Franken leads liberal charge on radio - will listeners follow?

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 10:51 p.m.
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Comedian Al Franken reacts during a break in his radio show "The O'Franken Factor," a liberal alternative to conservative talk radio at Air America studios Wednesday in New York.

NEW YORK - Is it a radio business, or is it politics?
The two seem inextricably entwined for the leaders of Air America Radio, the liberal talk radio network that launched on five stations around the country Wednesday.
As a startup media business, they need to draw in listeners fast. Air America Radio is betting that a menu of left-leaning political commentary, current affairs talk and satire will resonate with those opposed to the Bush administration.
Al Franken, who is headlining the network with a daily three-hour talk show, has made no secret of his intention to use his platform to influence the election in November.
"We are flaming swords of justice," Franken told a cheering crowd at a party to launch the network Tuesday night. "Bush is going down, he is going down, he is going down. And we're going to help him."
Franken's show went live at noon on Wednesday with co-host Katherine Lanpher, a longtime host of a public radio show in Minnesota. At the opening, Franken joked that they were broadcasting from a bunker 3,500 feet below Vice President Dick Cheney's own secret bunker.
In fact, Franken will be broadcasting his show, dubbed "The O'Franken Factor" in his latest jab at Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, from the slightly shabby studios of New York City station WLIB, on the 41st floor of an office tower a few blocks from the Empire State Building.
The studio, where the show has had just a week to settle in before launching, has the feel of a scrappy political campaign that's just getting under way.
"I don't think of it as a business, but I know it has to make money to be sustaining," Franken said in an interview, perching his feet up on the desk after a rehearsal session for the show. "A lot of it is mission."
The sense of mission is felt just as strongly several floors down, where the makeshift offices of Air America Radio are marked with handwritten sheets of paper taped on the wall, including those for CEO Mark Walsh, where the phones have yet to be hooked up.
Walsh, a former America Online executive and adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said liberal politics would be a "teaser . . . a loss leader in the window" for the radio network, which is also being broadcast in Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.
"The right has dominated the airwaves for a decade, and we blew it. First they did radio, then they did TV, and movies are next," he said.
However, the idea that liberal commentators have been shut out of radio has been greeted with skepticism in the talk radio industry, where the left-leaning commentator for Fox News Alan Colmes has a large audience. Also, one of Air America's new hires, Randi Rhodes, has hosted a very popular, and very progressive, show in Florida for years.
Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, the leading trade publication for the talk radio business, is leery of Air America Radio's tactic of using liberal politics to draw in viewers.
"Of all the elements that go into this, the least important element is that they're liberal," Harrison said.
"They've got to be entertaining, fascinating, captivating and compelling - and then they have to find a way to make money with it."
What's more, Harrison said the company was setting expectations too high by promising to take on Bush as well as Rush Limbaugh, who has built up a massive national audience over the past two decades. "Radio doesn't work that fast, it doesn't have that power to do it that quickly," Harrison said.
Another big question facing the network is what Franken will do in a year's time, when the election will be over and his contract expires. Franken says he'll assess his options in a year's time. "It depends on how much I like radio," he says.
In the meantime, Franken is bringing out one of his battle-tested ideas for generating laughs: baiting conservative pundits. On his first show, Franken pretended conservative gadfly Ann Coulter was locked in the station's green room after she complained about the composition of her snack plate.
Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative journal National Review and another past Franken target, said he was interested in Franken's efforts on Air America, but not enough to tune in. He did acknowledge that Air America could find an audience.
"There has been a rise of an angry liberal populism, and so now there's a disenchantment with media sources on the left," Lowry said. "Whether they can take advantage of that remains to be seen."

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