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Radio Waves

The number of affiliates stood at 16 by that point -- Key West; Anchorage; Honolulu; San Luis Obispo; Portland, Maine . . . "Isn't that nice?" the consultant chirped. He did not sound concerned.

It was easy, at first, to blame various snafus on the craziness of a new network. Even when Rhodes, paying bills online in late April, noticed that her direct-deposit paycheck had bounced, there seemed a logical explanation, something about which account had been used. Just a glitch, she was told. She received a check and overnighted it to Florida for deposit. In a few days, that bounced, too.

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

When the next bimonthly payday arrived, the staff learned that this was no glitch: Air America couldn't meet its payroll. There had never been $20 million or $30 million in Air America's bank account, it turned out. There was $6 million, and, after just five weeks on the air, it was nearly gone.

At a meeting the next day, the board asked for and received the resignations of chairman Cohen and vice chairman Sorensen, the network says. Walsh explains that he'd resigned weeks earlier "because of what turned out to be deep mismanagement and, I'd suggest, deception by our former chairman and vice chairman." Air America staff and executives were "misled," says network president Sinton, by then one of the few original executives left.

"Everyone was so enthralled with the concept," says board member Norman Wain, that "some very savvy investors just let their guard down."

Via e-mail, Cohen tells a different story: "Accusations of overstated financial commitments were groundless!!!!" All the particulars had been "clearly spelled out," he says, and a $36 million credit line was about to be finalized. When disagreements about company operations grew "extremely contentious," he and Sorensen left, "a choice we made -- not one forced on us." Sorensen, in a separate e-mail, adds that those alleging mismanagement were engaged "in a scheme contrived to mask their true intent of obtaining control of the company."

It was, in any case, cold-sweats time. "Half the stuff you heard was true and half of it wasn't. There was a good week or two where we didn't know if we'd get up tomorrow and there'd be no Air America," a producer recalls. "A couple of people decided they'd better jump ship while they could." But most hung on loyally, waiting to see what would happen.

What happened, to a nearly audible whoosh of relief, was that the Chicago venture capitalists who'd initiated the Air America concept reentered the picture. With Anita Drobny as chairman, the remaining investors formed a new partnership and scrabbled for additional funding. People got paid; the threat of imminent collapse seemed to recede.

There was even a sliver of good news: Early Arbitron extrapolations, though too preliminary to be reliable, suggested that, in its first month, Air America was attracting encouraging audiences. The public service announcements that had blanketed early broadcasts began to give way to paid advertising.

Rhodes remained uneasy, though. "I don't know if there are investors out there," she hedged. "I don't know if we're out of the woods." She wasn't the only one wondering.

Even before Air America's wobbly liftoff, people in media and in politics debated a core question: Can liberal talk radio succeed?

Some naysayers dismissed the whole notion. They figured Air America existed "just to get Bush out of office and it'll last till November, a short-term thing," reports New York radio consultant Valerie Geller.

But in theory, given that half the country, or at least half the electorate, isn't Republican, there's no reason liberals can't find a home on the dial. If Air America introduces "powerful entertainers who are fun to hang out with, who are passionate and interesting and serve a need, it won't matter if they are liberal or conservative or anarchist," Geller believes. The approach can't be strident or lecturish -- "nobody wants to feel like they're in school" -- but if it's engaging and connects with listeners, why not?

In practice, however, Air America's approach left industry people skeptical. The idea of buying stations, for instance, was probably never realistic; they simply cost too much. Even leasing was drainingly expensive.

"It isn't ambitious, it's stupid. It can't work," Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, railed in June. The network got "the most media any start-up has gotten since I've been following the industry, which is 37 years, and they squandered all that attention on a business model that was rotten at its core."

Rather than try to market a full day's programming, Harrison argued, Air America should have developed one or two shows and promoted them until they caught on. Otherwise, how many station managers would risk their entire broadcast day on an unproven entity? Especially when Franken, the network's star, had signed a one-year contract and might not even be part of the package for long?

Meanwhile, the media glare proved a decidedly mixed blessing. It drew lots of curious listeners, but "you wish you had the opportunity to open in New Haven before you hit Broadway," Sinton moaned. Every misstep brought embarrassing headlines. The Wall Street Journal laid out the whole sorry financial mess on its front page.

While everyone focused on Air America, another group promoting liberal radio was quietly following standard industry practice. Democracy Radio, a D.C.-based nonprofit organized "to end the political imbalance on the airwaves," uses donors' money to produce individual talk shows, which it offers to local stations through a syndicator. Its first effort, starring Midwestern populist Ed Schultz, launched on two stations in January. It now airs on 40, including stations in Detroit, Denver and Phoenix. Schultz's ratings, boasts Democracy Radio executive director Tom Athans, have been "outstanding."

As it happened, Air America was beginning to change its own course. It had often shrugged off industry criticism by invoking innovation: It's not your father's talk radio, so why should it fit the standard mold? But as summer wound on, it was meeting with affiliate groups to try to place its programming on scores of additional stations (which might result in a Washington outlet), seeking a syndicator to sell ads and generally behaving more like other radio entities. To reduce costs, it laid off 30 people. And the financial crunch meant no more talk of better facilities.

"What we'd all like for Christmas is new studios and offices," Sinton said in June. He was sitting in a narrow alcove near the photocopier; wires cascaded from the ceiling and plaster dust made it unwise to put anything on the floor, though a single sock had found its way there, anyway. "For the moment," Sinton continued, eyeing the sock, "we have other pressing needs and we're making do."

With new financing -- no one would say how much -- the network appeared to be functioning with relative stability. It hadn't converted its doubters, however. "They have to go from raising money to earning money," Harrison pointed out. "It'll be a difficult challenge for them to stay in business for long under present conditions."

In the interim, though, you could also detect a certain grudging respect. However flawed its planning or bumpy its takeoff, Air America was still around. "They keep doing it," said Inside Radio's Tom Taylor. "Like a sports team that blew a lot of games, and the fans are down on 'em, and the press is down on 'em, but they still put their helmets on and play."

"OH, GOD," RHODES MURMURS as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" opens with scenes from the 2000 election in Florida. She remembers it too well. A few minutes later, footage from President Bush's inauguration shows someone flinging an egg at his limo. "That was a listener of mine that did that," she whispers.

Her audience has been waiting for the movie to open, so she's dashed off to see a matinee. Al Franken went to the premiere a couple of weeks earlier; even Martha Stewart went to the premiere. Rhodes wasn't invited -- she's still the Mystery Host -- so she's at a neighborhood plex with a tray of nachos on her lap. (She's on the Atkins diet, which permits the orange goo but forbids the chips.) Politically, Rhodes and Moore have a fair amount in common; they're both entertaining pamphleteers with a taste for paranoiac interpretations, who mix obstreperous anger at the powerful with tenderness toward underdogs. Providing her own muttered soundtrack, Rhodes reacts to images of John Ashcroft warbling ("He's evil, I'm telling you") and Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb ("Ewww") and the president wearing his flight suit ("Bastard!"). But the understated footage of onlookers' responses on September 11 and the interviews with a Michigan mother whose son died in Iraq leave her weepy.

In the tradition of reclaiming a discredited label, embracing the brush you're tarred with, any Air America host will answer to "liberal." But they're not all alike.

Rhodes is more choleric than the affable Franken, for instance. He makes a public point of having conservative friends, who sometimes appear on his show. When Rhodes looked into Franken's studio one afternoon and saw his pal G. Gordon Liddy sitting there, she actually felt nauseated. You will not hear Franken's gentle Grateful Dead tunes as musical "bumpers" on her show; Rhodes's theme, called "Pain," is a grinding metallic riff by a band called Stereomud. "That's what it sounds like in my head, 90 percent of the time," she says.

She learned liberalism from her childhood dinner table, where her father, a World War II veteran and FDR admirer, watched TV coverage of body bags returning from Vietnam. He thought Nixon was "a paranoid schizophrenic, a sick man," she remembers. She voted for Reagan in 1980 -- "I was young and stupid and sick of the gas lines" -- but he was the last Republican for whom she pulled a lever or punched a chad.

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