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Calling Air America | The Nation

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Calling Air America

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TV is a cool medium, exemplified in action by the late Johnny Carson (or Jay Leno), and radio is a hot one, exemplified by--who else?--Rush Limbaugh. It remains to be seen if the cerebral Franken, with his cerebral guests ambling cerebrally up the high road, will make it in the long run. Whether he or Springer, a coolish TV type also, are or aren't hits, Air America has a peppery veteran performer in Randi Rhodes, who noncerebrally drove cerebral interview guest Ralph Nader out of the studio with a high-decibel, high-speed verbal barrage against his candidacy. Rhodes came to Air America after years of successful GOP-bashing on a Miami station, although she is an old-school New York wisenheimer with a polished technique who can seethe on air with the best of 'em.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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What some of the other Air America regulars may lack in hours logged in front of the microphone they make up for in the energy with which they hurl themselves at their listeners. Mark Maron, one of the performers on Air America's Morning Sedition program, whiles the early hours away attacking right-wing malefactors with such epithets as "douche-bag," "zombie" and, my favorite, "Christo-fascist." Nor is Maron, who first bloomed as a stand-up comic, the only hyperenergized lefty swinging brass knuckles for the Air America lineup.

Later on in the day you can hear movie actress Janeane Garofalo behaving like a confused avenging liberal angel or venomous pixie, depending on your tastes and politics. I was lucky enough to tune in on Garofalo one day when she was discoursing on "ass babies." Ass babies are infants conceived by buttfucking young women who will do anything of a sexual nature except have their hymens broken by a marauding penis before marriage to, presumably, a person of another gender.

Doubtless there is an audience for such discussions, but how big it may be and whether its members vote is yet to be established. Before the arrival of Democracy Radio and Air America it was a settled truth that AM talk-radio was right-wing territory and that portsiders who tried to muscle in would fail.

This being the case, some people assumed Air America was an election-year stunt that would disappear after the Democratic defeat last November. Lefty radio was considered an impossible thing, Danny Goldberg explains, because it was thought that "liberal ideas were too nuanced, that anger is what fuels conservatism in a unique way, that liberalism was elitist and that talk-radio was populist. That turned out to be completely untrue." Assuredly no one is going to accuse Garofalo and Maron of over-nuancification. Franken is a known and named nuancer and we have yet to see what kind of a talker Springer will be, but the guy is a clever politician, able to adapt his tactics to his needs.

In some form or other, progressive talk is here to stay. "I'm sure my mother and father said there could never be such a thing as rock-and-roll radio in 1958, no one would listen to that quote unquote crap on the air," says Gabe Hobbs, a vice president in charge of programming for Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations, including twenty-eight that carry Air America. "To say that only conservative people would listen to talk-radio and a discussion of important issues and cultural issues and things of this nature is just naïve and misguided."

Once upon a time, Hobbs will tell you, liberals held their own in talk-radio. "Talk-radio has been largely conservative for the last fifteen years, but that has nothing to do with what people are willing to consume. It just sort of evolved that way. Prior to 1988 talk-radio was largely liberal. In 1988 Rush Limbaugh comes along and is an overnight wild success. What happens is there're 500 guys out there the next day trying to imitate what he did, and suddenly it's a conservative medium. Oh, wow! Let's all do it, and so we all did it. I'm not saying it was wrong. We made a nice living doing it."

Hobbs has a simple calculation that predicts a minimum level of commercial success for lib-lab talkathons. "In radio, let's say you go into a market that's considered to be a 'conservative,' red-state area. It's still going to have maybe 40 percent Democratic registration. If I get just 1 or 2 percent of that constituency to listen to the station, it's a huge, wildly successful radio station." To nail the point down he adds, "I have yet to see a major US radio market that was all conservative or all liberal. That's like saying in Boise, Idaho, they don't like rock music; they'll only listen to country. Maybe country is the number-one station there, but I'm guessing there are some rock-and-roll fans as well."

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