"The time is right for liberal radio," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, a leading trade publication serving the talk-radio industry. "Over the last year, Air America has started doing better business. They are making alliances with all the right people. They are functioning like a broadcast company instead of a political campaign."
Air America Radio became available in the Mid-South in January, when Pennsylvania-based media conglomerate Entercom Communications (which also owns 104.5 WRVR and 94.1 "The Buzz") replaced the easy-listening format of WJCE-AM 680 with "Progressive Talk" WWTQ. Station manager Mike Ginsburg has only one complaint about the change.
"I don't know why we didn't do this sooner," he says. Ginsburg says he's relieved that Entercom brought Air America to Memphis before radio giant Clear Channel beat them to it. WWTQ has lost one advertiser as a result of its progressive content, and the station receives its share of conservative hate mail, but Ginsburg is undaunted.
"I call these [complainers] the vocal minority," he says. "They're the kind of people who want to dictate everyone else's listening options. It's like they didn't know that the radio had a dial."
Arbitron numbers won't be ready for a few months, but Ginsburg and WWTQ program director Jerry Dean both use the term "groundswell" to describe the overwhelmingly positive feedback they've received.
"As a radio station, we are licensed to serve the community," Dean says, noting that household-name Republicans such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage have dominated political talk in Memphis. "There are two sides to every story," he contends. "Now Memphis can choose between the two."
Harrison, who has covered talk radio for 37 years, dates America's current political divide to the period of the 1996 presidential elections, when Monica-gate was raging, ascendant GOP congressmen signed a "contract with America," and Limbaugh -- already king of talk -- was on his way to superstardom.
"Of course, even at the height of his power, Rush couldn't prevent Bill Clinton from getting reelected," Harrison says. But there is little doubt that since 1996, conservative talk radio has had a measurable impact on the GOP's ability to frame issues and invigorate and mobilize voters.
"Now what we have is a conservative-dominated government and also a conservative media," Harrison says. He suggests that in the world of talk radio, at least, the stage is set for a liberal backlash. "Air America has talent, especially in Al Franken, who is an amazing individual, much greater than the sum of his parts. Al has captured the public's attention, and he's been irksome to the media -- and to politicians."
A year ago, most analysts were skeptical about Air America's propects. Middle America doesn't care what Hollywood thinks, they said. Besides, media conglomerates are not going to promote a liberal viewpoint. And Air America didn't help itself with a shaky launch that was closely reported by the media.
"We really shot ourselves in the foot right out of the gate," says Franken, the Saturday Night Live alum turned liberal talker. "Our first CEO misled us into thinking that we had enough capital to operate for three years without a profit. In fact, we had enough capital to last for about three weeks." But Franken can't complain too loudly. Every misstep seemed to propel the Air America brand name through another news cycle.
"Never in my entire career have I seen a radio start-up get the kind of media attention Air America has gotten," Harrison says. He suggests that the extensive press coverage, though initially mixed, actually helped the fledgling company. And as hard as it may be to imagine, Clear Channel has helped as well.
Clear Channel CEO L. Lowry Mays gave $65,000 to the Republican National Committee during the last election cycle, and two-thirds of Clear Channel's federal donations went to bankroll Republican candidates. But the company's political slant hasn't stopped it from bringing Air America to several of its top 50 markets.
"[Clear Channel] wants to own everything," Franken snarks. "Conservative, liberal, you name it. They want to have it all." The gag is funny because, well, it's probably true. Concerning the company's alliance with Air America, Gabe Hobbs, Clear Channel's VP for news and talk programming, told the Associated Press: "I'm trying to identify needs in our various communities, whether it's German industrial music, punk rock, or progressive talk."
"One of the first stations we were on was a Clear Channel station in Portland, Oregon," Franken says. "We quadrupled their ratings." When WLBY in Ann Arbor, Michigan, switched from an oldies format to Air America, its market share went from 0.7 to 2.2. And the pattern of higher ratings is holding true as Air America expands into new markets.
"We've got to be the fastest-growing [talk] network in the history of the industry," says John Sinton, president of Air America. "At any given moment, we have 150,000 to 250,000 listeners. We've got a national audience of 1 million to 2 million. We're pretty certain to crest at 100 markets [in 2005], and if our level of growth is sustained, [we could get to] 200."
While Air America's prospects are looking up -- with roughly 50 stations -- the company still has a long way to go. The Rush Limbaugh Show is carried on 600 stations and boasts a daily audience of 12 million. WREC-AM 600's Mike Fleming, a conservative Memphis talk-radio host, says he isn't worried that Air America's arrival will affect his numbers or his impact on on the Mid-South.
"I'm comfortable in my skin and in my political views," Fleming says. "I'm a big boy, and I'm not scared."
Fleming's confidence is neither surprising nor unwarranted, though WWTQ has plans to counter Fleming's high-pitched hysterics with the calming bass of broadcast veteran and outspoken liberal Leon Gray.
"When I found Leon, I quit looking for anybody else," Ginsburg says. "Anybody can pour gasoline on the flames and fan them, but we didn't want another muckraker. What we want at WWTQ is a problem-solver, and we think Leon Gray is that guy. He can speak intelligently to the issues. And he knows Memphis."
Ginsburg also thinks that Gray, a former host for WLOK, will appeal to a variety of liberals, including the crucial black market, whose taste in talk radio often tends toward specifically African-American issues.
No date has been set for the official launch of Gray's show, though it is slated for weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m., replacing the last hour of Air America's Randi Rhodes show and the first hour of Majority Report. It will be in direct competition with the first two hours of The Mike Fleming Show.
"I'm looking forward to bringing a liberal -- some might say 'progressive' -- voice to Memphis politics," Gray says, taking a playful jab at right-wing radio's tireless demonization of the "L" word."
"All of that [talk] is so stupid," says Franken, who believes that most Americans have liberal values. "We're really starting to see those values come out in the Social Security debate. And nobody -- nobody -- should ever be afraid to use the word liberal."
Franken concedes that the political competition has a head start. It won't be a cakewalk challenging the force that's shaped the language of American political debate for at least a decade.
"You can't change everything in a day, or in a month, or in a year," Franken says, sounding everything and nothing like his famous character, self-help addict Stuart Smalley. "Right now, it's about taking one step at a time."
with Al Franken
Call Me Al
Al Franken's long, strange trip from SNL to Air America
In 2004, Al Franken, an original writer for the long-running NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live, became the first celebrity host to sign on with Air America. Here's what he has to say about his career, Rush Limbaugh, and the prospects for liberal talk radio.
Flyer: Come clean. You always wanted to be the anti-Rush.
Al Franken: No, [talk radio] was never something I secretly aspired to. I started doing political humor when I was in high school in Minnesota with my partner Tom Davis. We'd do the Comedy Store and the Improv. There was a lot of political material, stuff about Nixon. We loved Nixon. Then I wrote a lot of the political stuff for SNL over 15 seasons. I wrote a lot of it with Jim Downey, who is conservative, which was good. We kept each other honest, and our belief was that the show shouldn't have a political ax to grind. It wasn't our job to impose our beliefs on other people. Finally, I left the show and got a book deal. I thought now it was finally legit for me to write about politics in a way that reflected what I believe. So I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, and it was a hit. I got known for being a political comedian. For my second book (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), I assembled some students at Harvard a study group to help me research the myth of liberalism in the media. We discovered a gaping hole in radio: Almost all political talk was right-wing. It was overwhelmingly dishonest, offensive and it was also effective. That was the situation and someone had to do something about it. Why not me?
Are you ever afraid you're becoming the thing you're reacting against? Are you creating lefty dittoheads?
No. We do a very different show than Rush. For starters, I just don't have his talent to pontificate for three hours. And unlike Rush, I don't pull information out of my butt. One time, he said that "75 percent of workers receiving minimum wage are teenagers in their first job." So I did some research with the Bureau of Labor and found out that 60 percent of Americans receiving minimum wage are older than 20. Right out of his butt.
Recently you've been criticizing Rush for telling troops in Afghanistan that the liberal American media thought military doctors were wasting their time saving wounded soldiers.
All the articles I've read have praised the doctors' work in Afghanistan. I've been out with our soldiers, and a little part of me cries whenever I hear of a new casualty. For Rush to say that is just dishonest, ugly, and infuriating. Rush says he doesn't go out with the USO because the USO only sends lefties. I've been out with the USO five times, twice to Iraq. I've traveled with Wayne Newton who is a Bush supporter and with Toby Keith. No matter what our politics are, our job is to do what we can to help morale. Rush went there to demoralize the troops. It's not liberals who are against the troops. It's the Bush administration that's trying to cut veterans benefits. They tried to cut combat pay, but Congress wouldn't let them.
Can Air America increase the liberal base or are you guys just out there singing to the choir?
Well, you hope people will sample you. And it's impossible to say who is the choir and who is sampling from the other side. I got an e-mail from a guy who was in the Navy. He voted for Bush and listened to my show for the first time on November 3rd. He said he'd tuned in to hear me cry into my vegetarian chili. He'd never read me or seen me on SNL. All he knew was what he'd heard from Rush and Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. After a while, he realized he was making excuses to go get in his pickup and listen to me. He wrote in his e-mail: "I thought I was smart enough to detect bullshit. Well, I can't. I'm still not a progressive, but I see the difference." Now maybe that's only one guy. Or maybe he reflects 10,000 guys. I don't know.
Right Back At You
Mike Fleming has no respect for the Flyer, no respect for liberals, and no worries.
"I have no respect for [The Memphis Flyer]," declares WREC's conservative talker Mike Fleming. A return of serve is tempting; something like, "It's probably not a coincidence that one of Fleming's advertisers is Gutter Helmet." But that would be wrong. And, for better or for worse, Fleming is conservative talk radio in Memphis. He presides over Memphis' top-ranked talk show in the 4-7 p.m. time slot.
Fleming, a former sportswriter and reporter for The Nashville Banner, Jacksonville Journal, and The Commercial Appeal, now preaches the gospel of angry conservatism to whoever is willing to listen. Here's a selection of his wit and wisdom:
On his brand of conservatism:
"It's a normal kind of conservatism. I don't have a litmus test or anything like that."
On politics and politicians:
"I never wanted to get into politics, because I'm the kind of person who, once I've factored out what I believe, I don't compromise. I can't and I won't. So politics was never a calling for me. I don't want to be one of them, and I really resent being around them [politicians] to a large degree because I think most of them are phonies. Particularly [Democrats].
"I don't trust [the Flyer], and I think that you basically are a group of hypocrites. I say that simply because the criticism flows from papers like yours, even the morning publication [The Commercial Appeal] to a large degree, and what happens is that you have the audacity to say that Republicans and conservatives are hypocrites when you don't give anything as far as balance, in my opinion."
Top problems facing Memphis:
"The lunacy of the mayor -- Herenton, King Willie. And certainly A C Wharton. And John Ford. I've never seen, in all the places where I've lived, a place that has had the biggest group per square inch of loony liberals as you have in this community."
On fairness and balance:
"I don't think you have to get to the point where you want to bash somebody over the head with an ax handle because they have a different view. I get emotional about [what I do], and I'm not going to apologize for that. I've never met a liberal who could change my view on anything. But I wouldn't think much of a person who would do that -- change their view."
Liberal media turn-offs:
"The number of times that you [the liberal media] refer-- and this drives me nuts -- that you refer to the 'right-wing' this or the 'right-wing' that as opposed to the 'left-wing' this or the 'left-wing' that. That's one of the little nuances that make conservatives go into apoplectic fits. When publications like yours go on attack against conservatives, they use demeaning little phrases like 'right-wing coalition,' and I just think it's basically hypocrisy as journalists
Definition of the liberal agenda: