A shallow victory for Air America

I was stuck in terrible suburban traffic last weekend flipping endlessly through the radio when I settled on the innocuous atonal drone of old man humorist Garrison Keillor. And just as I was hoping I could drift easily into sleep on the clogged-up Hillsboro highway, who should arrive on the show but liberal humorist and Air America celebrity Al Franken. He told the most delightful story about a man who had a penis growing out of his forehead. Nestled between off-key vanity gospel, Minnesotan agedness and bluegrass meanderings was the backbone of the progressive talk radio movement assuring us that everything was OK, because the man couldn’t see the penis on his forehead because the balls were covering up his eyes.

I almost died laughing.

His appearance reminded me of something. Air America has survived. For over a year now we’ve been privileged enough to hear the nasal Harvard elitism of Franken, the gravelly but exquisitely crafted train-of-thought conspiracy theories of Randi Rhodes, and the gifted and focused banter of Hollywood hottie Janeane Garofalo and bookish Sam Seder. Air America has survived not only near-bankruptcy, media backlash and infighting but also an almost complete conservative victory during the November elections. In fact, not only has Air America survived in the face of all this opposition, it has flourished. Its listenership and the number of markets it is broadcast in have grown. Hosts like Randi Rhodes have become stars, and high profile journalists like Jerry Springer have come on board, guns blazing.

Some may say the best thing that could have happened to Air America is the Republican victory. Karl Rove’s amazing sweep of the Midwest has given fuel to intense political separatism among liberals, that those who didn’t pack all their IKEA furniture in the back of their Volvo wagons and head north need an outlet for their growing paranoia. Air America fills that niche.

The paranoia is not unjustified. We live in frightening times, led by frightening people with a frightening agenda. But rather than recognize this paranoia, and work to discover a balance, or create a forward-acting community among existing liberals, the radio stylings of Franken and Co. just foster more paranoia. They take the big nervous ball and run with it. They offer no solutions but instead follow the model laid out by dozens of conservative radio hosts and distort the facts to make the situation seem more dire and the conspiracy more reaching.

It’s a tried and true strategy. It not only rallies the troops, it works them to a frothing frenzy. It plays on people’s fears and prejudices and justifies them. It allows listeners to step out of their cubicles armed with contentious and fiery rhetoric. It creates a clear line between us and them, and takes complex sociopolitical ideas and reduces them to one liners and bumper stickers.

Air America has taken the marginalized and hopelessly humanistic liberal population and turned it into its own worst enemy: an insipid mess of paranoid people who see the world in truncated stereotypes and oppositions.

I was happy to let the Republicans have the AM dial. They’ve earned it. The conservative movement has made talk radio what it is today. They discovered the power of the technology and exploited it. It’s their baby and has served them well.

The truth of the matter is that I didn’t want Air America to survive. I wanted it to crash and burn and disappear. Not because I’m some Poindexter-Republican, but because I was hoping the left was above the name-calling and hair-pulling tactics of talk radio.

I was hoping that we would find a new way and a new voice to unite behind. I was appalled by the idea that the left’s best minds would settle for simple imitation.

Air America’s presence among, and its emulation of, conservative radio is less an adversarial role than a testament to its success. Air America will never really succeed at changing anything because it’s playing “their” game, on “their” turf. And it’s an ugly, stagnant game.

So congratulations on your first year, Air America. We’re all so proud.

Dylan Tanner can be reached at [email protected]