The most liberal thing about Air America Radio may be its business plan. The new national talk-radio network, airing on stations in six cities so far, seems designed on the scale of the New Deal or the War on Poverty—a proudly massive response to a mammoth social problem. The banks have failed and the markets have crashed? Plug the leaks with inventive social programs. People are hungry and homeless? Step up and feed and house them. The airwaves are clogged with right-wing fire-breathers who set the tone of presidential campaigns? Create a new radio network to tip the balance of power.
This rapid-response, instant-network approach was bound to lead to a few mistakes—especially since Air America is relying on non-radio stars like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. Making them the voices of the new network created ridiculously high expectations for comedians who just don’t get the medium yet. The decision speaks to the lack of respect for radio these days: In retrospect, it seems almost arrogant to assume that if you’re funny on camera, your voice has the stuff to invade people’s souls over the airwaves. “I am not a radio professional,” Franken said with a chuckle on the debut of “The O’Franken Factor.” From there he segued into some charming banter with his co-host, Minnesota Public Radio émigré Katherine Lanpher. Charming banter is nice, but it isn’t going to win the Democrats an election.
Talk radio, for all its purported power to sway the masses, is a blunt instrument with two settings—bombastic and boring. The political-talk genre caters to society’s fringes—so by day two, many moderates may have been wondering what the fuss was about. But for those listening, Air America offers a fascinating chance to examine, under near-perfect laboratory conditions, the current liberal identity crisis. For years, the right has staked a claim to rage. Air America is a real-time attempt to craft a liberal response—using, of all things, political satire. But what if much of what’s on the air is neither funny enough nor angry enough?
When a team of wealthy Democrats had the notion to create a liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh, it made sense to recruit some of the more famously angry liberals. Franken and Garofalo bought into it early: Franken had filled two books with frustration over how Rush and Bill O’Reilly had turned national political discourse into a right-wing rumpus room; Garofalo, enraged by the 2000 election and the war, had tried her hand as a Crossfire co-host with mixed success and decided she was tired of being a pawn of what she considered the media’s agenda to “marginalize dissent.” Sounds promising, right?
What comes across best so far on “The O’Franken Factor” is what worked in Franken’s books—a wry, rueful fixation on right-wingers, supplemented by Franken’s own imitation of El Rushbo. But if the assumption was that the masses would rather hear Franken doing Rush than Rush himself, there’s still some work to do. Franken has a slothful, pause-clogged delivery that doesn’t lend itself well to punditry. His co-host, Lanpher, is an entirely reasonable foil, yet Franken seems only slightly less reasonable. Even the mellow Grateful Dead music during the bumpers lowers the show’s blood pressure. Franken’s pretaped comedy segments—some with Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray, others with Franken’s old partner, Tom Davis—are gentle evocations of, respectively, radio’s golden age and seventies comedy albums. Franken skewers the medium as he supposedly embraces it: “Take it from me, Al Franken, radio host and frequent nighttime urinator,” he says in one fake ad. Which is funny, but not particularly liberal.
Air America’s main satiric model is The Daily Show. But if The Daily Show is funny first, liberal second (or third), Air America leads more with its political chin, making the laughs a little harder to maintain. Morning-show host and network head writer Lizz Winstead, a co-creator of the pre–Jon Stewart Daily Show, is a member of the same comedy generation as Garofalo and early-morning host Marc Maron, and the bits they supply seem strangely out of place. In one segment, called “Recovery Corner,” Maron riffed on George Bush’s addiction to Dick Cheney—kind of smart and kind of funny, but also kind of quiet.
“I think just being funny, you might not be funny enough,” worries Chuck D, the immortal Public Enemy rapper who is one of Winstead’s co-hosts. “People like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, they’ve got balls. And in radio, you can’t put people to sleep.”
Is comedy the best way to counter that?
“Charming banter is nice, but it isn’t going to win the Democrats an election.”
“Nah,” Chuck says. “You better fight ’em with conviction. You can have a tent of humor, you can poke and jab. Just be real about your shit. If you don’t like something, say, ‘We don’t like that.’ Don’t be dodgy. Yes, you can call somebody an asshole and still be on the left.” But does that come naturally to liberals? Even Chuck admits that the right has a better handle on it than the left. “They have this whole pep-rally point of view,” he says. “The bandwagon approach is too close to lynching for us.”
“I’m angry at you! I’m angry at you! I’m a genuine person who is angry at you!!”
Randi Rhodes, the afternoon drive-time host, was screaming at Ralph Nader on her first day on Air America.
“You’re ruining the first day of Air America,” Nader whined, having called in to what he thought might be a receptive liberal audience.
“I’m not ruining anything!” Rhodes shouted.
“You’re a terrible interviewer,” Nader said plaintively.
“I’m not interviewing you!” Rhodes screeched. “I am mad at you—don’t you understand?! You screwed up the last election, and now you’re going to screw up this one! Sometimes I look at a fabulous pair of shoes and I can’t afford them. I can’t afford you!”
Nader hung up on her. Rhodes laughed. On talk radio, this is a major score.