Second Thought: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
More Bad Air

Who cares if Air America is liberal if it’s just more trash talk.


Less than two weeks after self-described progressive talk radio station Air America debuted in the Fort Worth-Dallas market, it unveiled its latest attraction: a talk show hosted by Jerry Springer (?!). For a network that wants to be taken seriously as an alternative to the shrill sarcasm and shouting of right-wing radio, the king of trash television seems an odd choice, despite his Democratic roots.
Certainly, Air America, which airs on KXEB/910-AM here, offers alternative viewpoints in a marketplace that has become saturated and homogenized with smug conservative voices. Air America’s hosts eschew the right-wing propaganda spewed by Rush-O’Reilly-Hannity and provide the only liberal outlet on AM radio.
Unfortunately, Air America mimics right-wing talk radio’s strident style, if not its substance. While the network purports to have a “left of the dial” (read: alternative) mentality, it parrots conservative talk radio’s booming voices and loud banter. Ignore the liberal twist, and it’s the same kind of one-sided dreck spewed by KLIF/570-AM, the local Fox News radio station. (KLIF commanded attention recently when it erected highway billboards that featured photos of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Osama bin Laden, captioned “Caught,” “Dead,” and “Next.” Really nice.) Liberal radio features the same tacky sponsors as conservative radio: hair growth products, bad breath remedies, quickie diets, and sexual enhancement products — products, my editor points out, that the newspaper you’re reading would be happy to sell ad space for.
The flagship Air America program, “The Al Franken Show,” hosted by the former Saturday Night Live star along with print and public radio journalist Katherine Lanpher, wants to be different from the rest of talk radio. In an interview before she and Franken took off on a recent tour of the South, Lanpher said the hosts and their staff take care to research every topic on the program.
“If we say something, it’s backed by research and fact,” she said.
Franken, who rose to prominence as a left-wing political commentator with books like Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, “has made a career by showing how [conservatives] have deviated from the truth,” Lanpher emphasized. “We get notes from people on both sides of the political aisle thanking us for being that careful.”
Lanpher believes the show has the power to change listeners’ political views and insisted many of its listeners consider themselves conservatives. “I think this nation divided with red and blue states is a misnomer,” she said.
Based on the network’s first month in this area, it isn’t exactly sparking a purple revolution. Some shows — notably Jerry Springer’s “Springer on the Radio” and “The Randi Rhodes Show,” hosted by a brassy New Yorker — echo right-wing talk shows’ belligerence and pettiness. The hosts delightedly bash Bush, the NRA, and Tom DeLay the same way Rush et al. gleefully take cheap shots at Hillary Clinton, the ACLU, and Ted Kennedy. Is this really progress?
At the end of March, the network’s hot topic was the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. The fact that conservative talk shows were beating the issue into the ground didn’t stop liberal radio from jumping in.
Liberal radio also isn’t above engaging in First-Lady bashing, which was a favorite form of right-wing entertainment during the Clinton administration. A headline on Air America’s web site following Laura Bush’s trip to Afghanistan read like an Onion parody: “Laura Bush Hands Out Cookies, Calls Afghanistan ‘Exotic.’” Self-parody is fair game. On the network’s “Morning Sedition” show, co-host Marc Maron reads daily marching orders for liberals, supposedly faxed from the “Barbara Streisand compound.” A sample: “Start planning the anti-anti-Hillary campaign now” and “If anyone remarks that Britney Spears is pregnant, cock your eye and say disdainfully, ‘Who?’”
That sense of twisted humor is one factor that does set the network apart from conservative talk radio. With comedians Franken and Janeane Garofalo as featured hosts, Air America tends to put its tongue in its cheek and offers more outright humor — a badly needed commodity — than any conservative talk radio show. And it should be noted that Air America offers more female voices than right-wing radio could even begin to recruit.
The bigger question, though, is: Is it really progressive, as the talk radio network bills itself? To me, that means a medium offering independent, original, open, and thought-provoking points of view.
The answer is that despite Air America’s infusion of fresh voices into the ultraconservative Fort Worth-Dallas radio market, the real progressive radio station is already left of the dial. It’s on the FM band, and it’s called National Public Radio.
Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at

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