Err America

Photo: Globe Photos

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.

Rhodes is the only one who has the liberal-rage thing down pat—which makes her perhaps the only proven model for how liberal talk might compete nationally. Brooklyn-born, with a confident, rapid-fire delivery—like a smoky, low-pitched Marisa Tomei—she’s been No. 1 in South Florida for years. “Randi really has an antic sense of humor, both self-deprecating and kind of abusive at the same time,” marvels Air America CEO Mark Walsh, who consulted on the Kerry campaign.

But Rhodes tells me she’s skeptical of the whole concept of an all-liberal station—or “format purity,” as it’s called. After all, she followed Rush on a Clear Channel station and beat him handily. “It better work,” says Rhodes, who moved here from Florida a month ago. “I’d like to tell you everything’s wonderful and we’re all one big happy family, a big comedy troupe, but we’re not. Al is Al and Janeane is Janeane—they’re movie stars and TV stars. I’m a radio person. Radio on the show-business totem pole is where the dog lifts his leg.”

It shouldn’t be that way. Listening to Rhodes, you get an idea of what left-wing talk can be—an ecstatically cathartic guilty pleasure for liberals dying for permission to be furious. She’s capable of reasoned discussion, too: When Pat Buchanan called in on her debut show, the two had a civil conversation about the differences between conservatives and neoconservatives. It helped that he was also against the war.

But that melee with Nader was more than just rude. It felt good. Almost as good as when Rhodes predicted that Osama bin Laden’s death would be the next October Surprise.

After Nader hung up, a longtime listener called in from Florida: “He has no idea how nasty you can get. That was mild!”

Next, a listener called from Connecticut. “I love you!” she said. “Even though you’re abrasive, you’re my favorite one on the station.”

“Well, there’s only been two of us on so far,” Rhodes noted—herself and Franken.

“Out of the two,” the woman said, “you win.”

Janeane Garofalo, on from 8 to 11 p.m., has the makings of a blisteringly marvelous pundit. But she’s so busy scolding right-wingers for appealing to people’s lesser nature that she, at least so far, won’t leap into the mud herself. As Bob Kerrey might say, she has a round in her chamber and she won’t use it. The closest she came on opening night was in an exchange with her co-host, Sam Seder. “But if God chose George Bush to be president, would that mean God wanted the White House to lie?” she said.

“Listening to Randi Rhodes, you get an idea of what left-wing talk can be—a guilty pleasure for liberals dying for permission to be furious.”

“Or, ergo ipso facto—God is a liar!” Seder said.

There’s something clubby and erudite about her show, like an after-hours set at Surf Reality. At one point, Garofalo cited how today’s conservatives demonstrate “Martin Buber’s I-It relationship with the world, as opposed to the more respectful I-Thou relationship.” And she and Seder sound too far away from the mikes—they need to be less stagey and more intimate. While Garofalo may artfully refer on the air to Brit Hume’s “Algonquin Round Table of apologists,” in person she has angrier words for right-wing talk. “They’ve actually done a drive-by on the whole culture,” Garofalo tells me, sitting in the windowless office she shares with Seder. “They have somehow, through propaganda, demagoguery, repetition, been able to persuade a large portion of the electorate to vote against their better interests.”

Garofalo is considering adding more comic bits: One possible future segment, “Slander Theater,” spreads nasty rumors about conservatives in skit form, the joke being “it can’t be slander if it’s theater.” But her comedy, over the years, has mutated into something more mournful and less funny. “Most people aren’t funny,” she says. “Most comics aren’t that funny. And most people don’t think I’m funny. A lot of people bristle at this term spoken word. But that’s what it has become in my late thirties—it just has. You know, it’s not as much anymore like ‘I’m so fat!’ But especially since 2000, what is funny? This miscarriage of justice in the Supreme Court—how in the world do you find this funny? Sometimes I’m just so disgusted by my government and my media that I can’t find it funny.”

If anything, Seder shows more promise of becoming a fire-breather; at least he can admire the tactic from a distance. “Bin Laden is living in the United States,” Seder tells me, “and he has blonde hair. He’s probably got some type of eating disorder. And he drinks too much, and then occasionally writes an op-ed under the name Ann Coulter.”

“Ann Coulter is a sociopath,” Garofalo replies sternly (a far cry from her measured statement on the air that “Ann Coulter is very intolerant; at least her public persona is”). “And what she does is drag our culture down to a more aggressive, meaner, anti-intellectual kind of Redneck Nation.” But then she waters down the insult with a joke: “My contention is that she is a performance artist. I contend that she is, indeed, Andy Kaufman.”

Moments later, Seder says that Bush’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage made him feel as if he were in “Germany, six months before Kristallnacht.” Silence. Garofalo lets out a nervous laugh.

“He says that with a much lighter hand on the air,” she says apologetically.

In time, Garofalo’s college-teach-in rhetoric (“Why are taxes so wrong? What’s so wrong with political correctness?”) could be the first step toward a new style of liberal talk that’s neither Rush-like nor NPR-esque. And Franken’s comedy bits about corporate greed (“Accountants Without Borders”) do hit the mark. If it sounds like they’re preaching to the converted, that’s not such a bad place to start—seeking out a silent, frustrated liberal constituency. You can hear the formula working when Franken steps in with lines like “You know, we’re more religious than the right. If you cut out everything in the New Testament about helping the poor, it would be a perfect little book to smuggle drugs in.”

But the formula falters when Franken is given a few minutes to ad-lib on the glories of liberalism. It’s a radio-technique problem: Unless you’re hopped up on emotion, your voice sounds like sludge. “Sometimes there’s a tug and pull,” Franken admits, “because you really do have to have information that needs to come out, and on the other hand you have an instinctive need to keep the audience entertained. You step it up. You’re an entertainer. But the thing to worry about is when I get too big for my britches. Just wait. I only start getting too big for my britches when everything’s falling apart. Then I get mad. And then I act like an asshole.”

Liberal listeners may already be wondering: How long will we have to wait?

Err America