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Radio Waves

Talk-show host Randi Rhodes joined a new liberal network hoping to advance her career while shaking up this election season. But things haven't worked out exactly as planned

By Paula Span
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page W11

Randi Rhodes always gets stage fright before she goes on the air, even after 20-odd years in radio, but this is not her usual pre-show panic; this is different. This, she says, lighting her umpteenth Parliament Light, is "the tensest day of my entire adult life." She managed to sleep, for the first time in several nights, only because "somebody took pity on me and gave me an Ambien."

It's March 31, and Air America, the liberal talk-radio network, is taking to the airwaves for the first time. In a few minutes Rhodes, still padding around her new Park Avenue apartment in bare feet, unwashed hair and sweats, should head for the studio to prepare for her show, which will occupy the crucial afternoon drive-time slot. But instead of feeling triumphant about this high-profile new gig, she's got the shakes. "I'm starting to feel sick to my stomach," she mutters.

Randi Rhodes at work in her apartment during the crazed early weeks. (Kyoko Hamada)

There's plenty to be nervous about. Number one, her career: She's uprooted herself, at 45, from her home and her kid in Florida, from the successful daily broadcast that kicked Rush Limbaugh's rear in the local ratings, to come to New York and finally reach a national audience. Will it be there?

In the blitz of publicity that has accompanied Air America's launch, few people seem to have noticed that along with celebs like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, there's this host named Randi Rhodes, the only one in the lineup who actually comes from commercial radio. The pile of press clippings she's been reading -- USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times -- barely mention her name. "I'm the mystery woman," she mutters. "I should wear a burqa to work."

At stake, too, is this fledgling network. For months, industry pros and airwave rivals have been listing the many reasons it won't work. Rhodes doesn't believe that -- "it can't miss, it just can't" -- but the rush to get on the air has produced chaos. Her studio, when she arrived to inspect it, was inadequate in half a dozen ways -- no high-speed Internet hookup for research, no TV, no phone. No phone for a talk-show host! Her producer has rigged up a computer keyboard so she can take calls. Control H to hold, Control D to hang up, F1 to -- "Oh, it's crazy."

A couple of weeks earlier, before the dimensions of the turmoil were clear and true terror set in, Rhodes had confidently explained that in radio as in the Republic, "the pendulum swung all the way to the right, all through the '80s, and it's been like that for 20 years. Now it's swinging back the other way, and it's our turn." There's a "Re-defeat Bush" poster in the control room.

But today, it's all she can do, after showering and pulling on jeans and a T-shirt, to propel herself out the door. "Okay, you can do this," she tells herself in the living room mirror. "You can. You do this every day." She admonishes her little terrier not to bark and heads for the elevator. "Here goes."

At the network's temporary headquarters in midtown, swarms of camera crews, photographers and reporters clog the halls, most thronged around Franken. So many Internet users want to listen via streaming audio that the servers keep crashing. In the studio -- "what the hell is this?" -- Rhodes discovers she can hear out of only one side of her headphones.

But once on the air, the seasoned pro takes over, and Rhodes sounds quite at ease trashing the president and his administration and declaring that the Bush dynasty is much like the Corleones of "The Godfather," with George W. as Fredo. Equipment malfunctions, callers vanish, blunders abound, and she doesn't lose her cool.

Until it's time to talk to Ralph Nader.

She's been waiting to give him a piece of her mind for four years, ever since Florida's electoral mayhem, ever since his 97,488 votes helped swing her state to Bush. Now here's Nader on her makeshift phone.

This year, "we can't afford you," she keeps telling him at increasing decibel levels, until Nader realizes that (a) his argument for his candidacy isn't flying and (b) just because he's on the liberal network doesn't mean he's going to get treated gently.

"You've got a very bad interviewing technique," he finally sputters, "and you're not going to get an audience -- "

"I am not interviewing you," Rhodes interrupts with a cackle.

"Do not overtalk," Nader says. "The -- the -- "

"I am not interviewing you! I am mad at you! Don't you understand the difference?" She's yelling now. "You screwed up the last election, and now you want to screw up this one, and I'm pissed!"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself because -- "

"But I'm not! YOU should be ashamed of yourself!"

They go on like this for several minutes -- as somebody dashes in to announce that the phones are lit up with callers demanding, "Who is she? What is she? I love her! I hate her!" -- until Nader announces that he won't deal with someone who doesn't let him talk. Click.

The rest of the show sprints by -- most talk hosts broadcast three hours a day, but Rhodes does four -- and finally she reels out into the hallway where a small cluster of staffers applauds and whoops. "Ladies and gentlemen, Randi Rhodes!" someone proclaims; Air America chairman Evan Cohen hands around paper cups of champagne. After a day of nothing but cigarettes, coffee and nerves, the alcohol goes straight to her head. She heads woozily home.

In retrospect, Day One will seem the easy part.

ONCE, PLENTY OF LIBERALS AND CENTRISTS HAD LOCAL RADIO TALK SHOWS. Then, out of the West came Rush Limbaugh. Within a few years of his 1988 syndication, the number of news/talk stations tripled; he grew so dominant so quickly that industry types often credit him with saving AM radio.

But you can also blame him for spawning hundreds of imitators, major and minor. Now, though some liberals or moderates maintain local followings and black "urban" talk shows flourish, nationally syndicated political talk is virtually wall-to-wall conservative. Limbaugh still leads the pack, with an estimated 14.5 million listeners a week on more than 600 stations. Sean Hannity has come up fast with 12 million on 400-plus stations, followed by Laura Schlessinger and Michael Savage and, farther down the list, Bill O'Reilly. G. Gordon Liddy has a talk show. So does Oliver North.

Talk radio's audience, not surprisingly, is now more conservative than the country as a whole. It draws educated, affluent listeners who are largely white (88 percent) and male (63 percent), according to a Mediamark survey last year, and 54 percent more likely than the general population to call themselves "very conservative."

But nonconservatives also tune in to right-of-center hosts, because they find their shows amusing, or because they enjoy arguing with their radios. Or because, as they sit in traffic on the Beltway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or the Santa Monica Freeway, there's little else on the dial. That has agitated Democrats for more than a decade, and a few years ago, discussions began of an alternate radio universe. There should be liberal talk shows, too, one group urged, and it began raising money to produce them. There should be a whole liberal network, another bunch decided.

So out of the East came Air America, its mission both unconventional and dauntingly ambitious. Instead of starting with a single show carried by a few stations -- the traditional radio syndication route -- Air America intended to buy big-city stations. On the day it launched, it could already reach more than 15 percent of the national audience. Finding affordable properties for sale was proving difficult, so it was leasing entire broadcast days on stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and had affiliates in Portland, Ore., and a few smaller places.

This allowed for formatic purity. Listeners don't want to hear Mozart on a rock station, or Garofalo's show sandwiched between Limbaugh's and Hannity's, management believed, so most of its stations would carry Air America 24/7. "Control the real estate," president Jon Sinton likes to say.

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