Enter Talking, Stage Left

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In promos, it calls itself "The radio Rush Limbaugh would be listening to — if he hadn't lost his hearing to drug abuse." This is Air America, the long-promised liberal talk network that came to squalling life last week. The kingdom of right-wing talk radio now has a band of left-wing insurrectionists in its bosom.

It's a big bosom. Limbaugh (whose name two of Air America's hosts inexcusably mispronounced), Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and their national and local kin dominate the airwaves so powerfully that a visitor to the U.S. might ask if we still have a two-party system. That's one reason Air America exists: to defeat George W. Bush in November. "He is going down," signature host Al Franken promised on his first show. Another aim is to offer liberals and moderates talking points on the day's issues. The network does so in tones that career from wonkish to impish, from sedative to incendiary.


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Part NPR (without the pretense of objectivity), part Comedy Central's talkfest Tough Crowd (with fewer sex jokes), Air America started on six stations — in New York City; Los Angeles; Chicago; Minneapolis, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; and Inland Empire, Calif.as well as on XM Satellite Radio and its own streaming website, www.airamericaradio.com. It can't yet touch the range or ad rates of Rush (600 stations, 20 million weekly listeners) and his ruck. Much of the "commercial" time goes to public-service spots — the same few spots. If we hear a certain parent-teacher ad one more time, we may turn the dial back to Limbaugh.

In another era — say, four years ago — a lefty network might have saved a little of its sting for the center-right of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton got nearly as much flak from the disaffiliated left as from the entrenched right. But Air America's hosts, who range from centrist-left (Franken) to Pacifica pink (morning-drive-time japer Marc Maron), are forthrightly partisan. In their zeal to defeat Bush, they seek out strategic allies rather than ideological ones. Thus Randi Rhodes, the hectoring, cocksure afternoon-drive-time host, cuddled up to the right-wing Patrick Buchanan — who opposed the Iraq war, so he's cool — and berated Ralph Nader until he hung up on her. Rhodes and Nader agree on 98% of the issues, but Nader dares to run against John Kerry, so he's got to be bad.

Not all the hosts are winners — we'd trade Rhodes for San Francisco's Bernie Ward, the Texas populist Jim Hightower or the class act of Tough Crowd, Greg Giraldo — but there's still a wealth of useful, funny infotainment on offer 15 hours a day. Franken got steely Richard Clarke to crack a joke about majority leader Bill Frist's attack on him (Frist "obviously was on puppy uppers when he gave that speech") and persuaded best-selling troublemaker Michael Moore to cozy up to Al Gore ("Hello, Al. Or should I say 'Mr. President'?"). On the morning show, Public Enemy's Chuck D referred to Bush as a "weapon of mass dumbstruction." Nighttime co-host Janeane Garofalo dismissed the war on Iraq by saying, "Saddam Hussein is to 9/11 as Colonel Klink is to Nazi atrocities."

At times, the talk can get rawer. Maron speculated that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and allowed them to occur to rally the country behind him. Maron also came close to equating born-again Christianity with fascism. When a caller urged him to show a little sensitivity, Maron replied, "Maybe I should be more sympathetic to people with organized delusions."

Air America can be as insightful and inciteful as right-wing ranters. Now it must learn, in a hurry, to provide what Limbaugh has from the start: great radio. "I am not a radio professional," says Franken. Well, become one! Garofalo and co-host Sam Seder, who have the sharpest rapport in the bunch, neared audio meltdown on Thursday with blown cues, inaudible phone calls and talk that stammered to a halt. Too often the network is Air Amateur.

Let's hope those are just birthing pains. For a raising of both political consciousness and the political temperature — America needs Air America.