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Gary Younge
The battle of the airwaves

When the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh stayed in the Lincoln Room in 1992, the president of the time, George Bush, personally carried his bags into the White House. When Republicans won the House of Representatives for only the second time in 50 years in 1994, Limbaugh was made an honorary member of Congress.

Such is the power of talk radio in the United States, and such is its clout with the Republican establishment. Over the past 12 years, Limbaugh - whose Manhattan-based company Excellence in Broadcasting syndicates his show to hundreds of stations in every state in the nation - has built up a base of 20 million listeners who tune in five days a week for three hours at a time to hear him berate "feminazis" and "commie symps". It is a mix of liberal-baiting, sarcasm, wit and bile that has proved remarkably successful, allowing Republicans to dominate talk radio since the early 90s.

Now, however, America's left is fighting back. The end of this month sees the launch of Air America Radio: a liberal talkshow station broadcasting initially in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, and aiming to challenge Limbaugh on his own turf.

"Political talk radio has come to mean rightwing radio, but that doesn't have to be the case," says Al Franken, the comedian whose show will be the flagship of Air America (and who also happens to have written a book entitled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot). "I plan to take what they say, use it against them and hold it up to scorn and ridicule. That's my job. That's what I do." Other presenters will include the rapper Chuck D, the actor Janeane Garofalo and Robert Kennedy Jr, an environmentalist and nephew of the former president, John F Kennedy.

The fact that the launch comes in the month that John Kerry secured the Democratic party's nomination is no coincidence: the mobilisation of the left on to the airways is, invariably, inextricably connected to the presidential race. Concerned by the power of the conservative media both on radio and cable television, and having witnessed the rise of the ultra-conservative Murdoch channel Fox News, Democrats have been eager to appeal to their grassroots support and set the agenda.

"I'd be lying if I said this wasn't part of the contribution to getting Bush out," says Franken. Indeed, with $20m (£11m) already secured to fund the station, Air America is part of a multi-million-dollar liberal, anti-Bush broadside ahead of November's ballot. In January the financier and philanthropist George Soros committed about $12.5m to "political action" against Bush, having already donated $15.5m, in order to "puncture the bubble of American supremacy".

Like Margaret Thatcher during the 80s, Bush is not a leader who provokes an ambivalent response. A survey by the Pew research centre earlier this month showed that 48% of voters committed to or favoured Kerry, against 46% for Bush. And the fact that the liberal challenge to Bush has come in this form - a direct showdown between liberal and conservative commentators on radio - is emblematic of both the extent to which the US has become politically divided and the degree of animus on either side of the political divide. "National unity was the initial response to the calamitous events of September 11," argued the Pew research centre in a report on the 2004 political landscape, subtitled "Evenly divided and increasingly polarised". "But that spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarisation and anger."

The degree of this is revealed in the five polemical books bashing Bush or liberals in the top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. At No 4 there is Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, by Franken, an assault on the conservative political and media establishments, while at No1 is Deliver us from Evil by the Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, which argues that the war on terror demands the defeat of liberalism as well as despotism. The tone of debate - if you can call it that - has long been descending into a vicious slanging match. After the conservative critic Bernie Goldberg wrote a book last year called Bias, attacking the "liberal media", Franken penned a chapter in Lies entitled "I bitch-slap Bernie Goldberg".

The possibility that this level of enmity might spill over on to the airwaves worries many - not least liberals who fear it is a terrain more suited to the right than the left. "Conservatives thrive on hate and aggression," says Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer. "Liberals are going to have to get their energy from somewhere else."

"Limbaugh pounds on the same couple of points over and over in a three-hour show, and then takes calls from listeners who agree with him," adds John Wiener, who hosts a talkshow in Los Angeles. "It may be that liberals prefer more 'content'."

"Most liberal talk shows are so, you know, milquetoast," Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer who is close to Bill Clinton, told the New York Times early last year. "Conservatives are all fire and brimstone." And it is true that attempts to launch liberal radio shows in the past have ended in failure.

But unlike Limbaugh, Franken is a comedian and insists that alongside guests and chat, satire will be a huge component of the show. "I think our audience will want something different from the bile you get from the other side. People want to hear reason with passion and humour." He doesn't deny there is a risk of failure - "I don't anticipate beating [Limbaugh] in the first week" - but believes he can put out an accessible message. "I don't think you have to make an argument so sophisticated that people can't understand it," he says. "If you talk plainly then people will get it. I'm going to do the same thing that I do in my books."

Franken's producer, Ben Wikler, adds that it would be a mistake to underestimate the simmering frustrations over how Bush came to power, and the way in which he has used it since. "People are still very angry about 2000. Millions of people voted against Bush and haven't been heard from since then. Whenever Al goes to speak, thousands of people show up."

Air America's hope is that the huge audience for the books, speeches or films of dissident writers such as Franken, Michael Moore and Molly Ivins will translate into an untapped listenership that has so far been either unsatisfied or uninterested in radio. For the moment that is all it is - hope. While Limbaugh's listenership is well defined - white men, primarily concentrated in rural areas and the suburbs of the south and west - it is not entirely clear whom Air America is aimed at. African-Americans - the bedrock of Democratic party support - already have their own radio stations, which are overwhelmingly pro-Democrat.

For middle-class liberals there is the publicly funded National Public Radio, similar to the BBC, and for leftwingers there is the Pacifica network of alternative, progressive stations. To be commercially successful, Air America will not have to find a niche, but create a whole new market. To make a political difference it will have to reach listeners in the heartland swing states such as Ohio and Missouri, not the Democratic strongholds of the coastal cities and Chicago.

"The liberal base is not a radio base," says John Nichols, author of Our Media Not Theirs, which champions the democratic struggle against corporate media. "They tend to choose cable TV, the internet and frankly, they also have a social life." Moreover, Limbaugh's success was not part of a planned, rightwing response to the Clinton era but represented an organic, insurgent response of male, white Middle America. It is a moot point whether Air America reflects a need for a radio-led anti-Bush onslaught, or simply a desire from the liberal establishment that there should be one. "The left misunderstand the source of [Limbaugh's] success," says Nichols. "He is a great radio personality. If you listened to him, you got the issues of the day. He was very timely."

But if liberals are sceptical about Air America's prospects, they are also hopeful that it could work. Some are confident the station has found the right mix of personalities, and has sufficient funds to be a success. Others are witholding judgment for now. "There's a need for more and more alternative media outlets. The question is whether it really will be alternative or just liberal window dressing," says Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for Peace and Justice. The ultimate test, says Nichols, will not be Air America's political views but its ability to gain people's interest and then keep it. "People aren't going to listen if it gives the right message. They'll listen if it's great radio."

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