Radio Dial Is Turning Left

By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer


Air America Radio, the liberal assault on conservative talk radio that launches Wednesday, will employ an unusual resource in its quest -- inexperience.

Air America's flagship personality is Al Franken, a famous comedian, a best-selling author, but a newcomer to the radio booth. He'll have two famous colleagues, Janeane Garofalo and Chuck D, but neither has radio experience (though Garofalo did once play a radio host in the romantic comedy, "Truth About Cats & Dogs").

"Radio looks so easy to do and liberals have failed over and over again at taking their political heroes and putting them on the radio – think of Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo – so what do they do when they try to start this network, they don't go to people who have radio chops," said Harry Shearer, a liberal radio host and comedic writer out of Santa Monica, Calif., who turned down a request to join the new network.

The network does have some radio veterans, including a big-time jock from southern Florida, Randi Rhodes. But Air America is counting on something other than industry know-how to develop its audience.

"We are liberals," Franken told CBSNews.com. He believes there is a liberal market out there that lacks a radio voice. And he believes he knows how to put on a good show. "I'm trying to invent something new here, a show that is substantive, entertaining and funny," Franken added.

Franken will call his show The O'Franken Factor, a deliberate affront to Bill O'Reilly's Fox show, The O'Reilly Factor -- they hate each other. Franken's recipe of picking fights with the right has worked for selling books and he'll use some of the same tactics on the radio.

"Republicans have spent 40 years trying to make 'liberal' pejorative. They associated it with welfare dope, having sex, doing drugs and being lazy," said Franken. "And it [liberalism] means saving capitalism twice in the 20th Century, during the progressive era and the new deal. It means we are all in this together."

And that is grand project for Air America, reclaiming how liberals are defined to Americans. Money is not the immediate goal; Air America Radio does not expect to make a profit for three years and will cost an estimated $30 million.

They face considerable skepticism. In a nutshell, the rap on radio is this: What makes successful radio is not the politics of the personality, but the personality. Hence, liberal radio must have personality that translates over the airwaves.

"What works best on radio is people that have radio chops," said Shearer.

It is no fluke that 14.5 million listeners tune in weekly to Rush Limbaugh's lament against the political left, nor that a storm of conservative wannabes followed. However, the explanation has less to do with the "conservative" than it does with "Limbaugh."

Jeff Christy? That was Limbaugh's alias when he debuted in 1971 on the Pittsburgh airwaves as just another disc jockey. Limbaugh was in the radio trenches long before his groundbreaking conservative show that debuted in 1984. The new format that involved callers and conversation became essentially all Limbaugh, all the time.

But Air America remains optimistic that they will succeed. There is reason to be, as sports radio has proven.

The first all-sports radio station began in New York in 1986 and "people laughed," said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, a trade publication. "They laughed for a couple of years, because of the puny ratings and the very audacity of the idea, not to mention the cost of running the format."

By the mid-1990s the station, then called WFAN, was one of the highest billed in the market and soon the country, with about 450 commercial stations in the country doing all-sports, according to the M Street Database.

That same source records how Limbaugh grew from 360 stations in 1990 to 841 in mid-1993, leveling off in 1994 with about 1200 stations, where he has generally remained to this day.

"Nothing succeeds like success and conservative talk captured the market early, to their credit," Franken said. "Rush did it and Rush imitators did it. Then the whole terrain became right wing. And so, to do a show like mine, you would have to appear between two right wing guys; it's like putting country western between Hip Hop.

"I think conservative radio had a lot of effect on voters," Franken continued. "When everything is so 50/50 and decided at the margins, I think people who don't follow politics real closely but are somewhat interested, tune it and buy it."

Of the top 28 radio personalities that tie for the top-ten positions in talk radio, about 15 are political in some regard, according to Talkers, a radio trade publication. Of those, about ten are conservative (although Bill O'Reilly may claim otherwise). The remaining third that are political, whether in large markets or small, rarely are liberal (most are libertarian or centrist).

"Nearly half of Limbaugh's audience is liberal. Half the people that listen to Limbaugh love to hate him," Talkers publisher Michael Harrison explains. "If it [is] only preaching to the choir than what kind of impact could it have politically? And it does have this impact politically, but not the kind that can be easily measured."

Air America will initially launch Wednesday on AM stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Industry experts agree that if the network is to succeed it must be sufficiently gripping, humorous, exciting, infuriating – not sufficiently liberal.

"To avoid failing we will do compelling shows," promised Franken, with a self-mocking chuckle. "It will take me about 12 or 13 years to get really good at this."

That's about what it took Limbaugh.

By David Paul Kuhn