About a year ago, I wrote a column bemoaning the lack of left-of-center talk radio and chronicling the efforts of Al Franken and others to start a nationally syndicated talk format to fill that void. A lot has happened since. Franken and others launched Air America last spring, and the response has been phenomenal. In Portland, KPOJ-AM was the No. 2 talk station in the summer ratings. In San Diego—hardly a bastion of liberalism—the Air America affiliate, KLSD-AM, came in at No. 3 among talk stations.
And last week, KPTK-AM (1090) debuted in Seattle. KPTK, ironically, occupies the old dial position of KING-AM, which until the 1990s was owned by those scions of liberalism, the Bullitt sisters. KPTK is running most of Air America's lineup (the exception is Ed Schultz's show, from noon to 3 p.m., syndicated separately by Jones Radio). I listened last week and found the format both disappointing and desperately needed.
It's a measure of how thoroughly the right-wing echo chamber has come to personify talk radio that listening to Air America comes, initially, as a shock. One would never have known, listening to radio for the past 15 years, that there is such a thing as a passionately partisan Democrat—let alone that a radio station can flourish with them. But that's what Air America is.
Right-wingers claim that liberals already have their own media outlets: NPR, PBS, CBS, The New York Times, and so on. They couldn't be more wrong. This is not NPR. This is, for better and worse, something Democrats have not had: a media outlet dedicated not to objectivity but to getting out their side of the story in a way that is gleefully unfair and unbalanced.
In the week before the election, that meant beating up on President Bush, and then beating up on him some more. The programs mix humor (though not as much as you'd expect), A-list guests, and a few listener calls among a disconcertingly high percentage of rants and tirades. One almost gets the impression that, much as they evince disgust for Bush, the hosts will be mightily disappointed if he loses Tuesday: He's their prime ratings generator.
As unusual as Air America first seems, it bows to a number of the conventions of commercial radio, some of them not good. Franken, who holds down the coveted 9 a.m. to noon slot (Pacific time), opposite Rush Limbaugh on KTTH-AM (770), is clearly the star. We know this because he has a woman co-host, Katherine Lanpher, whose main job seems to be to laugh at Franken's jokes. Other hosts include Public Enemy's Chuck D, alternative media veteran Laura Flanders, and comedian Janeane Garofalo. Schultz, in particular, is heavy on Limbaugh-style bombast. While some guests are illuminating, as often as not Air America is about recycling selected bits of the day's news with the proper amount of outrage. It's the left's own echo chamber. As my sweetie, an inveterate NPR listener, complained, "Why do they have to do that?"
Air America will come as a jolt to listeners of KUOW-FM (94.9), one of the region's National Public Radio stations. First, there are the commercial breaks, which are disconcerting for listeners accustomed to the long talk riffs of noncommercial radio. KPTK also has no local talk programming. Air America's strength and weakness is its lack of opposing views, balance, or perspective. It's the anti–All Things Considered.
That's not likely to lead to a well-informed citizenry, any more than right-wing talk radio does. But politically it's immensely valuable. It lets people know that they're not alone, that they're part of a group, just like Limbaugh's listeners are. The genius of right-wing talk radio was its appeal to the most fervent base of true-believing conservatives. It wed them to the politics of the Republican Party. Air America aims to turn disaffected progressives and independents into partisan Democrats.
Will it work? Probably. KPTK doesn't have the best signal, especially at night. But news-talk KIRO-AM (710) and KUOW, in particular, have plenty of listeners they could lose to the upstart. More importantly, Air America is likely to appeal to people who haven't been listening to talk radio because they haven't been able to hear anything they agree with.
Now they don't have to hear anything they disagree with. The marketplace triumphs again.