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Radio: America Still on the Air

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A year later, Air America has recognized the value of star quality. Maron, who before the network went on-air said, "In my head, it'll be called Air Marc," got his wish, at least for three hours a day; the morning drive show is essentially his, with Endicott gone and Riley assuming Lanpher's function of the star's hand-holder, cheerleader and occasional reality-checker. "The Factor" is now just "The Al Franken Show." "Unfiltered" soon recognized Maddow as the show's breakout personality; the network exiled Winstead, whom Sinton used to call the "heart of our programming," and last week chucked the show to make room for Jerry Springer, a name brand if there ever was one, but also another middle-aged Jewish guy.

The network now looks —sounds, actually, since it's radio — more homogenous. Most of the black voices have disappeared (news reader Joanne Allen), faded into the background (Riley) or been exiled to a weekend slot (Chuck D.). The three female hosts on the two morning shows have all been purged. Demographically, the network's lineup is similar to that of the political columnists on the New York Times op-ed page: one black man, one woman, and a lot of Jewish guys. Note to conspiracy theorists: it's not a plot, folks, more a use of the available brain pool.


AIR HYSTERICA

If getting the money was an ordeal, and getting the staff a challenge, getting on the air was downright primal. Technologically, this national network was more like a college radio station, with glitches galore. Temperamentally, it was a snake pit. The documentary, directed by Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan, shows Maron prowling the corridors like a prima donna permanently on the verge of im- or ex-ploding. Thursday, on his first anniversary show, a more focused, less manic Maron recalled, "There was a lot of 'Is this gonna work? Are we on?'" His producer chimed in: "I remember a lot of yelling," and Maron said: "I do have to own up to that's who I was at that time."

Franken is more sensible, the star who's a team player. His fame led the media to the network; a cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine gave Air America priceless free publicity. He also kept his head while those about him were losing theirs. But Franken and the other name-brand hosts — like Garofalo, his fellow comic and Saturday Night Live alum — were audio amateurs. In their in-public, on-the-job training, three hours a day, they learned that comedy is easy, radio is hard.

As it happened, Air America came close to folding for a reason conservatives couldn't have guessed: the network didn't have enough liberal fat-cats, and went broke in two weeks. Evan Cohen, the original boss, had bragged that the network had two years' worth of seed money, but it turned out that some of the seeds had been spilled, or had never been in the jar. Though he denied it, and sent his friend, Air America counsel David Goodfriend, to fight it in court, Cohen had bounced checks to the Chicago and Los Angeles outlets. Just as it was picking up listeners, and gaining broadcasting competence, the network was close to going off the air. "We're in great shape," said executive producer John Manzo, "except for we're about to go out of business." Staffers went for months without pay or health insurance. It was as if they were living their own nightmare of the Bush Administration future.

Left of the Dial, part of HBO's America Undercover series, tells most of the story. Winstead, who returned to the air for Thursday's final edition of "Unfiltered," noted that the documentary had been "heavily edited for legal reasons." Yet there's enough left to give plenty of ammunition to fans and enemies of the network. The film isn't quite as highly charged as Control Room, the doc on the Arab news network Al Jazeera during the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, but both are media war movies, tense with foreboding.

After all the tsimmes, tsouris and geshrei, Air America is doing, as Franken might say with a gulp, okay. Harrison the media watcher thinks so. "Al Franken and Randi Rhodes are wonderful assets," he told Carolina. "Rhodes is a proven commodity, and I'm very high on Franken. He's proven to be a very important media figure. He's shown courage and originality." Al and his pals have demonstrated, at least to Harrison, that talk radio does not have to list endlessly rightward. "I give them every benefit of the doubt. They've done their job. They've opened the door to the industry recognizing that there are many different kinds of politics in talk radio and there's a market for very many points of view."


RATING THE HOSTS

Morning Sedition. Maron is still running things. He straddles the Air American style with the rudeness typical of Morning Zoo radio. He's a more leftward Howard Stern, with Riley as his Robin Quivers. This week, while 24-hour cable news lionized Pope John Paul II, Maron said that "he came off like a baby bird dying on the sidewalk." Maron's take on Catholicism: "The entire religion is hung up on the death trip, as are most religions." His suggestion for all that treasure in the Vatican basement: "Why don't we have a yard sale and feed the poor with the proceeds?"

Unfiltered. Easy for me to say, now that it's gone, but this was the sharpest, best-produced show on the network. Its useful segments included Talking Points (political arguments to pass along to your friends), buried ledes (important stories that got ignored) and interviews with Iraq war veterans (leading to poignant call-ins from other vets on the subjects of health care and the reintegration blues). Maddow, with a Stanford undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Oxford, is a natural radio personality: sensible, charming, with an easy-going commitment and flashes of impish wit. Auditing Condi Rice's live Senate testimony last August, Maddow opined, "Maybe if she lies under oath, she'll get her own radio show." She'd please any listener, make any parent proud. And she's cute too.

The pessimist in me says the show was too good to last. It had to give way to Springer's syndicated skein. On the last "Unfiltered," a slightly unbuttoned Maddow said, "We're breakin' the rules, because what are they gonna do to us, cancel the show?" I got a little verklempt. I didn't mind that the network picked up Springer, who, whatever the geek-freak factor off his TV show, has long been a thoughtful liberal, and one of the few Democrats who make a strong cast in early 2003 against the Iraq invasion. So far Springer has shown a low pulse and not much radio savvy; he'll have to learn mastery of the medium as the other AAR hosts did. The good news: Maddow will be back, anchoring a news-and-views roundup at five each weekday morning, starting Monday the 11th. As president of the Tribeca branch of the Rachel Maddow Fan Club, I'll be there.

The Al Franken Show. In the documentary there's a sweet moment when, just before they go on the air for the first time, Franken gives Lanpher a Stuart Smalley hug. Learning and hugging: that's what distinguishes Franken from the right-wing guys he's written best-selling attacks about. They throw out bogus stats off the top of their heads at the top of their lungs: twist-and-shout radio. Franken has a wonkish bent (as a teen he dreamed of being a certified public accountant), so he's good schmoozing strategy with Media Matters.com's David Brock, Christy Harvey of the Center for American Progress, The New York Observer's Joe Conason (who has the voice and poise to make a good weekend host). A politician as well as a polemicist, he builds the occasional bridge to conservatives; one afternoon, he and Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy teamed for a joint airing of their shows.

The humor pieces don't tickle me much, and I'm happy to vote against the Limbaugh-bashing "Dittohead" segment. Franken has to be weaned from his obsession with Limbaugh, O'Reilly and other radio hosts, now that he's one of them. Otherwise, this is a good, solid show, with frequent flashes of Franken foolery. Last Thursday, announcing Terri Schiavo's death, he noted that the right had painted the left as death-lovers and Mengeles. Given this, he said, lefties should not rest on their laurels; they should start a new crusade, to pull the plug on the Pope. This week, he billboarded a visit from another old leftie: "Jane Fonda, who's gonna pose for photos with our anti-aircraft gun."

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