player, proudly announced to listeners: "I am not a radio professional. It's going to take me 10, 11 years."

Air America's offerings include interviews with public figures, sketch humor and acerbic commentary from the left - a blend that is not always responsible, not always funny, but part of a long-range plan to recalibrate the balance of political discourse in this country.

Many kinks remain. Air America can be heard in only a half-dozen markets, such as New York, Chicago, Southern California, Portland, Ore., and (for Franken's show only) Minneapolis. People elsewhere can listen online, at, though there have been some difficulties, or on XM Satellite Radio.

Baltimore native Mark Walsh, until recently a technology adviser for the Democratic National Committee, is CEO of the New York City-based Air America. He contends the network must turn a profit. "We're not in the regime-change business," Walsh said recently. "We're dumb if we stick with the [ideological] stance at the expense of being a viable business."

But the hosts seem focused on the need to drive President Bush from office. Franken's desire to do a radio show stemmed from his anger at conservatives that led to his books Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, and Other Observations (Dell, 1999) and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (E.P. Dutton, 2003).

"I was angry at both the conservative media and the Bush White House," Franken said yesterday. "Nothing's changed. If anything, [time] just reinforces everything I believed about them."

Conventional wisdom, these days, says that conservatives rule the radio air waves and help to cement the loyalty of a committed core of listeners. (In Baltimore, conservative talkers can be found throughout the day on talk-radio stations WBAL-AM and WCBM-AM.)

But Michael Harrison, publisher of the industry publication Talkers, says those stations are already offset by public radio - such as WYPR-FM and WEAA-FM - and by so-called "urban talk" stations, such as WOLB-AM, which is aimed primarily at a black audience. (National Public Radio officials and their local counterparts bristle at that equation, saying they run non-ideological shops.)

The Air America network is based upon the idea that liberals have not thrived when they are syndicated individually because they have, invariably, been scattered within lineups of largely conservative voices. The network moved its start date to ensure it could aid Democratic candidate John Kerry against Bush in the 2004 presidential race. Satirist Harry Shearer, host of the caustic left-of-center Le Show on public radio in Southern California, questions that mission.

"My overwhelming reaction is that they're making motivational tapes for the [Democratic] base - if it could only hear them," Shearer wrote in an e-mail interview. "It sounds relentlessly partisan, much more than ideological."

Additionally, Shearer said he is skeptical of the reliance on semi-celebrities, such as Franken, actor and comedian Janeane Garofalo and rapper Chuck D.

"Although [Air America] has gone for more entertainment value than previous attempts at lib talk, they still haven't gone, aside from Randi [Rhodes], for people with arguable radio chops," Shearer wrote. "I think that's a mistake."

Rhodes succeeded in Florida as an uncompromising and uncouth liberal and she is at ease on the air. On Monday, for example, she mocked Newsweek's Eleanor Clift as the token lefty on the McLaughlin Group. She referred to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice as "reptilian." Rep. Katherine Harris, the Republican who, as Florida's secretary of state called the election for Bush in 2000, became a leather-clad dominatrix, in Rhodes' telling.

The tension between the Bush administration and the commission investigating the September 2001 terror attacks could not have come at a better time for Air America. Listeners have called in to ask about impeachment of the president. Guests have included former chief counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke and former chief weapons inspector David Kay.

Yet some of it has felt leaden. Franken told a belabored anecdote Monday afternoon about his inability to determine the precise identity of a centuries-old Italian rondo during a visit to a music-appreciation course at Vassar College. That's hardly a way to dispel the image of liberals as elites who are hopelessly out of touch.

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