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Post Magazine: The Liberal Rush Limbaugh?

Post Magazine Cover Story

Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2004; 1:00 PM

At 45, radio talk-show host Randi Rhodes uprooted herself from a comfortable, successful life in Florida and moved Air America in New York with a singular purpose: To reclaim the radio waves from conservatives. And, while she's at it, perhaps to help oust George W. Bush from the White House.

Post staff writer Paula Span, whose article about Rhodes and Air America appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Sept. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.

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Span is a Magazine staff writer.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Paula Span: Hello all. Thanks for joining us to yak about liberal talk radio, Air America and Randi Rhodes -- who I think will be along herself in a bit to chime in. Lots of comments and questions already, so let's get started.

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Parkville, Md.: I'd never heard of Randi Rhodes until I started listening to a web broadcast of Al Franken and "Air America." Her show came on just after, and I hung around to see what else Air America offered. I've got to say that she's great! She's got a razor sharp wit and a keen political eye. I have no idea whether there is a future for nationally sindicated left-wing talk shows generally, but there's certainly planty of future for Randi.

Paula Span: Probably few of us had heard of Rhodes, because she was a major frog in a smallish pond -- West Palm Beach is about the 47th largest radio market in America.

Most radio pros I've spoken to agree with you about Randi's future: whatever happens to Air America (which has gained some affiliates in major markets just since we went to press), she's gonna do just fine.

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Washington, D.C.: Randi,

The obvious question: when will Air America come to DC? I realize you can get satellite radio, but it'd be great to have you over the air.

Paula Span: I know, we're such teases, writing about Air America when Washington can't hear it, except on the Net (go to airamericaradio.com and download RealPlayer) or on satellite radio.

Management says it's trying hard to find a Washington outlet, but no luck so far. The AM signals with good reach are already making a lot of money, so owners are not inclined to switch over to Air America. Talks continue. Sorry.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Why is anytime one of the national talking head shows they always say "no one" can compete with a Limbaugh, but never bothered to mention that in his own hometown he was regularly being beaten by a liberal? Why hasn't a show like "The View" or "Oprah" seems to be afraid to even mention that Randi is on the air?

Paula Span: This notion of Limbaugh's invincibility stems from the fact that he's on more radio stations (600-plus) than anyone. But a lot of those stations are tiny. And he's not number one in the ratings in all his markets, either. In DC, in fact, WAMU public radio beats Rush during part of his broadcast. And Randi consistently beat him in West Palm.

I don't think fear enters into these TV broadcast decisions , though. I don't think Oprah's "afraid" of anyone. It likely has more to do with Rhodes not being very high-profile at first, with most of the country still not able to tune into Air America, etc. But I agree she'd be an interesting guest on such a show, because women are an underserved talk audience, as much as liberals are. The Talkers Magazine "Heavy Hundred" list of influential hosts includes a tiny fraction of women -- about 14, I think -- and a number of those are co-hosts.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Thank you so much for showcasing one of the 'best kept secrets' of the Air America Radio lineup, Rhodes. Yup, she's definitely the goddess and listened to her for more than a year prior to Air America. I was wondering if she had any thoughts that since her ratings have been solid before and during this new radio venture, she might be due to get some 'respect?' (i.e. better studio facilities?)

Paula Span: Everyone at Air America shares the same lousy studio facilities, so it's not about respect. It's about money -- the network has so much less than it thought it had that it's being cautious about new expenditures. So, no new studios for a while.

I hear even more grousing about the air conditioning now that Al Franken is broadcasting on the Sundance Channel on TV, bringing hot lights into the Air America studios. The hosts will be in shorts and tube tops til November at this rate.

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Rockville Md.: I thought your article on Randi Rhodes and air america radio was excellent. My only criticism lies in your failure to mention the dropping of the fairness doctrine during the reagan administration. That's what was directly responsible for the right wing takeover of talk radio. If the fairness doctrine had been continued, that takeover would have been impossible, as the doctrine required that radio stations air a roughly equal mix of differing political views. How come you left out such an important fact?

washingtonpost.com : Radio Waves (Post, Sept. 12)

Paula Span: True, the FCC's dropping of the Fairness Doctrine in 1985, subsequently upheld by a federal court in 1989, allowed the spread of conservative talk. Probably I should have mentioned that history.

But in theory, it could also have instigated a wave of liberal talk radio. I think liberals and Democrats now largely acknowledge that they were slow to recognize how powerful the medium could be.

Pollster Frank Luntz had an interesting take on this, when I spoke to him. He thinks that conservative talk radio, so potent in the early and mid '90s, has actually cooled off a bit because now there is conservative talk TV, particularly Fox News. Conservatives looking for culturally comfortable media havens (as we all tend to do) have more choices now.

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Dover, Del.: Although Randi Rhodes deserves your attention, there are a number of others who host programs on Air America Radio who also deserve it. Have I missed it, or if not, will it be forthcoming?

Hugo del Mar

Paula Span: I doubt we'll run long profiles of the other hosts, especially since Air America is not on the air in Washington yet, but you're right, there are a bunch. The AM drive-time show "Morning Sedition" with Mark Maron and his cohost (whose name escapes me at the moment, sorry!), then the mid-morning show with Lizz Winstead and Rachel Maddow and Chuck D. After Franken and Rhodes and Garofalo/Seder comes the recently-hired Mike Malloy, who was broadcasting on a union-sponsored network in the Midwest that died last winter. Plus there are some weekend shows and hosts.

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Bristow, Va.: Um, Paula, do you find it odd that your mag would do a profile on a potential "liberal Limbaugh" when you've never actually profiled the actual Limbaugh?

Paula Span: Um, we ran a Magazine piece by David Finkel on Limbaugh and his Dittoheads in 1994, the year he was credited with helping to elect a Republican Congress.

But, true, we haven't profiled Rush himself. He hasn't given interviews for years. I'd be happy to do it, though, if he'd change his mind. No question he's a fascinating story. Yo, Rush, are you there? Can we talk?

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Alexandria, Va.: The reason why liberal talk radio will fail is not because there is not an audience for it, but because it is redundant. Conservatives have to turn to alternative media to find spokespeople who will endorse and validate their point of view, so right-wing talk radio thrives. On the other hand, if you want to find the liberal point of view regarding public affairs you need only turn to long-established sources such as all three commercial TV networks, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, etc., etc. all providing the identical point of view found on Air America but done in a much more slick and commercially appealing fashion. Air America is carrying ice to the North Pole, folks!

Paula Span: I've heard this argument a lot, but its persuasiveness is directly proportionate to the extent that one thinks the major networks, newsmags and papers are liberal. Real liberals will howl that it's not so, and they've been howling louder about it in the past few years than ever. In fact, Eric Alterman wrote a whole book about this. No one is more ticked off at the press for its coverage of Iraq and events leading to it, for example, than the left.

The Times' public editor Daniel Okrent basically conceded that the Times has a liberal outlook a month or two ago, but it remains a highly debatable proposition.

And this much is not debatable: the Times and the Post and CBS etc, even if one considers them liberal, do NOT have "the identical point of view found on Air America," nor do they share the same tone or style. The mainstream press at least strives (or if you are a critic, you'd probably prefer to say it "pretends") to neutrality. Air America is proudly opinionated and combative -- just as conservative talk hosts are.

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New York, N.Y.: This is interesting to read.

Love aLL ways,
Randi

Paula Span: Here's the lady in question, checking in.

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Washington, D.C.: Randi Rhodes beating Rush Limbaugh in Palm Beach is not something to crow about, given that Palm Beach is most recently famous for their voters who were too stupid to vote properly in the 2000 presidential election.

How do we know for sure the ratings in Palm Beach include those who intended to listen to Randi Rhodes in the first place?

Paula Span: Heh.

Did you notice, by the way, that the election supervisor in Palm Beach County who designed the infamous butterfly ballot was recently defeated?

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Wheaton, Md.: I've noticed a problem with liberal radio talk shows: No one is listening and no one cares. How do the liberal talk show hosts hope to make a difference when they can't keep sponsors?

Paula Span: Ratings so far show that people are listening. If that continues, Air America will keep sponsors.

One of the more interesting turns in this saga is that a number of the new affiliates in major markets (Miami, for instance, and Madison Wisconsin) are owned by Clear Channel, the largest radio chain in the nation. Liberals have seethed about Clear Channel for years because it's huge (the WalMart of radio) and because it syndicates Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives through its Premiere subsidiary, among other reasons. It's been startling to see it introduce Progressive Talk stations around the country.

What this shows, I think, is that in commercial radio, profits trump politics. Station owners made money for years with conservative talk shows, and perhaps began to believe that only conservatives could draw audiences. But shown evidence that liberal talk can also pull ratings, they're perfectly happy to make money selling ads on a liberal network, too. Ed Schultz, the host produced by Democracy Radio, is also gaining affiliates as he gets ratings, and Jones Radio (the syndicator) is about to launch another liberal talk show. I wouldn't be surprised to see more.

Of course, in some markets (like Miami) Clear Channel owns so many stations that it has both a conservative AND a "progressive" talk station. It makes money from everyone!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Paula. I enjoyed your article on Randi Rhodes. I found it complete, fair and entertaining. I have been streaming her program online for about 2 years now. I would like to update some of your info. Randi Rhodes(AirAmerica Radio) is in fact up and runinng in Wisconsin and Atlanta as of today.

Do you think the "corporate media" myth that only conservative talk radio can work is finally being debunked?

Paula Span: You're right, it's on more stations now than when we closed that story, including Madison, Wisconson; Columbus, Ohio (swing states!); and Philadelphia. Atlanta and Boston are reportedly next.

It will take more than a few months and one ratings book to establish that liberal talk can also succeed in commercial radio. But if Air America is alive and well a year or two from now -- and other liberal hosts and shows are also flourishing -- then yeah, I think that assumption will be debunked. But there's a looong way to go before liberal talk has parity, in terms of listeners and stations, with folks like Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, et al.

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Portland, Ore.: Ms. Span:

Nice profile on Randi Rhodes. One point worth making, however, is that conservatives have dominated radio for nearly 50 years, not just since the mid-1980s. In the early 1960s, John Kennedy and other liberals were very disturbed by the popularity of the Limbaughs-of-their-day, Dan Smoot, Billy James Hargis, Clarence Manion, etc. My own sense is that radio is a medium for insurgents, because it costs so much less than print or TV. The growing drive for a liberal presence on radio may indicate that liberals realize that they are now the insurgents and that conservatives are beginning to dominate the higher profile mediums of newspapers and television. Your thoughts?

Paula Span: Good point. The Rev. Carl McIntyre, who was actually yanked from the airwaves by the FCC in the '60s sometime and for a while was broadcasting offshore, also comes to mind. I don't think any of them had the huge national reach of a Limbaugh, though.

I do agree that talk radio tends to benefit from the anger and resentment of outsiders. With liberals the current insurgents, they could benefit from that. But one thing that Limbaugh, Hannity et al have grown very skilled at doing is portraying themselves and their listeners as victims (of the "liberal elite media" and "activist judges" etc.) even when conservatives dominate the airwaves, the Congress, the White House. Insurgency may be a state of mind.

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Northern Virginia: Just a comment: I love Air America. I've been listening to it only for a couple weeks at work. It's awesome- and makes me feel like less of a minority! Other people do agree with me besides the writers in The Nation!

Paula Span: Your comments actually reflect what political scientists see as a major effect of political media: Magazines and radio shows (the Nation/Air America or The Weekly Standard/Laura Ingraham) may not change hearts and minds, but they can make their listeners and readers feel less lonely, more -- dare I use the ghastly term? -- empowered.

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Fairfax, Va.: It sounds to me like Randi does not get along that well with Al Franken and some of the other Air America hosts. Is this an issue? It seems to me that the "left" spends too much time fighting with itself, while the "right" does a much better job staying focused.

Thanks

Paula Span: Rhodes would agree with you, I think. She likes to say that Democrats circle the wagons, then shoot at one another.

The Air America hosts aren't all buddies, and in fact some of them have probably never spoken to others just because they're not in the same place at the same time. But I don't see any real hostility, just low-level sniping, sometimes for comic effect. They're all committed to the network, I think, and recognize that one's success helps the others.

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Madison Wis.: Your article was very entertaining and informative. I host a drive time (5-7pm central) local program on Air America's first FM affiliate, Progressive Talk 92.1-FM in Madison, WI, one of the Clear Channel/Air America joint ventures. Can you tell us what the word is in the industry on the CC/AA relationship? Does AA have any qualms? (local left commentary here has been very divided on whether this is a very good thing or a very bad thing). How commited is CC to its AA stations? Thanks.
Stu Levitan

Paula Span: Hi, Stu. I don't know much more about this "relationship" than I've said -- except for the Portland station, these are quite new affiliates and none of them have gotten a ratings "book" yet.

I do know that these decisions are being made by local station managers in each market, not by Clear Channel's HQ in Texas. And while I'm not privvy to the content of the agreements, whether the station has to carry Air America for a required number of months for instance, I'm sure that Clear Channel will crow when the ratings are good in a market, and promptly dump Air America as soon as it can if the ratings are not good. That's the way the business works, as all parties know.

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Neither One: I don't listen to Rush, and if Randi is the "liberal Limbaugh," I won't listen to her, either. Don't need screamin'. Windbags is windbags is windbags. Guess that makes me a moderate.

Paula Span: They're both acquired tastes, no question.

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New York, N.Y.: Palm Beach voters were not too STUPID to vote. The cause of action (the reason stated) in BUSH v GORE was to STOP COUNTING VOTES. Which Florida did. The Florida Supreme Court should have been the abitor of STATE election laws...How the STATE chooses it's electors.

For states rights people this should be offensive as all hell. The Florida Supreme court ruled that the count should continue with the standard being "Intent of the Voter". Bush said NO...different counties used different voting methods...punch cards, optical scan ballots, absentee ballots, etc. HE said that because we did not vote in the same way in all 67 counties, there would be no EQUAL PROTECTION. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the argument...The US Supreme Court (who had NO JURISDICTION) split 5-4 and the Court ordered the counting STOP. You should read the dissents...they are powerful and will make you feel VERY patriotic.

BUT

THAT is how Bush became President.

As for The NY Times, MSNBC, CNN being liberal...where was the coverage of the lies about weapons of mass of destruction, or the deaths that took place THIS weekend?

Why was there wall to wall coverage of WHITE WATER (a 3 hundred thousand dollar land deal) FRONT PAGE of the NY TIMES. Why was there coverage all through '98 of Clinton and his sexual peccadillos? Is the reason for WAR less important?

Why was Susan McDougal asked for a Proffer of false facts and jailed a maximum security prison? Do you know that Ted Olsen is our solicitor general? Do you know who he is?

No one covers this administration. Except maybe Helen Thomas who isn't permitted to ask questions anymore.

No WMD coverage, NO questions of the President about the disaster that is Iraq, no questions on the economy, No looking into the Bush family and their long history with dictators, including Saddam, Adolf Hitler, The Saudi Royal Family,and Pinnochet. To name a few.

The World Trade Center (Port Authority) is suing the Saudi Royal family for damages. Why? Who is the attorney? James A Baker III the man who told you the ballots were counted 4 or 5 times in Florida. Where is the LIBERAL press?

Man.

Love ALL ways,
Randi Rhodes

Paula Span: And here's Randi, doing what she does, except on the screen instead of on the air.

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Texas: Could you expand a little on the Air America - NPR dynamic? I know they are very different animals, but they must be chasing the same audience to an extent. Also, any idea if Air America benefited at all from NPR's Bob Edwards fiasco?

Paula Span: The audience research in New York shows that listeners to Air America are demographically quite like NPR listeners. This is good news for Air America, because NPR listeners are affluent and educated -- the sorts of folks that advertisers like to reach, but can't on a noncommercial broadcast. Whether this similarity will hold in other markets -- not clear yet.

But the political and stylistic difference between NPR and Air America is so great that I find it hard to imagine that major numbers of Bob Edwards fans are tuning in.

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Paula Span: We still have lots of comments and questions coming in, so while the chat was slated to end at 2, let's keep it rolling for a while.

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Anonymous: I listened to Randi's show for the first time on
Sirius Satellite Radio and was highly impressed.
While discussing the Iraqi occupation she
mentioned her military experience. Can you
elaborate?

Paula Span: She was an Air Force mechanic in the mid '70s, stationed at Maguire AFB in New Jersey. Became a sergeant. Won an award. Then served in the AF Reserves. It had a major impact on her, I think, even though she wound up seeing New Jersey instead of seeing the world.

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Bethesda, Md.: Yes .. Terry somebody who was a Democrat at the time she screwed it up and either switched to independent or republican. As for Randi Rhodes, I have liberal NY friends who live in Florida in the winter who swear by her and used to pick up her West Palm show. I have since attempted to listen to her on Air America through the internet. Quite pedestrian. Incapable of sequential thinking. Is that the best the liberals have to offer? Franken is slightly more entertaining. The rest (Garofolo, etc.) are horror shows. First they need to get a good one on so they can then spawn the imitators, as the conservatives have done in total tedious repetition.

Paula Span: Different strokes.

But I have heard radio industry people say, over and over, that political talk radio has to be good radio first. That Limbaugh and Hannity and their imitators have broadcasting talent, not just political opinions. If lots of people agree with you that Air America's hosts are lousy radio personalities (and some of them have only been radio personalities since late March), then it won't succeed, whether people like its politics or not.

I'll post a couple of comments from folks who don't agree with you, though.

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Richmond, Va.: Randi, just wanted to say that yours is a wonderful and refreshing voice over airways long polluted by the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Please keep up the great work!

Tammy, thrilled to be living in a state which might actually go Democratic for the first time in 40 years.

Paula Span: Like this one.

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Southfield, Mich.: Not a question, but a compliment: Thanks for a (dare I say it?) fair and balanced look at Air America Radio, from its early chaos and mismanagement to today's much more stable and (please, God) successful operation, through the lens of its most interesting host, Randi Rhodes. I went from not being able to stand her to loving her dearly from April to August, and now it's not a good day without at least an hour of her. Based on Air America's ratings, it looks as though there is a market for liberal talk, and I can't wait for it to come to a station in Detroit with a decent signal.

Paula Span: And this one.

No Detroit outlet yet, but this is a very fluid situation with new stations signing up every week.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it that Randi is usually delayed on stations that carry AA so they can hear Ed Schultz live?

Paula Span: Thanks for reminding me to point out that a number of Air America affiliates are not 24/7 Air America. They may include other liberal hosts -- Schultz, for example -- and also local hosts of locally-oriented shows.

I wouldn't say Rhodes is "usually delayed," though. Each station scrambles the elements based on its own needs, time differences, etc. Randi is on live in Portland, for example. In Miami, her show is chopped up and broadcast partly in the afternoon and partly the following morning (which makes her crazy).

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Thanks for opening our eyes abour Air America. I have it streaming now....... looked for Bob Edwards' time slot but don't see when he comes on.

Paula Span: No, no, Bob Edwards is NOT on Air America. Sorry if I was unclear about that.

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Kazoo, Mich: Do you know if Air America is on either of the satelite radio outlets?

BTW - very good article on RR. I am going to try and stream it as here on the west side of the state that claims the home of the Republican Party you cannot get anything but Limbaugh and Hannity

Paula Span: Yes, it's on both Sirius and XM satellite networks.

Its website, airamericaradio.com, lists all the affiliates, though sometimes it's not perfectly up to date.

There are lots of areas like yours where the only talk radio is conservative talk radio. So having newcomers like Democracy Radio and Air America does increase the number of choices people have, which is generally considered a good thing.

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Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for taking my question. I really believe that Air America will fail for two reasons:

1. The liberals already control 90 percent of the media already, so there won't be a faithful audience, like conservatives have.

2. The liberal agenda is less monolythic, begin made up of a gackle of political minorities, rather than two conservative groups: moralists and pro-business.

Thanks.

Paula Span: Your first point is one that we'll probably debate for years. See Randi's rant about liberal media, above.

And I bet conservatives would say that there are many stripes of conservatives with varying backgrounds and agendas, just as there are varieties of liberals. But you may have a point there.

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Chicago, Ill.: When is Air America going to be on a local station again in Chicago? Hopefully, sometime before the election!

Joe

Paula Span: Nothing imminent in Chicago, sorry. I keep hearing that it's under discussion.

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San Diego, Calif.: We get to hear Ed live before Randi on KLSD

Paula Span: Okay, good to know.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Franken's show is follwd by Ed Schultz here

Paula Span: I think Franken's show is the only Air America show on in Minneapolis, no? Just as Randi's is the only one on WJNO in West Palm Beach. In both cases, it's a special deal because of the hosts' roots in the area.

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liberal Washington, D.C.: I've noticed that individuals who describe themselves as "conservative" often label those who criticize the President as "liberal." This cartoonish, polarized view of the world would amuse me, were it not that this is the worldview shared by the neanderthals who form our foreign policy.

Question: Why does the media fall into this trap of labeling everything conservative or liberal? I've been politically neutral party-wise, but I think Bush is a joke as a president. Does that make me "liberal?"

Paula Span: No, it doesn't. But this is an exceedingly polarized moment, so the labels are used more than usual, and sometimes incorrectly.

Talk radio, though, IS a medium that seems to reward polarizing personalities. Few of the top hosts, from Stern to Dr. Laura, specialize in nuanced, balanced presentations.

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Herndon, Va.: I listen to AA at work, started when there was an annoying situation at work that I needed to ignore while management resolved it. Tried NPR but it was just so....nice, polite, reverent. It is really great to hear Randi take on conservatives. She respects them if she dosn't respect their views.

Sometimes Randi is SO aggressive/assertive/in your face that sometimes I have to take a break (I'm rather shy myself and was raised to believe nice girls are quiet, for all the good it's done me). But I always come back because she has the facts to back up her rants and I certainly don't believe all women should be quiet.

Great article!

Paula Span: Thanks!

I have a quiet chuckle when people tell argue that liberals already have a network and it's called NPR. Even if the political dispositions of its producers, executives and hosts were the same (and I have no idea whether they are), you can tell one from the other after listening for maybe six seconds.

NPR has that distinctive voice -- even when someone's just announcing who's underwriting a show, the voice is as you say, polite, cultured, inoffensive.

Randi Rhodes sounds utterly different. She is not from Planet Nice Girl. Some liberals think she's too bombastic. On the other hand, roughly 10 percent of Air America listeners in New York are Republicans who evidently find the shows entertaining.

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Arlington, Va.: Have Randi and Rush ever done a show together? Would they ever do a show together?

Paula Span: Never have, and I doubt they ever will, though Franken and Hannity did have a chat together from the Democratic convention and Hannity also spoke with Garofalo.

Floating around the Net, however, is a transcript of an interview Rhodes did when Oliver North was a guest on her show in Palm Beach. He walked out.

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Columbia, Md.: Any chance that Air America may be partnering to bring TV shows of any of its other shows to cable? I can imagine Sundance also showcasing Randi or Janeane and Sam, or Comedy Central showing an abbreviated version of Unfiltered or Morning Sedition, with heavy emphasis on the comedy bits. Any news on that score?

Paula Span: No, but I would bet much depends on how Franken's show does on Sundance. It's certainly a cheap way to program a cable network.

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Columbia, Md.: Actually as i think back to the 1960s most of the radio talk hosts in NYC (WOR, WINS, WMCA, and WNBC)-- the one time mecca of talk radio -- were all liberal. Bob Grant and Barry Farber were the 2 stuck-out-like-sore-thumb exceptions. That did not change until Reagan and the 1980s came along. The greatest liberal talk show host of all time? Michael Jackson out of LA. (was it KABC or KFI??)

Paula Span: A radio historian!

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Paula Span: I think we'll wrap it up now. My thanks for reading the story, still online at washingtonpost.com, and for being here to mull it all over today.

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