In just over a year, the liberal talk network Air America has grown from nothing to 53 affiliates, including, for the past six months, KPTK-AM (1090) in Seattle. Its unquestioned star is Al Franken, the Saturday Night Live alum and author whose show airs live in Seattle between 9 a.m. and noon weekdays. Last week, he told Salon.com that he plans to move his show to Minnesota, his home state, to explore a run for Senate. Franken brings his show to Seattle for a live performance at Town Hall on Monday, May 9. Last week, he talked by phone with Seattle Weekly political columnist Geov Parrish.
Live From Seattle
Al Franken will broadcast his national Air America radio show live from Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave. in Seattle, on Mon., May 9, from 9 a.m. until noon. Tickets are sold out. You can listen to the show on KPTK-AM (1090). From noon until 1 p.m., Franken will sign books in the Town Hall lobby.
Geov Parrish: So I understand that your last visit to Seattle played a role in getting Air America off the ground, with Sen. Maria Cantwell introducing you to Rob Glaser of RealNetworks fame. Talk a little bit about that.
Al Franken: Kenan Block introduced me to Maria. I was in Seattle. I think Seattle is like Minneapolis. It's essentially not that big a city, and people know each other. So Kenan [a public affairs consultant], who I know from his days as a producer at McNeil-Lehrer, is somebody I always see when I go to Seattle, and he wanted to introduce me to Maria. I met her, was delighted to, and she introduced me to Rob, who I was delighted to meet. We had dinner, and I sort of asked him to look at Air America and give me some advice on it. It was my clever way of luring him into it. I'm very clever. And extremely persuasive.
Parrish: What attracted you to going into talk radio?
Franken: I think what attracted me into going into radio was the need. As I was researching Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, I really concluded that we needed a national liberal presence on the radio. A large percentage—I've read figures like 22 percent—of Americans get almost all of their news from talk radio. And talk radio, obviously, is dominated by conservatives. Until we got on board, it was really kind of impossible to get a nationally syndicated liberal radio show. A couple had been. They keep pointing to Mario Cuomo having one. He had a once-a-week show. And Jim Hightower did it for a while, but that was sort of it. The problem really—as I saw it and as I was convinced by the people who were putting Air America together—is that radio is about format, and the format of political talk radio in this country is conservative political talk radio. So there was no way that I would be able to do a nationally syndicated show, because they weren't going to put me between Rush and Hannity. It's like putting a hip-hop show between two classic-rock shows. So we essentially had to create our own platform. And the only way to do that is to create a day of programming. And that's what we've done. And it's evolving.
Parrish: How do you select topics to focus on? I assume you don't get daily talking points from the Democratic National Committee.
Franken: Ah, no, that's how we get 'em. They tell us what to talk about, we—no, no. It's stuff that interests us. I have a staff of three researchers and three producers. Katherine [Lanpher, Franken's co-host] and I meet with them, and we hash out ideas. People pitch topics and I have certain topics that, of course, I'm going to be interested in. There's certain political news that you can't not be interested in. Right now, the list is [United Nations ambassador nominee John] Bolton, Social Security, nuclear option, [House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay. Today was the anniversary of Abu Ghraib coming out, and so we devoted quite a bit of the show to that. Tomorrow [Friday, April 29] we have a pretty eclectic show, we have [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh on. I have a policy of not having people from entertainment on spouting their views, because I don't think that's good for anybody. The only exceptions I make are members of the Grateful Dead, and that's because I play Dead music.
Parrish: What, politically, are the goals of your program? What do you hope to accomplish?
Franken: Well, push back, push back against the right-wing noise machine, and to try to keep people honest. We're part of the push back on the House rules change. When [Wall Street Journal columnist] John Fund goes on Hardball With Chris Matthews and says, "Tom DeLay wants the investigation. The Democrats just don't want it," and Chris Matthews goes along with it and says, "Yeah, they just want the story to keep going, they don't seem to want the investigation," well, then we explained very methodically that the rule had been changed and that it had been changed from a 5-5 tie meaning you keep the investigation going to a 5-5 tie meaning the investigation stops. And since he had packed the Ethics Committee with people who had either taken money from him or given money to him, the deck had been stacked. Four of them had taken money from him, and two of them had given money to his defense fund. You think: How absurd this is. They have their Ethics Committee, the Republicans on the Ethics Committee, four of them have received money from Tom DeLay and two of them have given money to his defense fund. They are the ones sitting in judgment of him? They had changed the rule from a tie meaning the investigation continues to a tie meaning the investigation is killed. And so they had effectively changed it so that the fix was in. And we made that clear. And we weren't the only ones, but we had our people call in. We're part of that now. We're not going to let them get away with stuff any more.
Parrish: What's been the biggest frustration so far?
Franken: I Nexus myself to see press on me. And one of the biggest frustrations is being compared to Rush Limbaugh in a way that suggests that I do what Rush Limbaugh does, but just on the other side. That I'm a mirror image of him. It's obviously written by people who don't listen to my show. And most of it isn't like a review of my show; it's usually done in passing.
About two weeks after we were on the air, William Raspberry, who's a pretty respected Washington Post columnist, wrote a piece on our show, and he said, "I haven't listened to it yet, but if Al Franken is doing what I think he is doing, or going to do, then I think it's dangerous." Now I got really mad at him, but in retrospect, at least he said he hadn't listened to the show in the column. It's absolutely crazy.
We had a guy on today [Thursday, April 28], Brian Anderson, who's written a book called South Park Conservatives, and it's a conservative book on liberal bias and all this stuff, and he attacks Air America in it. We had him on the show today. And he ultimately had to admit that our show was not what he was saying we were, or not what he was saying Air America was, anyway, and that I don't do what Rush does.
Parrish: What do you think the differences are between you and Limbaugh?
Franken: I'm glad you asked me that. I use this example a lot. A few months ago, Rush was talking about the minimum wage. Conservatives like to portray it that no one has to raise a family on the minimum wage—the only people who get the minimum wage are teenagers who want to buy an iPod. So Rush says, "Seventy-five percent of all Americans on the minimum wage, my friends, are teenagers on their first job." And one of the researchers brings this to me, with a smile, and I say, "Well, can you look it up?" And they look it up. The researcher goes to something called the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sixty percent of Americans on minimum wage are 20 and above. Forty percent, then, are either teenagers or below 12 [laughs]. I had several jobs as a teenager, so you figure, what, 13 percent might be teenagers in their first job. Not 75 percent. So where did Rush get his statistic? Well, he got it directly from his butt. It went out his butt, into his mouth, out the microphone, into the air, into the brains of dittoheads. And they believe this stuff.
So we get our labor statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He gets his from the Bureau of Rush's Butt.
Parrish: What do you hope listeners get out of your program?
Franken: I hope that they get good information about what's going on in the world, what's going on with our government, what's going on politically; I hope they get enjoyable conversation, a laugh or two; and I hope they get armed with information that they can use to fight back against forces in this country that are hurting us, hurting our country, hurting the people, hurting people in this country who shouldn't be hurt.
Parrish: What gives you hope?
Franken: What's giving me hope is watching this administration overreach and seeing them get burnt when they do. I see a lot of hopeful things coming out of this past election, even. The president won by the smallest margin of any incumbent president ever. Kerry won among young people. There's a lot of activism going on. I see things happening in states because nothing's going to happen in Washington. That's why these road trips are so valuable. We meet with people, we have guests on who are doing things in these different states that can't be accomplished in Washington.
Parrish: What, long term, is the goal of Air America?
Franken: Long term, the goal is to build until our reach is 100 percent of the country. This takes a while. We've been doing this a year. We now cover between 50 percent and 55 percent of the country. We've done that in a year. We're going to be, I think by the end of this year, somewhere around 70 percent. The goal is really to be heard everywhere, and it just takes a while to build. And I believe we will.
Parrish: Are you enjoying it?
Franken: I really am. I like doing it. I love the show itself, I love being on the air. I'm a performer; I always have been. Even at SNL, when my main function was as a writer, I kept pushing to get myself on-screen. And I like talking.