Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The battle of the airwaves

Sarcastic, bilious and very rightwing, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has become one of the most powerful voices in American politics. Can a group of liberals really beat him at his own game?

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


When the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh stayed in the Lincoln Room in 1992, then-president George Bush personally carried his bags into the White House. When Republicans won the House of Representatives for only the second time in 50 years in 1994, Limbaugh was made an honorary member of Congress.

Such is the power of talk radio in the US, and such is its clout with the Republican establishment. Over the past 12 years, Limbaugh -- whose Manhattan-based company Excellence in Broadcasting syndicates his show to hundreds of stations in every state in the nation -- has built up a base of 20 million listeners who tune in five days a week for three hours at a time to hear him berate "feminazis" and "commie symps." It is a mix of liberal-baiting, sarcasm, wit and bile that has proved remarkably successful, allowing Republicans to dominate talk radio since the early 1990s.

Now, however, America's left is fighting back. The end of this month sees the launch of Air America Radio: A liberal talkshow station broadcasting initially in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco and aiming to challenge Limbaugh on his own turf.

"Political talk radio has come to mean rightwing radio, but that doesn't have to be the case," said Al Franken, the comedian whose show will be the flagship of Air America (and who also happens to have written a book entitled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot).

"I plan to take what they say, use it against them and hold it up to scorn and ridicule. That's my job. That's what I do," he said.

Other presenters will include the rapper Chuck D, the actor Janeane Garofalo and Robert Kennedy Jr, an environmentalist and nephew of the late president John Kennedy.

The fact that the launch comes in the month that Senator John Kerry secured the Democratic Party's nomination is no coincidence: The mobilization of the left on to the airways is, invariably, inextricably connected to the presidential race. Concerned by the power of the conservative media both on radio and cable television and having witnessed the rise of the ultra-conservative Murdoch channel Fox News, Democrats have been eager to appeal to their grassroots support and set the agenda.

"I'd be lying if I said this wasn't part of the contribution to getting Bush out," Franken said.

Indeed, with US$20 million already secured to fund the station, Air America is part of a multi-million-dollar liberal, anti-President George W. Bush broadside ahead of November's ballot. In January the financier and philanthropist George Soros committed about US$12.5 million to "political action" against Bush, having already donated US$15.5 million, in order to "puncture the bubble of American supremacy."

Like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, Bush is not a leader who provokes an ambivalent response. A survey by the Pew research center earlier this month showed that 48 percent of voters committed to or favored Kerry, against 46 percent for Bush. And the fact that the liberal challenge to Bush has come in this form -- a direct showdown between liberal and conservative commentators on radio -- is emblematic of both the extent to which the US has become politically divided and the degree of animus on either side of the political divide.

"National unity was the initial response to the calamitous events of Sept. 11," argued the Pew research center in a report on the 2004 political landscape, subtitled "Evenly divided and increasingly polarized."

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