'Progressive' Radio Station Hopes for Liberal Star

They are the stars of the most listened to talk radio shows in the country: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. Not a liberal in the bunch.

Air America Radio — a self-described "progressive" radio network — hopes to change that.

Four stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will launch programming for a liberal radio network that hopes to conquer the airwaves and replicate some of the feisty spirit that has worked so successfully for conservatives in the last decade.

"America is divided," Mark Walsh, chief executive officer of Air America Radio told ABCNEWS. "Anybody that doesn't understand that or acknowledge that is in denial." In this division, Walsh says, "is a media opportunity — sad as that may sound." Because, Walsh says, "in divisiveness comes debate. And in debate comes entertainment."

In other words, in a country divided into red Bush states and blue Gore states, there are many who see green.

'You Will Never Ever Be Their Friends'

For years conservative talk radio has dominated the political airwaves. It got to the point that right after the Republican Party took control of the House and Senate in 1994, Limbaugh was named an honorary member of the freshman class.

"You will never ever be their friends," Limbaugh told Republican freshmen in December 1994. "They don't want to be your friends. Some female reporter will come up to one of you and start batting her eyes and ask you to go to lunch. And you'll think, 'Wow! I'm only a freshman. Cokie Roberts wants to take me to lunch. I've really made it!' "

Limbaugh warned the freshman not to "fall for this" and "get moderate' and "start trying to get liked."

Ten years later, many Democrats — particularly those in the party's left wing — think their party has similarly cashed in their principles.

Air America Radio will seek to change that, starting rather humbly. While Limbaugh is syndicated on approximately 600 stations, Air America Radio will begin on four AM stations — WLIB (1190 AM) in New York, WNTD (950 AM) in Chicago, KBLA (1580 AM) in Los Angeles and a station in San Francisco to be named before the launch date of March 31.

The O'Franken Factor

Their star will be comedian and actor Al Franken, no stranger to taking on the right wing as the author of the book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. He nonetheless hopes to do to conservatives what his nemesis, Limbaugh, does so successfully to liberals.

"It's like ju-jitsu," Franken told ABCNEWS. "You use what they say against them and use it to hold them to scorn and ridicule. So there will be a lot of ridicule."

In that spirit and a nod to the lawsuit recently brought against him by Fox News Channel and host Bill O'Reilly for using the term "fair and balanced" in Franken's book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right — an injunction quickly dismissed by a judge — Franken is calling his new show The O'Franken Factor.

"Bill, I want you to sue us," Franken jokingly baited O'Reilly on a Wednesday conference call with reporters

Can Liberals Succeed on Radio?

Previous efforts on the radio with noted liberals Mario Cuomo, Jerry Brown and Alan Dershowitz failed.

Franken says that's why a whole liberal network is needed. "If I did a national talk radio show and syndicated it, the landscape of talk radio is so conservative that by definition I would have to go between Rush and Hannity, and that's like going from country music to hip-hop," Franken says. "Radio is about format. And people aren't going to listen to Rush and then listen to me, probably." But some conservative talk radio hosts wonder if liberals can succeed on radio at all.

"We like our audience," says conservative talk show host Blanquita Cullum, president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. "We know who they are. We don't think they're stupid. We try to relate to them and communicate with them ."

Liberals conversely think the "masses are pretty stupid," Cullum says and she thinks that liberals are calculating that "by doing something like this they'll be able to move them and work them and kind of maneuver their point of view and get them to the voting booth. They have not been very successful at understanding who the average American citizen is."

Air America Radio executives say that previous liberal talk show hosts weren't entertainers, while theirs are, such as actress/comedienne Janeane Garofolo, who will be hosting the weekday show The Majority Report from 8 until 11 p.m., or rapper Chuck D and Lizs Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, who will be hosting Unfilitered from 9 a.m. to noon.

Others featured include successful Florida talk show host Randi Rhodes, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication Marty Kaplan, and environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.

Michael Harrison, the publisher of the trade magazine Talkers, says many liberals may already be served by National Public Radio, which he characterizes as moderate-to-liberal, by largely black Urban Radio, and by socially liberal shock-jocks like Howard Stern.

Moreover, Harrison says, the politics of the hosts are just part of the equation. "The reason that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are very successful is only due in part to the fact that they're conservatives," Harrison says. "They also happen to be very charismatic, extremely entertaining and provocative."

Add to that, Harrison says, "the pure right wing mentality that isn't being served in the more moderate mass media and they have a built in audience. And that's all you need, a niche audience, to succeed in radio."

But Franken says based on the turnouts at his book signings, an audience is hungry for more liberal fare. "When these kind of crowds are showing up its not about the book, it's about something bigger than that.

"It's me," he jokes, regressing into the egoistic Al Franken character from NBC's Saturday Night Live. "They love me."