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

For middle-class liberals there is the publicly funded National Public Radio, similar to the BBC, and for leftwingers there is the Pacifica network of alternative, progressive stations. To be commercially successful, Air America will not have to find a niche, but create a whole new market. To make a political difference it will have to reach listeners in the heartland swing states such as Ohio and Missouri, not the Democratic strongholds of the coastal cities and Chicago.

"The liberal base is not a radio base," said John Nichols, author of Our Media Not Theirs, which champions the democratic struggle against corporate media.

"They tend to choose cable TV, the Internet and frankly, they also have a social life," he said.

Moreover, Limbaugh's success was not part of a planned, rightwing response to the Clinton era but represented an organic, insurgent response of male, white Middle America. It is a moot point whether Air America reflects a need for a radio-led anti-Bush onslaught, or simply a desire from the liberal establishment that there should be one.

"The left misunderstand the source of [Limbaugh's] success," Nichols said. "He is a great radio personality. If you listened to him, you got the issues of the day. He was very timely."

But if liberals are sceptical about Air America's prospects, they are also hopeful that it could work. Some are confident the station has found the right mix of person-alities, and has sufficient funds to be a success. Others are witholding judgment for now.

"There's a need for more and more alternative media outlets. The question is whether it really will be alternative or just liberal window dressing," said Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for Peace and Justice.

The ultimate test, Nichols said, will not be Air America's political views but its ability to gain people's interest and then keep it.

"People aren't going to listen if it gives the right message. They'll listen if it's great radio," Nichols said.

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