Talk Without Dittos

Franken and Ivins are coming to Seattle.

THIS SUNDAY, Sept. 21, comedian Al Franken joins liberal columnist Molly Ivins at McCaw Hall, formerly the Seattle Opera House that newly bears the same name of the guy who just hosted George W. Bush's local fund-raising luncheon. Who says liberals don't have a sense of humor?

Actually, a lot of people have said just that over the yearsand it's a major reason, along with Fox's frivolous lawsuit, Franken is now at the top of the best-seller lists with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Franken, Ivins, and fellow rabble-rousers Michael Moore and (to a lesser extent) Jim Hightower are now probably the most visible lefty political commentators in the country, and each of them has gotten there in large part with humor.

That's why Franken's next likely big project is as exciting as it is long overdue. He is the programming name most frequently linked with a Chicago outfit called AnShell Media, a new company fueled by a wealthy liberal couple that is putting $10 millionand trying to raise more into a proposed national network for left-of-center commercial talk radio.

With a handful of exceptions, such talk radio does not at present exist. It's hard not to notice this aspect of modern American media, not so much a void as a black hole. Seattle is as good an example as any in the country. In our city, Democrats not only hold every elected office, but Greens often get more votes than Republicans. Our larger metropolitan area and state consistently vote Democratic. Yet you'd never know it from the radio dial.

Seattle's top-rated commercial political talk station, KIRO, features the right-center Dave Ross in the morning and the Neanderthaloid Dori Monson in the afternoon, and consigns its liberal voices to evenings and weekends.

The other two major talk stations, KVI and KTTH, are in a righter-than-thou pissing war over Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and a gaggle of other national and local right-wing voices (next month, Limbaugh jumps from KVI to KTTH). Beyond that, there are two Christian talk stations, both of the Pat Robertson political variety; a "lifestyle" talk station (the Buzz) whose best-known syndicated host, Tom Leykis, trades on being a sexist ass; several other stations that drop their regular programming for innuendo-laden morning talk; and three hours a day of somewhat liberal chatter on NPR's KUOW.

KING COUNTY votes 60 percent Democratic, and its airwaves are 90 percent Republican. Why?

"Even if I was five times more capable than the guy next to me and he was a Republican, he'd get the job," says KIRO's Mike Webb, who has been working evenings, weekends, and fill-in shifts at the station for seven years (full disclosure: I am an occasional guest on Webb's show). Webb ticks off the barriers: program directors who are victims of the herd mentality, sales departments that don't know how to sell talk formats when they're not conservative, program brokers and big ownership chains that sell syndicated programs to dozens of stations at a time.

And those damned earnest liberals and their tendency to carefully consider questions rather than just yell at people. In my experience, that's a bum rapnot just because conservative hosts are capable of thoughtful dialogue that considers multiple views (if they want to), but because media sensations like Moore traffic heavily in ridicule of their opponents, too.

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether commercial radio, with its insistent need to interrupt a thought for traffic, news breaks, and (especially) commercials every five minutes or so, can be a conducive vehicle for useful political dialogue at all. But that's beside the point. In the chicken-and-egg question of whether the market creates conservative radio or conservative radio creates conservative voters, there's no question that the massive array of conservative media echo chambers in our country is a huge advantage for Republicans wanting to frame issues in popular media. If politics in the 21st century involves wars of ideas, media like talk radio are critical parts of the armory.

AnShell has its work cut out for it. It proposes to syndicate talk shows, similar to the way Limbaugh, Hannity, and other right-wing programs are produced, and to then buy time on local stations and sell its own commercials to pay for it. Yet most stations willing to sell time in such blocks are AM radio's weak sisterssuburban stations with poor signals and awful ratings, where listeners and sponsors rarely go. It's a radio graveyard. The stations with the big signals are owned in cities large and small by a handful of large companies; in Seattle, Entercom, a national radio giant, owns KIRO, the Buzz, and KTTH (slogan: "You Deserve the Truth"). It's easy to imagine a host like Franken being bartered on some inaudible 500-watt station in Enumclaw, and all concerned then deciding the format doesn't work.

It would, of course, if given the chance. There's just too much out there to laugh at.

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