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Calling Air America | The Nation

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Calling Air America

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Even so, nothing is automatic. As Harrison of Talkers points out, "It's a tough business even when you serve a need. It's a tough business for conservatives, it's a tough business for liberals, it's a tough business for pet shows, it's a tough business for doctor shows, it's just a tough business."

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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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Harrison was referring to getting the audience that gets the advertising that keeps a program on the air. He's not discussing political impact. "This is a business proposition. I'm not out to promote some agenda, get federal judges appointed or anything like that. I'm trying to run a business here, trying to make a fair profit," explains Hobbs. Air America does have Dr. Scholls, Geico and American Express, but from what I've heard, most of the ads are low status and, one assumes, low-priced. Let's face it, how much is Proton, the one-hour erection pill with horny goat weed extract, prepared to pay?

There's another question. You and I may be tolerant, fully nuanced elitists who have been known to pop a horny-goat-weed pill from time to time, but coupled with Springer's reputation and Garofalo's mouth, is there a danger that Air America may be a hit among a white-boy, 14-to-24 demographic and Smut America to political fence sitters in Ohio, Washington and New Mexico? Air America could be, using the Hobbs formula, a commercial success and a political zero. No one can say how large the ass-baby vote is, but on the face of things it does not seem probable that it will elect many Democratic senators. Besides, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show already do what they want to do better. Goldberg has no fear of such things. He sees something new stirring in the boonies. He says that progressive radio needs to "address the culture that's been emerging with things like MoveOn.org and the people who went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 and bought Al Franken's books."

Air America may have tapped into a new and vital stratum of political thought and activity, but even if it loses itself in its own smog, Democracy Radio will not. Ed Schultz is not going to play the game of hipper-than-thou, so even if Air America does wander off into a cul-de-sac of its own devising--and it may not--there will be other, straight liberal shows. Jon Sinton, Air America's president of programming, says all the arrows on newest-audience surveys are steeply up. "They're just radio hosts, primarily entertainers," Michael Harrison reminds us, "entertainers with political and social impact." But how much, and how telling, is the impact they have? A widely used set of figures of uncertain reliability has it that every week the national air is drenched with 40,000 hours of right-wing yak-yak, as compared with a mere 3,000 hours of left-wing palaver. Those hundreds of thousands of conservative talk hours must surely have had some impact, but was it to make new conservatives or was it to whip up the foam in the mouths of inveterate right-wingers?

With a 40-to-3 lead, right-wing radio must have made a major contribution to the conservative atmospherics that we've been choking in for years. A man like Rush Limbaugh has grown rich and famous, the two qualities we have the most respect for--if he's so rich, he must be smart. His top-ten, bestseller success lends additional weight to what he stands for, enabling him to dominate the landscape as New York Review of Books writers never will. As was the case with reactionary radio some years ago, left-wing radio is good at finding and exposing villains and villainy; it is deft at unearthing conspiracies, real and not so real; it is developing a rich vocabulary of invective, all of which is useful. People need to read and hear their opinions and beliefs shouted back at them. They need to know that they are not alone.

Thousands of hours of liberal blabbery on hundreds of stations will go part of the way toward changing the impression that this is a right-wing world, that reaction is the default setting and that anything to the left of Tom DeLay is a foreign, New York kind of idea. Reactionaries must not be allowed to make all the noise, but lib-lab noise-making will not assure the winning of elections. It can make liberalism respectable in the eyes of the impressionable, feckless, white-collar American masses; it can validate it, but it will not put a lefty in the White House any more than Limbaugh and his clonish imitators captured Congress for Jesus and the big-money people in 1994. He helped, but untold numbers can't stand listening to call-in programs. They find hearing talk-radio--left, right or center--akin to having a tooth drilled. All the callithumpian, pot-walloping noise in the world will not break liberalism out of the ghetto in which it is currently confined. Not alone. Not by itself.

Progressive talk-radio has to be for something. You can't live off a straight diet of political paranoia. Liberalism has to have its thrilling moments, its heroes. It has to have a platform, a positive agenda, a program. But the invention of same is not the job of a small group of overwrought men and women leaning into microphones. When liberalism and liberals do find their platform, their new, progressive talkers will surely broadcast it. And if all will not be good, it will be better than it has been.

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