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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Talking back
By Andre Vornic
BBC News, in New York

Right-wing talk radio shows have huge influence in the US. But now the first liberal station has begun broadcasting in a bid to change the course of the next presidential election. With seven months to go until polls, does it stand a chance?

Al Franken (left) with Rush Limbaugh
"George Bush is going down", announced the host, Al Franken, as Air America Radio went on air in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The opening was in keeping with the station's avowed aim: to help defeat the current president in November. "When Bush said he was against nation-building," Franken continued, "we didn't realise he meant OUR nation."

The host went on to introduce the programme's first studio guests: a member of the commission investigating the 11 September attacks, Bob Kerry, and the left-wing author and film-maker Michael Moore.

It was the first foray into live broadcasting by Mr Franken, a self-described "liberal infotainer". He is best-known for mixing goofy satire and mordant political wit in books such as Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Rush Limbaugh is heard on 600 US stations
He has more than 20m listeners
Also popular: Bill O'Reilly, G Gordon Liddy, Sean Hannity
Democrat Rev Jesse Jackson recently signed to present syndicated talk show

But as he steers a tentative course between journalism, invective, and left-wing pep talk, Mr Franken is having to find his feet in a station still looking for a niche. The US's commercial radio market is notoriously hard to penetrate. Air America's owners, the Progress Media group, have already scaled back their original ambitions: the station operates out of temporary studios and has failed to acquire its own frequencies. Its output is currently carried by smaller, lesser-known outfits, such as New York's WLIB.

Moreover, nationwide liberal broadcasting remains an untested concept, in a country where conservatives have a near-monopoly of the airwaves. The show hosted by the right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh, much despised by liberals, is syndicated across six-hundred stations; some 20 million listeners - largely white men - tune in each week.

Sympathetic coverage

Mr Limbaugh, some of whose bÍtes noires are "feminazis" and "islamofascists", relentlessly pushes the right-wing line on the culture wars that divide contemporary America. And US radio listeners do not typically switch on their sets expecting sympathetic coverage of abortion, gay rights, or gun control.

It's a one-trick pony - they're trying to emulate what Rush Limbaugh did... I don't think they have the people to do it, and it takes a lot of years to build up that choir they're going to sing to
Bill O'Reilly, presenter of Fox News's O'Reilly Factor
The public broadcaster, NPR, does aim for balanced coverage, with what many see as a liberal tinge. But it remains a minority taste, and even some among its core audience have lately criticised it as pliant and unadventurous. Boisterous hectoring of the sort that occurs on commercial radio has no place in its schedules.

Untapped market

Now, with the Bush administration facing possible discomfiture over national security and the Iraq war, Air America's supporters are banking on an untapped market. Mr Franken himself has clearly designated Mr Limbaugh as the man to beat. Not only is one of his books entitled Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, but his show goes head-to-head with Mr Limbaugh's in the same time-slot, at noon on the East Coast.

Yet beyond the personal mudslinging, the name of the station suggests this is a fight for the very soul of America. It symbolises progressives' drive to - as they put it - "take back our country" in November.

Another of the station's shows, Majority Report, reflects the belief that in this most polarised of nations, the liberal half of the electorate remains slightly larger than the conservative one. The perception dates back to the year 2000, when, liberals argue, the right lost the vote, but won the election.

I'm calling my show The O'Franken Factor - any reason to have him sue us again
Al Franken

The veteran humorist PJ O'Rourke once sought to explain what he saw as the macho appeal of conservatism: "No one," he wrote, "has ever dreamed of being tied to a bed and ravished by a liberal." Less mischievously, even progressives have argued that while left-wing radio can claim the moral high ground, its worthiness makes for dull listening.

But several hours into the launch of Air America, after spirited phone-ins by the former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the presidential candidate Ralph Nader, that view may be changing.

As US liberals claim the airwaves, much will depend on whether Al Franken and his colleagues can translate their convictions and barbed wit into an effective political engine.

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