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Radio Waves

He and his team further raised industry eyebrows by hiring hyphenated hosts: author-comics, comedian-actors, writer-performers. Air America was going to offer a different kind of talk -- hipper, younger, funnier. TV comedy incubators like "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" were well represented, but Rhodes was virtually the only host with a track record in commercial radio.

Even if all these gambles succeeded, it would likely take two years or more of impressive Arbitron ratings before Air America turned a profit. But that was okay, because in the meantime it apparently had plenty of cash. "I was told, and so were a lot of other people, that there were 14 months' worth in the bank if we didn't sell a single client a single ad," says a one-time executive who is leery of criticizing a former employer without anonymity.

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

The Chicago venture capitalists who first undertook to build a liberal network, Anita and Sheldon Drobny, had sold their interest to businessmen Evan Cohen and Rex Sorensen. They, in turn, recruited former AOL executive Mark Walsh as CEO, the network's public face. Walsh assured reporters, as a just-hired staff scrambled to get up and running, that Air America already had about $20 million in operating capital and was on its way to more than $30 million.

It was, from the start, a hybrid enterprise, part political crusade ("George Bush is going down!" Franken ringingly announced to the staff at a pre-launch breakfast), part plunge into a lucrative industry. "Probably two-thirds of the dollars came from investors who wanted to help the cause and had crossed fingers that this also proved a viable, sustainable, profitable business," Walsh estimates. "One-third were investors who saw this as a viable, sustainable, profitable business and had crossed fingers that it would be politically effective."

Because of the political motive, Air America had to be broadcasting nationwide before the election, a tight deadline that exacerbated the tumult involved in any start-up.

Because of the plan to make money, preferably pots of it, the fledgling network went after ratings champ Randi Rhodes, one of the few prominent women in talk radio. "Randi has that indefinable sort of presence on the radio," Sinton says. "It's like a hit record -- you know it the first time you hear it."

MAYBE THAT PRESENCE REFLECTS A LIFE that's incorporated enough hard knocks to qualify as a country-and-western lyric, starting with, Mah Daddy left us.

Rhodes and her sister grew up in a Brooklyn rowhouse. As the family did a little better (her father was a mechanical engineer; her mother worked in a Flatbush Avenue dress shop), they moved from Brooklyn to Douglaston, Queens. But her parents fought and yelled and split when Randi was 15, and she blames the divorce for an adolescent tailspin. "I was lost," she says. "I think I went to Queensborough [Community] College for one day; I thought it was high school with ashtrays."

Next verse: Rhodes, who'd learned about pistons and carburetors from her boyfriend, enlisted in the Air Force in 1977 and excelled as a mechanic.

"One of the best things I ever did," she says. "They gave me discipline. They taught me how to work with a team. And, believe me, they teach liberalism, because they say that the weakest guy in your unit can get you killed . . . So it's your job as a strong leader to reach down to those who have a tough time." When she moved to New York this spring, the one-time sergeant somehow forgot to pack underwear or socks, but remembered to bring the plaque the 732nd Military Airlift Squadron had awarded her for "your tremendous success in meeting the challenges of the new and ever-changing role of women in today's Air Force."

After that came: Two years in the Reserves; an abusive relationship she fled; a weekend shift, playing requests and announcing swap meets, at a tiny radio station in Seminole, Tex.

Eight months of driving a beer truck to pay the medical bills after an ectopic pregnancy.

A cocaine habit picked up as an '80s rock jock in New York, where she also acquired the nom de radio Rhodes. Then rehab. (Last drug use: February 14, 1986.)

Her sister Ellen's death from breast cancer at age 44. Grief and rage.

Parenthood -- she raised Ellen's child, then 11, which is why she refers to Jessica as "my kid," not "my daughter," and Jessica calls Rhodes her "parental unit."

Marriage to her longtime boyfriend, followed by a divorce so nasty that she now says she opposes heterosexual marriage.

Partway through this saga, Rhodes left rock-and-roll behind and landed at a Miami talk station. Her show wasn't particularly political, though, until she moved to WJNO in West Palm Beach in 1994. With O.J. Simpson on trial, Republicans pushing toward a congressional majority and President Bill Clinton under attack, her broadcast veered into left-of-center politics and stayed there. "It caused management some consternation," says John Hunt, her WJNO boss. "But they were certainly okay with it after they saw the ratings."

The Arbitrons were good and got better. By 1998, Rhodes was regularly beating Limbaugh, who aired opposite her on another station, in the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic. After Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that owned both stations, merged them so that Rhodes followed Limbaugh, she beat him some more. "The Randi Rhodes Show" was West Palm's No. 1 talk show.

When Air America went shopping for talent, Rhodes was already trying to self-syndicate. "Last year became this turning point," she says. On the personal front, her divorce was final and her kid was about to leave for college. And politically, "every time I'd make an argument and I'd be right, people who were smart would call up and say, What are you gonna do about it?" She wanted her show to grow beyond South Florida.

It proved slow going, partly because liberals were out of fashion in radio, but also because persuading stations to take on any new show is tough. Then, at a talk radio gathering in Washington last year, an executive from the planned liberal network took Rhodes to dinner and promised a rose garden.

"You know what I was told? State-of-the-art studios! A team of writers! Bookers dedicated to the shows, publicity and PR people, resources like you've never seen in talk radio!" She hesitated; it seemed such a big move. "I said, Why don't I just stay in West Palm and you'll syndicate the show? Who cares where I'm sitting? They said, No no no, you've got to come to New York."

So here she is, the prodigal Brooklynite returning. And where's that rose garden?

"I AM BEYOND BUMMED," Rhodes grumbles after three hectic weeks. She's about to take her terrier, Simon, out for a walk before work. Simon is a good-natured soul, but he's from Florida, where dogs can eliminate on natural surfaces. Now he's confused by the fact that all of Manhattan seems either paved or fenced, so he's been pooping discreetly beneath Rhodes' dining room table. Maybe he's bummed, too.

State-of-the-art studios? Air America's temporary facilities are threadbare, with lousy air-conditioning and irascible equipment. "It's like a halfway decent college radio station," a frustrated tech muttered the first day. The tiny office housing "The Randi Rhodes Show," several floors away from the other shows', has four desks crammed into a windowless space. A promised move is apparently months away; meanwhile, her producer has bought a studio phone and printer out of his own pocket.

Writers? The one assigned to her show got fired early on over "creative differences." Publicity? Big banners in Grand Central Station promote Franken and Garofalo; Rhodes continues to be, she half-jokes, "the Unknown Host." Though she has complained, she understands that all this comes with the distracting frenzy of a start-up. Besides, the guy who recruited her at that D.C. dinner just got fired, and CEO Mark Walsh has resigned.

And all that pales next to the fact that Air America has gotten yanked off two of its major stations in a contract dispute with their owner. In Chicago, a panicky board operator called early one morning: "They've come in and taken over the station and locked the doors! They're broadcasting in Spanish!" In Los Angeles, the same putsch. Air America executives vow they'll find substitute L.A. and Chicago stations, but can't say when.

So instead of reaching a national audience, Rhodes is now heard on WLIB, the New York flagship, and KPOJ in Portland; on two satellite networks and on the Internet; and in a few smaller markets like Riverside, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. Meanwhile, press coverage of the crippling contretemps not only has made the new network look amateurish, but also has spooked potential advertisers.

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