Tune In

Thursday, March 31 is the first anniversary of Air America, the feisty talk radio channel that -- despite daunting odds and early behind-the-scenes financial delusions -- has reached the one-year mark healthy and outspoken, an effective and unique voice in a world long dominated by right-wing talk maniacs.

Marking the anniversary is the no-holds-barred HBO film Left of the Dial, a terrifically entertaining, intimate documentary that looks at the very bumpy road that led to the launch of Air America.

The show debuts twice on March 31 (and airs April 5, 6 and 9 on various HBO stations). So, all readers with HBO -- get those TiVOs working, invite your friends over for a viewing party, make a copy and spread it around ... er, just kidding about that one ... but this film must be seen by millions of people still hurting from Nov. 2, for some much-needed warm and fuzzy feelings.

Left of the Dial chronicles a growing success story for progressive media. Air America is now on the air in 51 cities, starting from the slim five at the beginning. And increasingly, Air America is doing excellent talk radio.

The documentary is an inspiring tale of how an unlikely collection of people and talent persevered during an election in which they were so deeply and emotionally invested. The film effectively captures the on air talent -- the viewer can see the hilarious cranky morning guy, Marc Maron; the wonderfully obnoxious Randi Rhodes, the one true radio veteran of the bunch; and even the occasionally pompous Al Franken make good talk radio -- because they make good TV as well.

Those who have followed the Air America saga know that amidst the initial euphoria of getting on the air, the network lost L.A. and Chicago, its number two and three markets almost immediately because of confusion and bounced checks. Very quickly there was no health insurance or paychecks and the staff and talent quickly slid into the depths of despair.

It is fascinating to meet Evan Cohen and his right-hand man David Goodfriend, the early money and leadership. Cohen was the hustler who got Air America to the point of success, only to almost crash and burn it. The money Cohen insisted was on hand to keep the station rolling for two years almost immediately disappears, and then so does Cohen. The filmmakers, clearly in a nod to their lawyers, provide some written narrative to explain Cohen's convoluted side of the story. But the bottom line in the narrative is Cohen signs away his ownership, the ogres are sent packing and two unlikely heros among many emerge to save the day. One is the soft spoken investor Doug Kreeger who arrives, mensch-like, to find the funds to keep the station on the air. The other is Carl Ginsburg, the charismatic, profane general manager, who by sheer dint of persistence and passion provides the leadership glue to keep the operation in one very fragile piece.

While the nuts and bolts of getting the channel going are elucidated, the viewer meets dozens of hard-working, committed people -- on air and off -- giving it all for a cause they truly believe in. It all has a tinge of Keystone Kops hilarity to it, with virtually everything breaking down at some point in the race to get on the air.

One of the humorous subplots follows Franken and to a lesser extent Janeane Garafolo, the well-known actor and comedian, as the marquee on-air stars getting all the attention. Meanwhile, Randi Rhodes, a truly loveable character and a successful Florida radio personality for 15 years, is relegated to background. Rhodes plays the role with great dead-pan humor -- this woman should be in movies. As the film develops, Rhodes emerges as the true authentic voice of the station; angry, funny, vulnerable all wrapped into one package. In her first day on the air, she tangles fiercely with Ralph Nader, telling him she is not interviewing him, but in fact is furious with him, because "we can't afford to have you running." Eventually, the insulted Nader, insisting he should be interviewed and not talked at, hangs up, and Rhodes grins in triumph.

Filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan have made an exciting, very human film that takes the viewer on a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. There are happy moments documenting ratings triumphs, as Randi Rhodes kicks Sean Hannity's right-wing radio butt and Franken crushes Rush Limbaugh. Suspense builds frequently, even though you know what's going to happen on Nov. 2. Reliving the devastating loss with the Air America staff brings the rush of emotions back to the surface.

In the end, the film has the Rockyesque feel of a reality TV show, where the viewer identifies with the characters as real people. The audience at the screening party on March 29 at HBO headquarters in NYC enthusiastically broke into applause at a number of points during the film. The HBO team, led by Sheila Nevins, should be saluted for having the foresight to greenlight a film that, at its inception, seemed an unlikely candidate for fun and intrigue.

Left of the Dial ends soon after the election in November, as the staff and the talent come to grips with the hard truth: the battle ahead is long, the needs great, and if Air America is to help lead progressives to the promised land, it will be as a long distance runner and not a flash in the pan.

The chance of long-term success however has been enhanced greatly following the end of the film's narrative. First, the big, dependable money is found. The key sugar daddy investor is Rob Glaser, the Seattle-based internet mogul who founded and owns a huge chunk of Real Networks, the internet streaming giant. Glaser is known for his savvy and his hard-charging style, battling Microsoft in court and taking on Steve Jobs' sacred iTunes/iPod monopoly. Glaser's clearly a big thinker with deep pockets -- a good guy to have on your side.

And the latest big talent added to the team as CEO is Danny Goldberg -- a well-known figure in both mainstream music, media and progressive circles. Goldberg is another tough progressive with real business chops and a way with talent that will add to the stations chances of long-term success.

True, neither Goldberg nor Glaser are radio people per se -- but they are in the entertainment business and the technology business. Air America is really about entertainment, and making maximum use of the internet with its streaming, blogs, and interactivity to help market to and engage ever-increasing audiences for the radio product. Air America has many thousands of people, living in cities without a station, listening on the web. Morning guy Mark Maron mentioned that he got an on-air call from China the other day, which surprised the hell out of him.

Yes, Air America may not be your cup of tea. Prim, restrained NPR it is not. But while NPR, along with PBS, slips and slides into the abyss of right-wing influence and the desperate hope not to offend the ever-barking conservative watch dogs and their elected official patrons, Air America never flinches. In heart-warming contrast, you never doubt for one second where Air America is coming from, warts and all.

One important point about Air America's success is that the right-wing echo chamber finally has some competition; progressives are being loud in the marketplace of ideas. This of course isn't enough. Nor can it be the only new style of progressive media; there need to be other new media players on the scene, and much more infrastructure built. But hey -- success stories for progressives these days are few and far between, as are the discovery of new heroes for our side. Left of the Dial makes a convincing case for both a big victory and for a whole new batch of heroes, delightfully real people that you will enjoy getting to know.


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Happy Holidays!