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Liberal Talk Comes (Back) To LA

by Steve Young

Karl Rove's Nightmare: Liberal Talk Radio

Those of you who follow such things and are old enough to remember, back in ought-four, Liberal Talk Radio in the guise of Air America was a bedrock of the Los Angeles airwave wars. Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo went toe to toe with Rush Limbaugh and his apostles. Not actually toe to toe, but there's still quite a bit of acreage between 1580 and 640 on the Los Angeles AM dial.

We were all younger then, except, of course, those of us who had yet to be born. A time of great progressive hope, before there was even a President George W. Bush with a popular vote margin; Before we even heard of Spiderman 2. It was a much different world back then. Tom Daschle was a senator. Vioxx was a wonder drug.

It was a glorious almost two weeks.

In early April of 2004, Multicultural Radio Broadcasting (WNTD/ Chicago and KBLA/ Los Angeles) was renting airtime to Air America. Owner Arthur Liu contended the liberal radio network owed him in excess of $1 million because their previous payment to him bounced. Air America called that an "outright lie." We may never know the truth. The only thing we know for sure is that either Franken was SAP'd or KBLA went back to Spanish programming.

Those who wanted some kind of balance to the gospel of Sean Hannity, Limbaugh and a few thousand other conservative talkers went back to the excitement and glamour of those wacky fun guys at NPR. Those who couldn't do with anything less then an anti-Bush drumbeat, tuned their computers to the Air America website or could read and watch the "mass-elite-liberal, etc, etc" media.

Things have changed since that inauspicious stuttering start, and now liberal talk with Air America personalities, syndicated with some other progressive talkers, are ready to give it another go. Starting February 3, Air America will re-begin broadcasting Los Angeles on 1150AM/ KTLK (K-Talk Radio).

Questions arise. Is there any reason and will they succeed?

Politically-speaking, obviously Los Angeles is solidly in the Democratic corner. So why Lib talk here? How much more does the Democratic Party have to win the state?

"Why wouldn't where we go where our audience already is?" said Shelley Lewis, Air America's Network Vice President of Programming in New York. "We don't address specific markets, but Los Angeles people like Maxine Waters have been on quite a lot." And that's definitely something Larry Elder can't say.

Los Angeles radio used to be a place to hear the public's views on all issues. Now, excluding few exceptions, it's nothing if not a home for ideologues. But even with national politics and its inherent outrage, in Los Angeles, the popularity of talkers like KFI's John and Ken is built on the back of local issues. Mayoral campaigns, immigration and bull-horning torments in the direction of the most recent celebrity murder defendant. But with syndication monsters like Clear Channel eating up the local outlets, the national conservative Lords of Loud (read: Fox News fixtures) have filled most of the prime time slots.

New guy on the morning rush-hour block, KABC's Doug McIntyre, whose bumper music alone is a reason to tune in, recently made the move from grave-yard shift to the 5-8:45AM slot replacing the local legend, Ken Minyard, who replaced local legend, Michael Jackson, both whom took Los Angeles concerns to heart and to the people.

McIntyre, who is admittedly more right than left, rarely bangs the "we are good, they are evil" drum, thinks it's more than issues.

"It's about telling a good story," says McIntyre. "If Franken can tell his story well, he'll be fine."

Michael Harrison, the editor of the TV/radio talk biz bible, Talkers Magazine, himself a former L.A. talker back in the 20th century with KMET, says that Liberal Talk can work out here.

"Los Angeles has always been a melting pot of philosophies and has a long history of loving talk," says Harrison, "and Franken and Garofalo do a good job. Stephanie Miller knows Los Angeles from working there before. The belief that radio stations like KABC are all about getting the conservative message out is a myth. The only thing they're concerned with is profit. If liberal talkers show an ability to make a profit, stations like KABC will be bringing liberal hosts too."

And the timing seems perfect.

"Talk radio becomes an outlet for the alienated and disenfranchized," says Harrison. "In the early 90's, it was the conservative audience. Today, it's the Democrats."

I spoke to Franken while he battled New York's Friday evening rush hour traffic on his way to the airport to fly to Los Angeles to talk up K-Talk. Our interview was cut short when Al was informed by his driver that he would miss his plane. No word if the driver's name was O'Reilly, but rush hour could not have been more ironically named. It was just another evidence that Liberal Talk always seems to be fighting an uphill battle. Where government payoffs, gambling, sex and drug scandals have barely sent a disruptive ripple through the value-spouting seas of conservative talk, Franken (along with Michael Moore), who has made more than one trip to entertain our troops in Iraq, has been made the evil face of the Democratic Party...and all without a single felony allegation. You begin to wonder how long it will take for liberal talk to figure out that if they want to grab a bigger audience and become more influential with the morality crowd, they had better start screwing up their personal life.

O'Reilly, not exactly a Franken fan, has consistently ripped the future (past and present included) of liberal talk saying that it has failed miserably everywhere it's been launched. Harrison questions O'Reilly's doom and gloom scenario saying that liberal talk has received good response in other markets. "That's only O'Reilly's opinion. Since when did he become a radio programmer?"

In actuality, Franken, who recently re-upped with the network for at least two more years maintains that Air America has been doing quite well, quadrupling the ratings at their Portland, Oregon station and improving market share in San Diego.

"Air America does very well in the 18-35 demo," said Franken, "which is unprecedented in talk radio. And in the one hour O'Reilly and I go head to head in the New York market, I do twice the audience in the 25-54 demographic -- although in the 97-103 demographic he kicks my ass royally."

Will liberal talk find an audience? Will it address anything local? Couldn't say, but I will be listening just in case Janeane Garofalo can help get the word out on fixing that damn pothole down on Valley Circle.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor January 27, 2005 (

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