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Radio Waves

Plus, Rhodes says, she's gained 20 pounds.

And did she mention that New York's antismoking laws mean no Parliament Lights in the studio?

So it's a bit of a lift, as she's walking Simon on a new route this April afternoon, to come upon an unfenced strip of packed earth and scraggly ivy, alongside a nearby apartment building. A place where Simon can dump! "I'm excited!" Rhodes trills -- and then hears herself. "Is this pathetic? I came here to start a national radio network, and the thing that makes my day is finding a patch of dirt where my dog can [expletive]?"

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

She's short and blond and serious-looking, with a Canarsie accent she can dial up or down, depending on the entertainment value. She tends toward the wonky, poring over half a dozen newspapers and various Web sites each day in tortoise-shell reading glasses, watching so much C-SPAN she can ID obscure Midwestern senators at 40 paces. She's prone to complaining on-air about her weight and her breasts (a holdover from an earlier, shock-jock phase, maybe) and greets the weekend each Friday with a bawdy 1950s-era ditty, "Bounce Your Boobies."

And she's feeling discouraged. "If it's like this in June or July, buh-bye," she says.

A couple of hours later, she begins her show with a rueful account of finding a place for Simon to poop, plus other indignities of New York life. But she can't stay away from politics for long, and segues into a rant about a leaked Coalition Provisional Authority memo reporting that upper-class Iraqis are buying guns.

"And you'll never guess who's selling their weapons . . . The Iraqi police! They're running around selling their American-supplied weapons to ordinary Iraqis on the black market. AND! Then they show up and they say" -- she boohoos into the mike -- " 'I lost my gun!' And we resupply them! Hellooo? Hellooo? This isn't a good plan, I don't think . . . The people there are preparing for a civil war. I think they've gone so far as to already start civil war reenactment societies, and PBS is gonna do specials about 'em! I just can't believe it . . ."

The memo, she notes, goes on to blame nepotism and cronyism in Iraq's governing council. "Nepotism? Cronyism?" It's a slow pitch up the middle. "Listen, if our president was never the recipient of cronyism and nepotism, he'd be an assistant manager at the Kennebunkport Denny's right now!"

HER SHOW IS LIKE THIS, a throaty solo blending sarcastic humor with clamorous anger. She chortles, she yells, she interrupts; she tells stories about her underpopulated social life and her plastic surgery. She takes phone calls from listeners ready to kiss her pedicured toes but relishes even more the chance to convert someone. She reads whole paragraphs aloud from articles she thinks her audience should hear. And every 20 to 30 minutes she launches into a spiraling tirade of fury about something that President Bush and his minions have done or haven't, invariably characterizing the latest outrage as "the sickest, most twisted thing I've ever heard." Not a lot of guests, not a lot of packaged comedy bits -- it's basically All Randi All the Time.

In talk radio, the prime sin is to be wishy-washy. Liberals don't do well at it, the rap usually goes, because they're too nuanced, too analytic, the people whose parents insisted they play nice. "Conservatives on radio have fairly simple prescriptions: Lower taxes. Less government," observes Tom Taylor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "You can listen to talk radio around the country and hear those mantras. The liberal approach tends to have a lot of buts and whereases -- that's certainly been the conventional wisdom."

Rhodes, however, sometimes sports a button: "NPR Is Nice, I'm Not." Figuring out where she stands -- on anything -- is not a problem.

She prides herself on her research. "If I say it's a fact, it's a fact -- but go check it out anyway. I always tell people, Don't believe anything you hear on talk radio, not even me." Though you can occasionally catch her in an offhanded error (like saying that Martha Stewart was in jail when she'd yet to be sentenced, or calling Rupert Murdoch, a U.S. citizen since 1985, "a foreigner"), what's more likely to rile people are her darkly conspiratorial interpretations.

Take her contention that Republicans launched the war in Iraq so that they and their defense-contractor buddies could loot the U.S. Treasury. "War is a racket; it's always been a racket," she told CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, a guest on her show.

Bergen objected. The administration "had a theological certainty that what they were doing was right," he argued. "There's no proof of any kind of conspiracy."

"If you let me talk to you privately for about three hours," Rhodes returns, "I could fix this." In the Rhodes-ian worldview, Republicans aren't simply wrong; they're lying, manipulative profiteers.

Critics have been blowing both kisses and darts. "An ecstatically cathartic guilty pleasure for liberals dying for permission to be furious," says New York magazine. But other reviews have disparaged her voice (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "shrill, screeching") or her manner (Time: "hectoring, cocksure"); even some liberals dislike her profane, combative style.

Her listeners love her, though. They sit on hold forever, hoping to talk to her; they volunteer to update her Web site (www.therandirhodesshow.com); they send six-packs of her favorite brew, Michelob Amber Bock, after she complains that she can't find it in New York. When Barry Crimmins, now the writer for her show, began staging a weekly "Satire for Sanity" night at a Lexington Avenue bar, Rhodes plugged the event and showed up for its debut. She'd only been on the air a few weeks at that point, but the place was packed with listeners who wanted to meet her and staffers looking to forget their troubles.

"You're totally great!" a fan gushes.

"Randi Rhodes! I just want to thank you for being on the air!"

She thanks and hugs everyone, and accepts a CD called "Hail to the Thief" from a white-haired Long Island retiree. And after the show, smoking outside on the sidewalk, she commiserates with a couple of women complaining about their breasts.

What they didn't see was Rhodes psyching herself up beforehand, leaving her apartment intoning, "I'm going to have fun. I'm going to have fun." Like a lot of mouthy media types, Rhodes is amped and assured behind a mike but quiet and a little shy off the air. She doesn't like the way she looks; she's uncomfortable with cocktail-party chatter. She feels her lack of "a pedigree," very conscious of the fact that she's a community college dropout while Franken is a Harvard grad.

Tight with the small staff directly involved with her show, she doesn't rub elbows much with the other Air America hosts. She's getting to know Garofalo, remains intimidated by Franken and hardly ever crosses paths with the morning personalities.

It can get lonely at times. But if her background saga left her with self-esteem issues, it's also given her an ability to suck it up and stick it out.

She retains the contractual option to return to her West Palm Beach station, and sometimes she fantasizes about doing just that. "I almost quit yesterday," she confided one spring day. "After I got off work, I wanted to go straight to JFK. I had a nice life. I had a big house, I had a great kid, I had three dogs. I had a nice yard, I had a pool, I had a hot tub. I had a good job where I was respected and beloved."

What kept her from the airport, aside from the conviction that "I said I'd do this, I'm gonna do it," was picturing how Rush and Sean and the Fox News gang would crow if the much-hyped liberal network went under. "If we fail, it will empower and embolden conservative talk, right before the election," she worried. "They will have a field day." She couldn't stand the thought, so she's still here.

AIR AMERICA? "I hear about them from time to time," a leading radio consultant to Republican campaigns bantered in early summer.

What did he hear? "Oh, Mondays, it's usually about financial trouble. Tuesdays, it's usually about fraud and employees going without health insurance. Thursdays, it's about top executives leaving. And every now and then they get a new affiliate."

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