Airwaves war: view from the left side of the mike

With much hoopla, Al Franken and the liberal Air America launch their answer to conservative talk shows.

To Al Franken, this week's live launch of the liberal Air America Radio network is far from just a business venture. It's the historic lighting of "flaming swords of justice."

"Today is both an ending and a beginning," he said, claiming to be broadcasting from an underground bunker 3,500 feet below Vice President Cheney's bunker. "An end to the right-wing dominance of talk radio and the beginning of a battle for truth, a battle for justice, a battle indeed for America itself ... not to be grandiose."

No? Well, maybe. From the moment the fledgling network went on the air Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Franken threw down a political gauntlet to the "radical right wing of the Republican party," which he accused of "lying, lying without shame, lying with impunity, safe in the knowledge there is no watchdog with a platform large enough to call them on their willful untruths."

Heavy stuff. Just what the critics were warning against. It prompted one conservative talk-show host to call it "vendetta broadcasting."

But almost as soon as the political satirist veered into offensive territory, he pulled back, as though he knew that in addition to a mission, this is also the very serious business of entertainment.

"Someday we will find that watchdog," he said. "Until then, I will have to do."

Such hyperbole, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, marked the inaugural day of Air America Radio - a $20 million venture pledging to challenge the dominance of conservative talk giants like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. But while Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Hannity are on in some 800 US markets, Franken and his band of mostly novice radio personalities are on in only five, although they're also broadcast on XM Satellite Radio and streamed on the Internet.

But you wouldn't know that from the avalanche of press they got, a product some say of Franken's celebrity status, combined with his very public taunting of conservative commentators. ("Some people have asked me, 'Why "The O'Franken Factor"?' " he says of his new show. "One reason, and one reason only: to annoy and bait Bill O'Reilly.")

But despite all the hoopla surrounding the network's launch, many analysts are wondering if it will be able to succeed either as a business venture in the highly consolidated radio world or as a political force for the left. Indeed, one analyst warns that it could even produce a backlash effect, particularly in the 18 swing states.

"Talk radio is driven by conflict," says Cliff Zukin, professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

"In that sense, it's going to attract extremes, and what you have in the 18 states that are up for grabs is a battle for the center, not for the extremes."

And in this age of mega-media consolidation, it can be a risky business to launch a radio network. When Air America was announced last year, it had hoped to own five stations by the time it went live. To date, it doesn't own any: It's simply renting air time. That's in part a product of the highly consolidated radio market, where corporate giants like Clear Channel, which can own more than 1,000 stations nationwide, are reluctant to sell any. "The concentration of media ownership has made it a lot harder for new entrants," says Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project in Washington.

That said, he also thinks the Air America investors are going into the venture fully aware of the challenge. Yet all they may need is for one of the shows to become a big ratings winner. That could lead to syndication success.

The key, according to veteran broadcasters, is the ability to chatter away and be intimate and entertaining for several hours, even if no one calls in. "It's a very tricky medium. It's not television without pictures," says Ellen Ratner, liberal talk-show host and founder of the liberal Talk Radio News Service (yes, there are other liberal talk hosts). "You have to have a conversation on the air with your audience."

And it has to be witty and engaging, even if you're tired or simply having a bad day. "So stand-up comics who do great bits and rehearse them are going to be challenged to be good every single day," says Blanquita Cullum, president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. When asked if he'd thought about that challenge, Franken simply said: "No."

But it's clear that he and his folks have done their homework. The first call-in guest on the inaugural show was G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame, himself a conservative talk host. The controversial commentator Ann Coulter was also going to be on, but Franken and his cohost decided that she was just too mean. Instead, they locked her in the green room and turned up the heat. (Just kidding.)

That was balanced with a thoughtful interview with the Sept. 11 commission's Bob Kerrey.

Overall, Franken felt the launch went well. "I trusted my gut and it felt good," he says. "I think we struck a perfect balance of stridency."

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