Thursday, April 01, 2004

Left-wing radio: a turkey takes to the Air

I caught my first few glimpses of Air America Radio today, and as far as I can tell, the impetus behind it must have been:

They say liberal talk radio will never work. Let's prove it!

First bit was caught at lunch -- approximately 20 minutes, roughly 1:15-1:35 Eastern. The whole thing consisted of Al Franken talking about how he is "learning" this whole radio thing, and some woman (whose name escapes me) is teaching him. A lot of new concepts in radio broadcasts, see -- like if he is making a joke, and a national emergency breaks out, he'll have to -- sit down for this -- stop telling the joke. This killed about 5 minutes of broadcast time, after which there was a whole bit of Franken doing impressions of Limbaugh and Strom Thurmond. (Why Thurmond? I haven't a clue. Franken gets a microphone and a national audience, and his topic of choice is a dead senator? Sense of timing, anyone? Relevance? Hello?) Franken's impression of Limbaugh was good, actually. Bringing up Limbaugh, he wished that Rush would stay consistent with his demands that drug addicts be locked up, check himself into a jail, and end up with a black cellmate who heard his commentary on Donovan McNabb. This little teen fantasy over, Franken did some of the Stuart Smalley impressions. That was it for the 20 minutes I caught.

Garofalo, Corn, and high-class humor

Fine, I thought, maybe I just caught a bad segment, so on my way home, shortly after 9 PM Eastern, I tuned in for "The Majority Report," co-hosted by Jeneane Garofalo and some guy whose name also escapes me. Let's see: first five minutes, a remote-control fart machine. (Really. Don't ask.) The next 15-20 minutes were dedicated to outrage at the George Bush "weapons of mass destruction" joke. You might wonder: how can such a small thing be talked about for so long? Well, it can't. So they just kept repeating it over and over, how "outrageous" it was, and how wouldn't it be just awful if you lost a loved one in the war, only to hear George Bush mock his "mistake" over WMD? Garofalo channelled Ralph Nader and Indymijiots for a while -- the liberation of Iraq was nothing but a corporate invasion, civilian security guards killed in Fallujah were nothing more than "mercenaries," Iraq was "anarchy," etc. Robert Fisk was referenced. Between the static-heavy broadcast and the quality of commentary -- or rather, the total absense of it -- it felt like listening to anarchist pirate radio, only not as substantive.

To top off the whole thing, they got a call from The Nation's David Corn, still outraged that when Bush made his now-infamous WMD joke, the people around him dared to laugh. (I don't know whether it's his humorlessness or just his voice, but I get the feeling Corn is not much fun at parties, except, perhaps, as receiver of wedgies.) They chewed on this topic yet again for a while, after which they got into a discussion as to whether we were "safer" in the wake of the invasion, even as Iraq had become a "shooting gallery." (Apparently, it was much better as a shredding-and-torture gallery.) Corn made the astute observation that al-Qaeda had a history of taking years between hitting their targets, apparently ignoring the constant empty threats of fire-and-brimstone that we'd heard from them since the first bombs fell on Afghanistan. In the midst of it all, Garofalo made constant references to her remote fart machine (again, don't ask), and then self-consciously commented on the sophomoric quality of her humor -- over, and over, and over. At one point she innovated by claiming that her humor was no more sophomoric than Bush's WMD joke, but that seemed to be the upper limit of her comedic genius for the night. I got to my destination about an hour into the show, and I wasn't going to subject myself to any more, so I couldn't say how well her chat with Barney Frank went.

This is it?

Defenders of Air America will point out that this was only their second day on the air, but that's hardly a defense. For one thing, it's not like they ever let you forget that they are just starting out -- every 3-4 minutes, there's some reference to this being their first week. Frankly, I found it shocking just how poorly these professional entertainers managed to perform -- if I didn't know better, I'd swear I was listening to high school students on their first day in front of a microphone. These are professional broadcast artists? These are people with stage presence? This is the A list of liberal talk radio? How profoundly sad. They seem so interesting when others write their lines.

Say what you want about Limbaugh or Hannity, but they are professionals. Their time is not wasted on idle babble; agree with them or not (and I often don't), but at least you know their position, and they articulate it well. This isn't to say that their quality is uniformly great, but at least you get the feeling that they take pride in their work, and understand the job. They want to tell their side of the story, they have it straight in their heads, and they deliver it with clarity, even if cut by demagoguery. Again, you don't have to agree with them, but you can tell that they think about their topic of choice. By contrast, the on-air "talent" at Air America simply speaks, or rather babbles, into the microphone, with no topic, storyline, or original thought in sight. They are little -- very little -- more than Left-wing reactionaries, angered by the thought that somewhere, on a different AM wavelength, a Right-winger is speaking his mind uncensored by a progressive editor. Even the name of their flagship lunch-time program -- The O'Franken Factor -- is a reactionary, pointless, and utterly unclever mocking of The O'Reilly Factor, a program I don't hold in high regard.

It's clear that all the intelligent, original liberals worth listening to are already gainfully employed at NPR, CNN, The New York Times, and a whole lot of other places. Air America is little more than an outlet for the Left-wing Looney Bin to have their views aired publicly. Far from a threat to the Right, I think it will do on the air what IndyMedia has done on the Internet: expose the lunatic fringe of the Left, and do damage to the credibility of the entire movement.

Frankenradio is right: this whole concept was an ill-conceived, top-down, artificially constructed walking media corpse. I give this monstrosity 6-7 months, maybe until December, before the plug is pulled and its stations go back to broadcasting foreign-language programming -- or until the whole network is revamped with real talent. Until then, let the fart machines work at full steam.

Quick follow-up: This was just a personal peeve, but will someone explain to Jeneane and her pal that the word blog is derived from weblog, and therefore rhymes with log, dog, and fog? It annoyed me to no end when these supposedly oh-so-hip cutting-edge commenters pronounced it blahg -- as in, "We're getting so many new stories via our blahg." Then again, maybe the root word fits.

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