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ISSUE 117 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/9/2004

Air America

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 9, 2004

Had the liberal radio network Air America debuted a day later, some might have considered it an April Fool's joke. But it's no joke; starting on March 31 the around-the-clock unashamedly leftist network, led by figurehead Al Franken, claimed a place on the airwaves in a number of U.S. cities. In its first week, Air America received mixed reviews regarding the quality and possible success of the endeavor.

Air America states in its credo online that it feels a vacuum has opened up in political dialogue on the radio -- a vacuum that needs to be filled with a view to balance the overwhelming presence of conservative radio representation. The vacuum, however, seems to exist not because of the lack of supply of liberal deejays, but because of lack of demand. Others have tried -- most notably Alan Dershowitz and Mario Cuomo -- but with short-lived results.

Franken is the only witty liberal man broadcasting each day. He is joined by "Daily Show" co-creator Lizz Winstead, who runs the morning program with Public Enemy rapper Chuck D, and comedian Janeane Garofalo, who will be punching the clock at 8:00 p.m. Celebrities such as Garafalo and Chuck D may help capture the tricky 18-24 age demographic, which has a historically low record of listening to talk radio.

Few college radio stations offer political talk radio, St. Olaf is no exception. The show roster for this semester at KSTO (FM 93.1) offers a handful of talk shows, and none are focused on politics. Some students, like junior Clare Berke, confess to listening to NPR periodically, but not actively seeking out political talk radio.

"I don't think anyone one [our age] listens to that kind of radio," Berke said. "If they even listen to the radio at all."

Indeed, the demographic talk radio generally gets to is the suburban, college-educated white-collar workers, the people who listen on the way to work and during lunch -- people who are in the largest segment of the population, aged 25-49. One of the possible weaknesses of Air America is that it seems to preach to the converted, so to speak. Its pilot stations are in relatively liberal cities.

Currently, Air America has purchased or is in the process of purchasing stations in six major cities: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. Listeners outside of these cities may tune in via internet streaming at

The marquee show,"The O'Franken Factor" should be of particular interest to Twin Cities listeners because it is hosted by Franken, a native to Minnesota, and Katherine Lanpher, a former host on Minnesota Public Radio. Although no station in Minnesota currently provides all of Air America's programming, Minneapolis' WMNN (AM 1330) does air "The O'Franken Factor."

Franken's main credential for leading Air America is his reputation for wittily representing the views of the left. Franken is a friend of the Clintons. His recent tirade against conservatives, the book "Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) occupies the number 6 slot on the "New York Times" nonfiction bestseller list, and topped the list for almost 30 weeks. Franken also seemingly appears on a whim on late night talk shows. The man is a "Saturday Night Live" alum, but he has little radio experience. Critics speculate that he may be too much of an insider and too cool to pull this off.

The conservative personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries who fundamentally changed political debate in the mainstream were mostly outsiders. Rush is representative of this group. Fired several times from radio jobs, he burned through a couple of marriages and was in hot water with his employer for cracking jokes while reading the news when he began his ascent as the most significant radio talent of his generation.

Franken and cast are trying to capture Limbaugh's turf the left has never held. The network has publicized plans for multi-year investment in the growth of a foundation for liberal talk radio. But they are not content to work slowly. Franken has signed only a one-year contract and has made it clear that his real goal is simply the unseating of George W. Bush. This could turn out to be a problem. As David Skinner of the "Weekly Standard" put it, "Anti-Bush venom is a pretty shallow pool from which to draw a large popular audience."

The focus on countering the rhetoric of the more popular conservative radio shows (Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc.) begins with satire. Air America's website states: "The pendulum is now swinging the other way and the market hungers for a balance of rhetoric. Air America Radio brings this balance in the form of political satire in the grand tradition of 'Saturday Night Live' and 'The Daily Show.'"

Several independent online reactions have stated a concern that the satire will then focus on ridicule and rhetoric, with little critical evaluation or attention to solutions. Few critics on either side of politics think that the radio station will last. The premier airing was met with lackluster reviews. Partially based on the limiting topics of the network and also on the character of Franken, reviews focus on the tactics of the network, rather than actual content.

Alessandra Stanley of the "New York Times" said, "The first day mostly highlighted the difficulty of trying to match the fervor and ferocity of right-wing radio. Satire and sarcasm come more easily than rage to Mr. Franken.... And rage -- unbound by reason or reticence -- is what fuels the most successful political talk shows." Another review also noted that Franken's responses to conspiracy theories were measured and analytical -- traits that are admirable, but do not necessarily make for good talk radio.

Franken did win praise for his high-powered guests, including Michael Moore, Ben Stein and Al Gore -- but the "New Republic" noted that it "doesn't bode well" when a show's "most entertaining segment is one featuring Al Gore." Many liberals, more than hoping for the success of the network, are really counting on the success of the mission to oust Bush from office. Only time will tell how effective Franken's team will be.

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