Launch a left-wing talk-radio network in a medium ruled by the bully pulpiteers of the right? They said it couldn't be done. Air America Radio exec Jon Sinton recalls the loud whispers before last year's start-up: "They said, 'Liberals aren't funny or engaging. A concept of a liberal network is stupid.'"
And for a while, they were right. The name-brand hosts, comics Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, were audio amateurs. In their on-the-job training, three hours a day, they learned that comedy is easy, radio is hard. The most persuasive hosts were radio veterans Randi Rhodes and Rachel Maddow. But Air America came close to folding for a reason the right couldn't have guessed: it ran out of liberal fat cats and went broke in two weeks. When its checks bounced, it lost stations in Los Angeles and Chicago. As the documentary Left of the Dial (on HBO this week) shows, staff members went for months without pay or health insurance.
The story has a happy ending for liberals--or at least a promising second act. As it hits its first anniversary this week, Air America has expanded from six to 51 stations. It reaches more than 2 million listeners a week, with greater appeal for the young and women than most talk radio. It just signed Jerry Springer (a piquant choice but a pity, since he replaces Maddow). "I give them every benefit of the doubt," says Michael Harrison of the industry magazine Talkers. "They have ratings to show, they get publicity, they're selling ads."
And they have imitators. Liberal talk is radio's fastest-growing format. If Air America hasn't yet drowned out Rush Limbaugh, it has at least found its own voice. --By Richard Corliss. Reported by Carolina A. Miranda