March 31, 2004

Air America is (yawn) on the air…

Air America, the liberal radio network established to answer Rush Limbaugh et. al., began airing today. You may listen live here. John Cook discusses the kinks in the system, especially with “The O’Franken Factor,” in a column for the Chicago Tribune.

I have questioned the concept of liberal talk radio before. I have no problem with the desire to do it or the bias that drives it, just as I have no problem with the right-wing product. Rather, I don’t think it will draw much of an audience; it’s not a good business concept.

Conservatives and liberals think differently (their world views are constructed with different metaphors). And these differences, including the right’s effective crafting of its message over a generation, make all the difference in radio. The right is entertaining. The left is not. The right created effective codes and frames. The left did not. The right specifically cultivated media personalities and the conservatives thinkers to back them up. The left, for the most part, did not. Here’s what Cook has to say:

But a larger question, once the hobgoblins are exorcised, is whether Franken’s low-key, sarcastic persona can translate into compelling radio. Though he has made a career of what he describes as “hard-hitting advocacy comedy,” Franken is not a fire-breather. The only time he raised his voice on the air was to shriek “Lies!” in a high-pitched Gollum impression, in response to some perceived mendacity on the part of the White House — not out of genuine indignation, but in a sort of irony-swaddled caricature of an outraged curmudgeon. The message: Righteousness (a la Bill O’Reilly) isn’t funny. Knowing parody is.


Talk radio is not a genre of ideas. It is a reactive genre and an emotional genre. On radio, it is possible to present information, even heavily spun information, in ways that are critical and complicated–ways that appeal to the person seeking understanding (knowledge and wisdom) more than ideological validation. But the audience for this type of radio (or TV) appears to be small. C-SPAN and NPR pull it off. Can you think of others?

This is right on point:

“Talk radio tends to reward directness,” said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio. “Subtlety and nuance means the message gets lost. Conservatives have figured out how to hone the message so it’s polished and gleaming.” For that reason, along with the general difficulty of building a new network in the saturated talk-radio market, Taylor said, Air America’s ratings will be “microscopic” in the beginning.

And in the end, I just don’t see this working until liberals do what George Lakoff has suggested: Develop a common ideological language with which to frame the issues across a diverse liberal constituency. That’s a tall order. Conservatives offer a far more unified world view and language to articulate that view. (More background on Rhetorica here and here.)

What sells in electronic media is ideological validation. The right has perfected its talking points and its media personalities to such an extent that they present an entertaining product for people who wish to bask in the glory of their own ideology. I do not believe this basking is a good thing for the continued health of a democratic republic. And I do not think liberals should stoop to imitating it. It’s a lot like admitting ideological defeat.

14 Responses

  1. Air America

    Andrew Cline has a yawn for Air America:I have questioned the concept of liberal talk radio before…… I don’t think it will draw much of an audience; it’s not a good business concept.He has quite a bit to say about this and sums up with:What sells i…

  2. George 

    What’s your take on Comedy Central’s _The Daily Show_, which skews pretty far left?

  3. acline 

    I love The Daily show 🙂 Sometimes Jon Stewart does a better job of interviewing guests than real journalists.

    I think political satire is an important rhetorical form and has its place in serious civic discourse. From what I heard today on Air America, it seems they will try to add in a dose of satire for the entertainment value. The bit about locking Ann Coulter in the “green room” was a real hoot! 🙂

    My thoughts/feelings about the discourse-entertainment nexus are terribly conflicted and often lead to some funky contradictions. It’s a problem.

  4. The O’Franken Factor

    I listened to the last twenty minutes-ish of the new Al Franken radio show this afternoon. It is one of the new Air America shows (i.e., the new “Liberal Talk” network–not to be confused with the Mel Gibson-Robert Downey, Jr….

  5. Ben Gardner 

    So, if not liberal radio, through what media should liberals be focusing their rhetoric, and what should they be saying?

  6. i agree liberal thought does not have enough practice at defense to be a 24/7 network. you have to develop a stable platform that listeners can understand and follow. the dispositional nature of liberal thought does not lend itself to that objective. not to mention my strongest warning to the liberals which is that they do not realize how divergent internal factioning really is inside the party and putting forward one message might lead to a formation of a true moderate party… robbing the middle from both parties, which might be a step in the right direction?>

  7. acline 

    Ben… Radio is fine as far as it goes. What concerns me is the idea that liberals can/should take on right-wing radio at its own game.

    Nels… Yes. I agree with Lakoff: Liberals must begin to develop a language and promote thinkers to back up that language–exactly the way conservatives have done. Want to imitate something? Imitate that.

  8. From the bit I listened to (perhaps an hour and a half of Al Franken’s show), I agree that they have a long way to go. I do think that that bit showed a direction they could go, that could well find an audience.

    The interview with Bob Kerrey was, I thought, pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be; they were able to wander back and forth between the silly and the serious in a way that NPR, for instance, can’t. Many of us lefties who listen to NPR would quite like to listen to interviews like that, with Dems and other left-of-center types. We may not need a unified message, a metaphor, or a media personality. We may just want to get to know our delegates, leaders, and fellow travelers, without the journalist’s requirement for objectivity (which we still want NPR to have, on principle).

    Of course, us NPR junkies will have to get used to commercials. I find it hard enough to listen to baseball games; adding any more commercial radio time to my life is not going to be easy.

    Redintegro Iraq,

  9. acline 

    V- I listened to about an hour of Franken’s show. I enjoyed it. As one who hosts a rather inept radio program, I kinda identify with the bumps 🙂 And, I thought the bit about Ann Coulter locked in the “green room” was a hoot!

    What i hope my entry points up (among other things) is the strange contradiction between what’s necessary for radio to be good in the sense of drawing listeners and good in the sense of being politically useful. Must these contradict? I don’t have a good answer.

  10. OK, so, a question: the point of the Ann Coulter gag, other than just making fun of her, seems to me to be the announcement that ‘we aren’t NPR, we don’t need to be fair, we won’t give equal time, and we think the conservatives suck.’ Was that point hurt by the nicey-nicey banter with G. Gordon Liddy and Ben Stein?

    Just over-analysing. I may go into their archive and listen to this morning’s Chuck D – he’s my hope for a reason to switch from NPR or my MP3 collection.


  11. acline 

    V- I didn’t catch the banter, so I have no thoughts on that yet. I merely enjoyed the pathos of the Coulter bit. 🙂

  12. Mike 

    I agree that Air America will fail.

    Radio is a place where facts do not mean much, opinions do not need to be respected and it all comes down to who can scream the loudest.

    That is why conservatives have been and will continue to be successful here.

  13. Loonies don't get it 

    Liberals already have the major media markets cornerd, such as ABC, NBC,CBS, CNN (Communist News Network), NPR (Nationalist Party Radio), and the likes. So trying to find an ‘outlet’ for liberals views is ironic at best, idiotic at worse.

    Secondly, Liberals tend to be younger, short sighted, dreamers, with little grasp on reality. They can’t understand that what works on paper, like Marxism, is an abysmal failure in practice. They have little attention span to spend on matters of importance, and usually have very little in substantive facts to back their points of view, and arguments.

    There are many other reasons Air America, will fold sooner than later, and be one more massive failure of the left to undersatnd what America wants, and what America needs.

    O.K. It is now time for you to all hurl your vitriolic insults at me, I have finished pontificating.

  14. acline 

    Loonies– What have you read on this site that makes you think I’d “hurl vitriolic insults” at you?