The Air America Factor: Are You Listening?

If there were ever an opportune time to launch a liberal-minded radio show in the United States of America, it's now. We're at the beginning of what may be the bitterest presidential contest ever; American troops still die daily in Iraq; the economy is stagnant; and the testimony coming from the 9/11 Commission is the talk of the nation.

The new radio network Air America has big goals: It hopes to change the political landscape and become the counterforce to conservative talk radio predominance. But can a 17-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week talkfest with entertainer notables Al Franken, actress Janeane Garofalo, rap artist Chuck D and writer/comedian Lizz Winstead quench progressive thirst for verbal vengeance?

True to talk radio's credo of irreverence and outrage, Air America frontman Al Franken hit the airwaves Wednesday afternoon with "We're angry!" But after stating his goal to "Take back America" by using his radio presence to influence the upcoming election, he proceeded to lambaste his personal competition, talk divo Rush Limbaugh, who has an estimated 14.5 million weekly listeners. "We will do this show drug free," jibed Franken, whose show airs the same time as Limbaugh's.

Named to bait the host of Fox Television's "The O'Reilly Factor," "The O'Franken Factor" (airing weekdays noon to 3pm) initially blended satiric skits with political commentary culled from an impressive guest lineup. On day one, Bebe Newirth impersonated neo-con personality Ann Coulter, screaming about being locked in the Green Room.

By day two, "The O'Franken Factor" sounded more like NPR, thanks to co-host Katherine Lanpher (formerly of Minnesota Public Radio), who steered the show's focus away from the host and toward their illustrious guests: Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (now serving on the 9/11 Commission), Vice President Al Gore, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Senator Joseph Biden, as well as G. Gordon Liddy, Ben Stein and Michael Moore. Also present was NPR reporter Jo Ann Allen, who gave straight news, without commentary.

The Line-up

Air America Radio is banking its success not only on Franken – a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer, and author of the bestseller, "Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" – but on pairing entertainer personalities with radio professionals.

"Morning Sedition" (airing weekdays from 6 to 9am) brings together Mark Riley and Sue Ellicott – both veteran radio professionals – with Marc Maron, a stand-up comedian.

The next program, "Unfiltered" (airing weekdays 9am to noon) teams Rachel Maddow, Chuck D and Lizz Winstead. Maddow holds a doctorate in politics from Oxford and has radio experience. Chuck D, leader and co-founder of the rap group Public Enemy, is an ubiquitous force in today's hip hop scene. Lizz Winstead, a successful stand-up comedian, was the co-creator and former head writer of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

"Unfiltered" shows the most promise so far. Chuck D cleverly riffed the English language; Lizz Winstead mingled politics with ironic insight: "Now you should carry around an EPT test before you assault a woman," she snapped in reference to President Bush's signing of "The Unborn Victims of Violence Act," which makes it a separate crime to injure the fetus of a pregnant woman. "They [the administration]," she added "should carry a sign that says menstruation is murder."

"Unfiltered"'s impressive two-day guest lineup included writer Christopher Hitchens, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, former marine Christian Bauman, lawyer Mike Papatanio (who hosts Air America's weekend show "Champions of Justice"), musician John Cougar Mellencamp and director Spike Lee. If "Unfiltered" can keep the star power rolling across the airwaves, it could make a real dent on morning radio.

Randi Rhodes' World

Randi Rhodes – known as "The Goddess" by South Florida radio groupies where she's been a liberal talk show presence for 20 years – sprayed out her thoughts on "The Randi Rhodes Show" (weekdays 3 to 7pm) like a dive-bombing yenta from the heart of old Brooklyn, her native land. This lady knows talk radio. Unlike other Air America shows, which have two or three hosts sharing the airwaves, Randi Rhodes goes it alone.

Rhodes kicked straight to the big question: "Is there an audience for liberal talk radio?" She responded with the cha-ching answer: "I've been making a ton of money doing this for a long time."

Rhodes is far from the modulated-voice non-profit NPR-style radio host. When presidential contender Ralph Nader called in the first day, she screamed repeatedly, "We can't afford you this year, Ralph." When he accused her of being a lousy interviewer, she countered that she wasn't doing an interview, she was telling him what to do. Mr. Nader hung up on her. Now that's the stuff of talk radio.

Rhodes doesn't kowtow to her bosses either. "We blew up a black radio station today to do this," she said in the first five minutes of her show, referring to Air America's leasing of WLIB 1190-AM, New York's last remaining black talk radio station. (Former WLIB veteran Mark Riley now hosts on "Morning Sedition.")

Rhodes has tripartite talent; bravura, shtick and facts, though her frenzied energy induces occasional headaches. She also keeps the ball running like a freight train. To underscore that politically liberal entertainment has a viable audience she pointed out that Phil Donohue was fired from his most recent show not because his ratings weren't good, but because he spoke against the war on network television.

Rhodes – guilty of pandering to herself with too many male callers phoning in to tell her she's great – may have trouble filling up four hours of talk. Yet, when she opened her third show with a raucous song titled, "Bounce Your Boobies," in honor of Janet Jackson's costume malfunction at the Super Bowl, all was momentarily forgiven.

Beyond Randi

Air America's evening programming lost much of its zing with "The Majority Report" (weekdays 8 to 11pm). Named in honor of Al Gore's presidential victory in the popular vote of the 2000 election, "The Majority Report" is co-hosted by writer/comedian/filmmaker Sam Seder and actress Janeane Garofalo.

As with Air America's other shows, "The Majority Report" throws politics, humor and live chat together with abandon. Its launch was a bit rocky, since neither Garofalo nor Seder are experienced political analysts. While Seder said most reporters were "whores" and cited blogs as quality information sources, Garofalo tried gamely to paraphrase a complex philosophical theory by the late Martin Buber. But Garofalo, like Franken, is new to the talk radio world, so early lapses can be forgiven.

Preceding "The Majority Report" comes "So What Else is News?" (7 to 8pm weekdays) hosted by California communications professor Marty Kaplan. Kaplan's delivery is dry and steady. With his guests (media insiders, reporters and entertainer friends like Larry David) "What Else" put together a respectable hour-long program that covered the elections, the invisibility of war casualties and the all-important Hispanic vote.

Air America's weekend programming included "The Satellite Sisters," first heard on NPR, as well as re-broadcastings of "The O'Franken Factor" and "Unfiltered."

A Future in Radio

Air America recognizes that it needs to capture and exploit more than Americans' anger about the war on Iraq and other Bush administration policies. "It's got to be entertaining," says executive director Mark Walsh, who advised Senator Kerry and the Democratic National Committee on Internet issues.

But being witty, let alone politically incisive, on live radio isn't easy. It requires the kind of genius where a lone voice successfully conveys a powerful persona. Don Imus saturates the airwaves like a disembodied Elvis; Franken, so far, sounds like a cranky kid. (He does, however, do a great imitation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.)

Disappointment in Franken's early performance has been duly noted in the press, and conservative media insiders are already making wagers on Air America's demise. What hasn't been emphasized is that almost everything is riding on Franken's success. He is the spokesperson for the first all-talk progressively tuned radio network.

The company has not met its publicized goal to own five radio stations by its first live broadcast and instead leases six stations nationwide. Air America's has found some security with XM Radio Satellite, which carries the network and has 2.6 million subscribers. The network needs to capture at least 2 percent of the listening audience to be considered a "player," according to Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrison. By the time Air America's ratings come out in July, Franken will have hopefully found his groove.

Al Franken, a former high school wrestler, knows a thing or two about struggle. He'll be working out the kinks in his show, not just to turn his nemesis Limbaugh face down on the political mat but to elbow out some of the country's right-wing talk radio predominance. As veteran New York taxi driver Daniel Frimpang put it, Americans need a different big fat radio presence, one that will speak "for the rest of us."

Air America airs on AM stations in New York (WLIB 1190), Los Angeles (KBLA 1580), Chicago (WNTD 950) Minneapolis (WMNN 1330), Portland (KPOJ 620), San Bernadino, CA (KCAA 1050) and on XM Satellite Radio.

Rachel Straus is a freelance writer based in New York.

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