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by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

If you listen to Bill O'Reilly, liberal talk radio, especially in the guise of Air America, is on the ropes. Has no idea what it's doing. An utter failure. Ready to go under.

If you've ever read anything I've written, even my children's novels, I don't believe I've ever agreed with anything O'Reilly has said or written...till now.

Bill may have a point.

No, liberal talk is not ready to go under, though if they don't reassess their approach soon, finding a signal strong enough to hear a broadcast past the station's parking lot may soon be in the offing.

In participating as both a liberal talk host and listener, I have not changed my mind one iota as to what can make liberal talk work, and for the most part, it hasn't been the philosophy the present powers to be. When I was on the air I was told that we were supposed to be the right wing radio for the left. And for the most part, liberal talk and their hosts have mimicked right wing talk: hard driving, one-note ideology with no risk-taking creativity to speak of. Nothing an intelligent, liberal listener would buy for more than a few moments. If someone likes rock and roll, you don't serve up country and western with new words. Just changing the rhetoric doesn't transform Toby Keith into Aerosmith.

At least when Hannity or Limbaugh does it, you get come out of it with some credible rage. When it's someone on the left pounding out one-sided bombast their message sounds implausible to a liberal. Beaming out "hooray for our side," doesn't work for the left. In the least, it's insulting.

There are exceptions, of course, but far too few. Jones Radio's syndicated Stephanie Miller and sidekick Jim Ward pound out three hours of terrific liberal humor every weekday morning. Sometime fart jokes, sometimes brilliant satire. But always fun. The only successful one who doesn't do it with comedy is Air America's Randi Rhodes, but Rhodes is so well-read and radio-hardened that her arguments far surpass the bloviator test. Simply, she doesn't bullshit her audience.

Word is that there are some big changes due very soon over at Air America. Hopefully they won't be dishing more of the same. "Staying the course" has been proven a devastatingly poor tact at 1600 Pennsylvania. Other than less blood, why should it be any different here? So, as much as it hurts to drop a Rovian talking point on ya, "adapting to win" would seem critical to liberal talk success.

Liberal listeners don't want an ideological hole drilled into their skulls. They just aren't angry enough to buy that. They're political weakness is they're willingness to be analytical. Being analytical necessitates taking both sides into account. Right wing radio's success comes from angrily demonizing the other side as completely utterly uneffective. Liberal radio needs to be far more innovative to draw their audience.

That Jon Stewart of the "Daily Show," and Stephen Colbert on the "Colbert Report," shine as liberal, albeit twisted, newspreaders, should be taken as a huge hint to liberal talk radio. Political satire works. Not that television should be done on radio. Al Franken, though an intelligent and funny guy, has proved it a rocky road. But there is a viable synthesization available in dishing out information through thoughtful humor with a pace and voice that does not bore nor irritate.

Politics and satire. It's a innate combination. They go together as naturally as prunes and regularity. And done right, they're just as gratifying and effective. Not jokes. Satire. Not snare-drum, set-up, punchline, but humor that comes out of situation. Not sitcom obvious, but cleverly surprising.

So much of politics is absurd. Anytime you have such distinct sides with each believing they are so damn right, there's got to be plenty to laugh at. The fact is, political satire teaches us in maddening terms. It exposes the farce of the actions of the powerful, many of whom we elected. To not make that a large part of the discussion is to ignore the elephant (and donkey) in the room.

More than a few years ago, sharp political farce filled the airwaves. The Credibility Gap (every day on L.A. radio) and the Firesign Theatre, were both bold and brilliant, making their serious points more salient through satire. Today, political satire resides on the airwaves one hour a day on Comedy Central and one hour a week with Harry Shearer. Neither alone would necessarily work as is on daily radio. But there are elements of each that would play well as integral part of liberal radio.

Let's hope that Air America changes will bring on those who know how to be smart and funny on the radio. There are those in waiting that might be ready to step in. (I mean, besides me.) Stephanie Miller's fill-in host, Elayne Boosler, has always been smart/funny as a standup. Once she was able to shed the constraints and interruptions of forced-upon-her radio sidekicks with no sense of how politics can be played entertainingly, Elayne has shown to be someone who could translate well to a liberal radio audience. Teaming with another comedy pro, Dennis Blair, has added to the chemistry.

There's plenty of comedy talent out there, but satire isn't enough. A sense of how you come across on radio is needed too. Funny can't be taught. Radio comes with experience. Air America, as well as local stations need to bring on the funny people and show them how radio can work for them. At the same time, programrs and station managers must be willing to learn all talk radio is not the same, least of all, liberal talk. It doesn't mean there is no room for serious discussion, or partisan cheerleading, but let's give the liberal audience some credit for being more than pablum munchers. If we don't they soon won't care what you're serving up. They won't be there to listen.

Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" and the newly released, "15 Minutes" (HarperCollins)

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Albion Monitor   August 24, 2006   (

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