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

"But that spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarization and anger," the center said.

The degree of this is revealed in the five polemical books bashing Bush or liberals in the top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. At No 4 there is Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, by Franken, an assault on the conservative political and media establishments, while at No1 is Deliver us from Evil by the Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, which argues that the war on terror demands the defeat of liberalism as well as despotism.

The tone of debate -- if you can call it that -- has long been descending into a vicious slanging match. After the conservative critic Bernie Goldberg wrote a book last year called Bias, attacking the "liberal media," Franken penned a chapter in Lies entitled "I bitch-slap Bernie Goldberg."

The possibility that this level of enmity might spill over on to the airwaves worries many -- not least liberals who fear it is a terrain more suited to the right than the left.

"Conservatives thrive on hate and aggression," said Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer. "Liberals are going to have to get their energy from somewhere else."

"Limbaugh pounds on the same couple of points over and over in a three-hour show, and then takes calls from listeners who agree with him," said John Wiener, who hosts a talkshow in Los Angeles. "It may be that liberals prefer more `content.'"

"Most liberal talk shows are so, you know, milquetoast," Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer who is close to former president Bill Clinton, told the New York Times early last year.

"Conservatives are all fire and brimstone," he said.

And it is true that attempts to launch liberal radio shows in the past have ended in failure.

But unlike Limbaugh, Franken is a comedian and insists that alongside guests and chat, satire will be a huge component of the show.

"I think our audience will want something different from the bile you get from the other side. People want to hear reason with passion and humor," he said.

He doesn't deny there is a risk of failure -- "I don't anticipate beating [Limbaugh] in the first week" -- but believes he can put out an accessible message.

"I don't think you have to make an argument so sophisticated that people can't understand it," he said. "If you talk plainly then people will get it. I'm going to do the same thing that I do in my books."

Franken's producer, Ben Wikler, adds that it would be a mistake to underestimate the simmering frustrations over how Bush came to power, and the way in which he has used it since.

"People are still very angry about 2000. Millions of people voted against Bush and haven't been heard from since then. Whenever Al goes to speak, thousands of people show up," Wikler said.

Air America's hope is that the huge audience for the books, speeches or films of dissident writers such as Franken, Michael Moore and Molly Ivins will translate into an untapped listenership that has so far been either unsatisfied or uninterested in radio. For the moment that is all it is -- hope.

While Limbaugh's listenership is well defined -- white men, primarily concentrated in rural areas and the suburbs of the south and west -- it is not entirely clear whom Air America is aimed at. African-Americans -- the bedrock of Democratic party support -- already have their own radio stations, which are overwhelmingly pro-Democrat.

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