Friday, April 02, 2004

It seems Chicago was one of the handful of cities fortunate enough to hear the debut yesterday of Air America Radio, the new liberal talk-radio network, on WNTD-AM (950). Like any good Chicagoan, I'm city-status-conscious, and so I took note that the hosts consistently listed their affiliates in the order New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland; their marketing folks must know something they don't, though (or are stuck in the old "Second City" mentality), because the promos always said New York, Chicago, L.A., Portland. I've always thought places like Illinois are where the left is going to have to look for its future: yo-yoing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections, dominated by a huge and overwhelmingly Democratic city, with suburbs that have become staunchly Republican, and a Downstate region of farmers, small towns and cities, and fading industry that's socially centrist to conservative but can probably be won over by whichever party does a better job of appealing to its economic interests.

I flipped my radio on a little after 11 am Wednesday--after a while of figuring out how to get it onto the AM band--to hear Al Franken and Katherine Lanpher sandwiched in somewhere between sports radio and tinny oldies. I like Al Franken just fine, but mostly what I was feeling was twinges of sympathy; Franken was enthusiastic but a little tentative and amateurish, lots of "um"'s and pauses, sending me flashing back to awkward exchanges with my radio-show partner in high school. (I favored Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants; he leaned toward AC/DC.) "Unfiltered" this morning was a little smoother, but the hosts hadn't quite gotten their rhythm with each other, and the tone of the whole thing was a little weird; the first guest I heard was Lewis Lapham of Harper's, whose slow, patrician tones and well-turned phrases--e.g. the "magical thinking" of the Bush administration--mostly prompted giggles from the hosts, who were obviously looking for a little more rapid-fire banter, not an interview.

I suppose these observations are all ways of asking the question what "liberal talk radio" is supposed to be anyway. When I first heard the idea of a liberal talk-radio network proposed, my response--like a lot of people's, I suppose--was that we already have one: NPR. Okay, that's sort of a joke, but not really. NPR is exactly what talk radio would sound like if imagined by an earnest liberal: in-depth news coverage, interviews with authors and academics, cultural programming, offbeat commentaries, and Garrison Keillor. (Well, maybe not Garrison Keillor.) I doubt it would have the aggressive and partisan bluster of a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O'Reilly.

This may be because the idea of the "liberal media" has a hold on the minds of liberals as much as conservatives. My guess is that most liberals (as distinguished from those who might define their politics as more radically left) still have enough faith in the mainstream media that they trust the New York Times or CNN as a source of relatively "objective" reporting, which they still hold to as an ideal (I can't say I'm totally free of this ideal myself). To this liberal mindset, a pointedly partisan leftist media would be less desirable than a media that earnestly pursued the truth and skeptically questioned the official line. But conservatives--having dismissed the mainstream press as tainted by liberalism--have had no problem setting up partisan mouthpieces, like the Washington Times and Fox News, that look like conventional news outlets but have no qualms about promoting a political agenda.

And while I cringe when I hear the liberal/conservative divide in the U.S. described as a "cultural" one (listen up, you sushi-eating, latte-swigging Deaniacs), there certainly is a divide in how these factions see themselves when they look in the media mirror. Janeane Garofolo is Air America's other big celebrity name, and I caught her for just a second on CNBC last night (she's gone blond); when asked if she would use her airtime for Limbaugh-style self-promotion, she replied, no, she tended more toward self-loathing. It was a pitch-perfect post-Woody-Allen one-liner, but it also showed the problem in trying to turn a smart liberal comedian into a fire-breathing partisan pundit.

What Air America wants to be--as acknowledged by Al Franken's "The O'Franken Factor"--is a mirror image of conservative talk radio: copying its style and tone, just changing the direction of the political arrow. (The best Franken line I heard on Wednesday was probably his vow to "bitch-slap the NPR out of" his NPR-veteran co-host.) Here's a perfect "politics of style" moment: is it really possible, or desireable to do liberal politics in the abusive, nasty, smug, self-righteous voice of the radio right? Will it just make liberal positions sound as unpalatable as conservative ones?

All that said: it's a great experiment, and I'm still listening.

Here's my best suggestion for Air America: sign me up. I have eight years of broadcast experience, including running a music department; a smooth-as-butter, classically-honed announcing voice; a face for radio; and a willingness to rant for a tiny audience. When do I start?

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