The ﬁrst thing I really heard on Air America Radio was the voice of Randi Rhodes. I'd been listening for days, but her voice made me turn up the volume. It's a voice coated with cigarette smoke, snarling and volatile. She sounds rude, like she has ruined countless dinner parties. I once heard her say to a male, conservative caller something like this: "You are probably one of those idiot guys who goes to backyard barbecues and talks to dumb women in their short shorts." At that point I started to fall in love with her.
Before Air America tapped her for their drive-time show, Rhodes was hosting a show in Palm Beach County, Florida, where her ratings were regularly higher than Rush Limbaugh's. She still crows about this fact, and there are ways in which she is Limbaugh's true counterpart-they are both irrational and obsessed. Just as Limbaugh can't stand liberals, Rhodes despises conservatives. She talks about conservatives the way people who hate their fathers talk about their fathers-her hatred doesn't have any detachment or distance; it's active and dynamic and a little scary.
Air America came to Seattle four months ago and airs 24-7 on AM 1090. The format is "progressive talk," and AM 1090 promises its listeners that they "aren't left out anymore." The station is a real alternative to either the bullies of right-wing radio or the wimps of NPR. Besides Rhodes there is Al Franken, who puts on an energetic show but always seems to be in a state of self-promotion; Ed Schultz from the heartland who talks like he is sitting in a bar about to order his third beer; and Janeane Garofalo who reminds me of a liberal-arts undergrad at a protest march chanting "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, (fill in the blank) Has Got to Go." Perhaps the strangest addition to the Air America lineup is Jerry Springer, the trash-talk-show host and former mayor of Cincinnati. Springer delivers unfocused monologues about everything that is going wrong, and how we need to ﬁx it! Fix it! If you've watched his television show recently and seen his audience chant "hillbilly whore" at a toothless woman, well, you can't help but wonder what kind of world Springer would make if he could ﬁx it to his liking.
But it's Randi Rhodes who keeps me listening. Like a lot of right-wing radio hosts, Rhodes is a fundamentalist, but her fundamentals are things like basic human rights, the Constitution, separation of church and state, protecting poor people, not invading other countries that have not provoked us-this sort of thing.
Talk radio thrives on its callers. The way the callers relate to the host and the texture of their exchange are what give the whole enterprise life and keeps it in business. This is a truth Air America seems a little clueless about. Rhodes is one of the only hosts who really interacts with her callers, who has a relationship with them, sometimes a sick, S&M relationship. She tells callers "you are stupid," and often they come back for more.
She also roughs up her guests. One of her most unforgettable moments occurred on Air America's launch day: March 31, 2004. Ralph Nader called in from the campaign trail, prepared to answer softball questions on the new progressive radio station. Instead, she attacked him:
Rhodes: I have millions and millions of listeners; I have been on the air for years and years and years, which you probably don't know because you didn't do your homework. But the thing is they don't want you [to run for ofﬁce], even your Green Party supporters, they can't afford you! That is why the Green Party is not endorsing your candidacy and you've become an Independent.
Nader: Are you interviewing or are you ﬁlibustering?
Rhodes: No, I am angry at you. I am a genuine person who is truly mad at your candidacy.
Nader: Why are you denying millions of people the opportunity to vote for my candidacy?
Rhodes: BECAUSE WE CAN'T AFFORD IT.
Nader: Now you are getting nasty, you are ruining the ﬁrst day of Air America! You've got a very bad interviewing technique...
Rhodes: I AM NOT INTERVIEWING YOU, I AM MAD AT YOU... Look, don't tell me how to do talk radio I've been doing it for 20 years. You screwed up the last election and now you want to screw up this one and I'm mad!
Eventually Nader hung up on her.
Recently, Progressive Talk AM 1090 brought Al Franken to Seattle for a live broadcast of his morning show. Seattle liberals turned out in droves. They stood in line at Town Hall before 8:00 a.m. waiting for the doors to open. There was a blustering rain, the kind that turns umbrellas inside out. There were people in ﬂeece pullovers and Gore-Tex coats, and quite a few men with long gray ponytails that hadn't been cut since the '70s. I saw a guy with a black eye clutching a paperback copy of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken's bestseller. There was a guy in a Dean for America shirt that was starting to fade from too many washes.
Once the event got underway it was clear the crowd had been long lost in a desert of humorless liberalism and was dying of thirst. After Franken and his cohost Katherine Lanpher took the stage, the audience laughed way too hard and gave standing ovations to everyone. It was as irritating as watching the State of the Union speech.
The event was sold out, and the people at AM 1090 were already claiming that their station was a big success. Air America did a lot of cheerleading too, in part because they almost went out of business after two weeks on the air, a crisis played out in front of cameras for the HBO documentary Left of the Dial. The station turned itself around, it seems, and is now headed by media mogul Danny Goldberg. Among the faithful crowded into Franken's show, there was the hope that Air America will stem the conservative tide, save the country from itself, and convert red-state voters to a blue-state future.
Can talk radio really convert people? I have my doubts. I have tuned into Rush Limbaugh for years; I am ofﬁcially one of his estimated 20 million listeners. I used to listen to NPR but after awhile I couldn't stand the inane chat of the fund drives, the superior tone, and the lame attempts at humor. I realized I would rather listen to commercial radio, to ads for Viagra and auto supply shops, than another corny personal essay. Also, when I listened to Limbaugh I felt like I was learning something-the structure of the conspiracies the right wing was in thrall to, the tenor and quality of their hysteria. And, like Rhodes and Franken, Limbaugh was truly funny. But I was never converted to Limbaugh's politics-just because I was listening to him didn't mean he had any power over me.
Air America may not be able to change the pickled minds of the Bush faithful, but that doesn't mean it's not important, necessary even. The station has the potential to cultivate a passionate sensibility, as opposed to NPR's measured, rational, and boring one. I realized this at the Franken event, where I was sitting next to a trim, white-bearded, Vashon Island man. It turned out he also worships Rhodes-when I mentioned her name his eyes lit up. He was not someone I will ever see again but the evocation of Rhodes created an instant of connection between us. We were both fanatics, believers, and we bonded over our shared passion for Randi Rhodes.
From Eric Bogosian's one-man show Talk Radio, to the manic depressive rants of Michael Savage, talk radio has long been a place for lonely people and losers, and this may explain why liberals have come around to the medium. In the fall of 2003, the Dems had dreams of power. I had visions of Dean's inauguration; I imagined hosting a big party to celebrate. I knew he was going to win-I could sense it with my sixth sense. Now I feel like an idiot. Air America is a ﬁne refuge for people like me who feel like idiots and want to be cheered up. My only problem is my Rhodes obsession-I can't seem to get her voice out of my head.