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Adventures in Welfare Radio

Bill Rinner | Sunday, March 21, 2004

On March 31, the new liberal talk radio network, “Air America Radio” will debut across the nation, and I eagerly await the opportunity to listen.The network is the brainchild of wealthy financiers, including Democratic National Committee advisor Mark Walsh and a number of anonymous donors willing to fund the venture even if it proves unprofitable. Essentially, they aim to put liberal views on “radio welfare,” as some conservative critics have suggested. Liberals who dare not tune the radio to AM – unless the preset station is National Public Radio – can finally find a forum sympathetic to their ideology that was marginalized from talk radio years ago. The explanation for why talk radio is dominated by conservative viewpoints is more complicated than some Clear Channel-led plot to only present conservative Republican viewpoints on the airwaves.To be sure, during the mid- to late- 1980s, talk radio had a small market of less than 200 stations nationwide that was diminishing as television news grew in popularity. A swarm of political correctness and unabashed liberalism was the tone of major newsrooms that were biased toward the Left not as a conspiracy, but because Democrats held such a vast majority in the newsrooms as they still do today.On one occasion, Dan Rather reported, “The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor.” His blatant partisan spin echoed the tone of so many networks’ coverage of conservatives whose views are completely alien to their understanding of the world.Such repeated incidents echoed a wider bias that only fueled the conservative talk radio revolution, largely led by Rush Limbaugh, whose incipient show provoked calls to the police from citizens appalled by his complete disregard for political correctness. Limbaugh is a talented comedian and commentator, but he never would have succeeded in talk radio, a communications medium that seemed completely antiquated, if the television and print media took a more balanced approach to news reporting. His appeal resonated with that portion of the American populace that was disgusted by the condescending liberal attitudes that seemed all too transparent to conservative viewers.As conservatives made inroads into talk radio, and the number of stations expanded toward the current number of about 1,200, liberal listeners flocked from the market. Instead of an organized conspiracy against opposing views, radio stations and their executives gave liberal talk show hosts plenty of opportunities in test markets where they could work their way up to prime slots during the day, but the pool of primarily conservative listeners largely rejected their message, and few succeeded since liberal listeners had tuned out long ago.The success of Air America Radio depends on two factors: first, it must be able to conjure actual entertainment while still projecting an air of intellectual capability; second, it cannot be too radically Leftist.The first requirement will possibly be fulfilled by Al Franken, who once set himself at odds against Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, with his new three-hour show, “The O’Franken Factor.” While he once was nothing more than a comedian with an axe to grind about the self-proclaimed voices of conservatism, Franken has devolved into just the type of pundit which he frequently lambastes. Few question his comedic talent, and his books are quite entertaining, but he must demonstrate the political acumen required to give a reasoned analysis instead of name-calling.The second requirement is a task facing the entire Democratic Party today, which knows that the word “liberal” has developed a negative connotation in recent years. Many use the alternative label “progressive,” which sounds more compassionate and hospitable though its agenda is essentially the same. Even Democratic contender Howard Dean loved claiming to be a “fiscal conservative,” and when the non-partisan National Journal rated John Kerry the most liberal senator in America, he responded that we “shouldn’t use labels.”Actress Janeane Garofalo, also set to host her own three-hour show, will face a challenge attempting to portray herself as a centrist Democrat when she comes from the Hollywood mold of rabid conservative haters. If she aspires to be a voice for mainstream Democrats, her rhetoric, such as her straight-faced comparisons of Bush’s regime to Hitler’s, may require some toning down.Predicting the network’s success is a difficult task. If they can focus more on entertaining the listener through comedy and intellectual stimulation, they will succeed, and liberalism will regain a niche in talk radio. If the network takes a tone of condescension, strict political correctness and thinly veiled hatred, then its potential listeners will laud the effort but stick to FM radio. After all, radio listeners sitting in their office cubicles rarely wish to be treated to constant discussion of every social injustice from poverty to workplace discrimination.Should the well-funded experiment fail to gain listeners and instead rely on donations from concerned liberal citizens, then Air America will live up to the name “Welfare Radio.”

Bill Rinner is a junior economics majors studying at the London School of Economics, His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at wrinner@nd.edu.The views expresssed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.