LIBERAL RADIO IS FINALLY ON THE AIR
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Is it the triumphant revival of a robust liberalism or will it be another political disaster? Air America Radio is that long awaited invention, a national radio network designed to oppose the power of conservative talk radio epitomized by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
Starting Thursday, April 1, Air America Radio went on the air in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and suburban Los Angeles. It is also available on XM Satellite Radio (channel 167) and via Internet through the www.airamericaradio.com Website.
Comedian and best-selling author Al Franken is the big draw, hosting The O'Franken Factor in the noon to 3 p.m. slot, followed by Randi Rhodes, a New York native who has been hosting her own liberal talk radio show in Florida, all but unknown to the rest of us, for the past 9 years. Janeane Garofalo is the draw for a later show, The Majority Report. There is also an early show, Morning Sedition, in the 9 am to noon time slot.
The performance has been a mixture of opening day jitters and technical glitches but also a revelation. Consider this list of names: Al Gore, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman and Michael Moore. What they used to have in common is that they all got lambasted, pounded, misrepresented and smeared by the Hard Right shock jocks who have ruled talk radio until now.
And what they now have in common is that they were guests on Air America Radio during its opening days. Unlike the fate of liberals on conservative radio shows (insulted, talked over, shouted down and then cut off), these people were given the chance to have their say, to argue and to explain their positions, in short, to be treated as intelligent human beings who have something important to say.
There is no person more despised by the right wing than Hillary Clinton, as even casual listening to talk radio will demonstrate, so it was interesting to actually hear what she has to say. She presented the case against President George W. Bush effectively, pointing out that the current administration has the worst job creation record since the great depression, in contrast to the excellent record of job creation during the Clinton presidency.
Princeton professor of economics and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was, as usual, a breath of fresh air as he explained the hypocritical dishonesty of the Bush economic policies. Krugman provided academic gravitas to the argument that running a war while simultaneously cutting taxes is economic insanity.
Former United Press International reporter Helen Thomas (famous for having the front seat in presidential press conferences until recently) spoke about the need to break through the wall of secrecy that the Bush administration has wrapped around itself.
The overall philosophy of Air America Radio may perhaps be summarized as follows: Bush is bad, liberalism is good, Bush and the right wing are dissemblers, Al Franken and his friends are truthful (repeat three times and donate to the Kerry campaign). In his more nuanced moments, Franken is deeper than this, but presumably he felt that opening day in the war against Rush Limbaugh was not the time to quibble.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is treated as undebatably bad, Ralph Nader's candidacy is viewed as close to treasonable, and the welfare state so loathed by the opposition is (at least so far) not subject to criticism.
The first two days have been subject to some technical issues and what sounded like opening day jitters. There was a little too much dead air time on occasion, which added to the difficulty this listener had in finding a weak signal in the crowded Los Angeles area radio spectrum. Al Franken does not as yet sound like an experienced radio announcer. He says 'Uh' too often, lacks the crisp diction of the longtime professional, and gets lost in his story telling from time to time.
The way Air America Radio has dealt with this is to pair him with cohost Katherine Lanpher, a radio pro who knows enough to interrupt when it is important to explain a term or to remind late-tuning listeners who the guest caller is.
Diction is not everything however, and Franken can more than hold his own when he has a precise point to make. This was more than obvious when he presented rebuttals to Bush campaign television ads and pointed out flaws in statements by his opponents Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
What has come out of this pairing is a show that promises great radio in the future, even as it polishes up on its basic technique in the immediate present.
Perhaps the most critical issue facing the new Air America Radio is whether or not it can generate the advertising revenue necessary to keep it alive in the long run. It was a little surprising to hear many of the same advertisers on Air America as can be heard on the conservative stations in this same city.
A mattress retailer who advertises heavily on conservative stations KFI and KABC also ran adds on Air America local KBLA, along with General Motors, weight loss supplement dealers and mortgage brokers. We also heard from more liberal sellers, including pitches to buy tickets to a new play and requests for investors in a documentary film. It is too early to tell, but it may be that there is a substantial market for liberal radio that is almost untapped at the commercial level.
Perhaps in imitation of the Rush Limbaugh show, Air America ran little fictional skits of its own, including a parody Ann Coulter locked in the station's waiting room, an Arab air traveler waiting at an airport and (most useless of all) a silly report on the annual drum solo performed by the Queen of England complete with constant drum noise in the background.
Early reviews such as one by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post were mixed, concentrating on the inexperience of Franken, the small number of stations and the technical problems. "A good radio show has strong pacing and a deft mixture of ideology, confrontation and humor' said Kurtz. "Franken's 'Factor' was meandering and discursive, almost NPR-like, sounding more like someone shooting the breeze at a dinner party than trying to persuade listeners."
There will be much more said about Air America Radio in the coming months. The salient issue is whether it will have the political effect that it intends. It needs to build an audience, attract paying advertisers, and add new stations to its network.
It can and should drop some of its overly in-group attempts at humor: The title of its lead show, The O'Franken Factor, is a gibe at conservative radio personality Bill O'Reilly, who is known for The O'Reilly Factor. Franken says as much. Jokes about "fair and balanced" refer to Fox News. Even the name "Air America" is a inside joke referring to the Vietnam-era airline created and financed by the CIA. These in-jokes are not necessary or even desirable.
Air America Radio has created one sort of power that many critics have missed. By calling Sean Hannity "a liar" on the air, Al Franken has put Hannity in an uncomfortable position. To respond is to give free publicity to Air America. To fail to respond is to leave the charge hanging out in public. Either way, there is no winning strategy for Hannity - short of proving himself correct and Franken wrong. Al Franken doesn't seem to be too worried about that.