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Radio Waves

Rhodes is probably to the right of evening hosts Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder, though. Garofalo is more cerebral, prone to phrases like "sociopathic Straussians," less of a mainstream Democrat.

If any Air American qualifies as "the liberal Limbaugh," in style if not clout or content, Rhodes is the likely candidate. Like Rush, she honed her craft in small markets (Odessa, Tex.; Mobile, Ala.; Milwaukee) over many years, works alone in a studio without sidekicks or cohosts, finds subtlety overrated and accordingly provokes strong reactions from fans and foes.

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

Not that she'll pay Limbaugh even a backhanded compliment. She listened to his show for years while driving to work in West Palm Beach. "He's not entertaining! He's a liar, and he's pompous," she says. "If he comes across one line he likes, he says it for a month! What's fun about that?"

But, well, listen to her recent rant about the highly critical Senate committee report on intelligence failures in Iraq. "It's shocking and it's appalling and it's disgusting and it's disgraceful, and yesterday the president is still insisting, 'I did the right thing.' This man is never wrong! So I turn on the TV today and think, How is he gonna get out of this? . . . I'm thinking, the president's in hot water. Americans will read those 500 pages over the weekend. They will! They'll be clamoring for those reports, and I'll start the show, and people will say, 'Did you read Page 437?!' So how's the president going to get out of it? Two words. Gay. Marriage. Can you BELIEVE that? Gay marriage!" Pause. "Gay marriage!" Crescendo. "GAY MARRIAGE! A constitutional amendment to ban the Constitution! What is with THAT?"

HOW MUCH DIFFERENCE CAN A LIBERAL NETWORK MAKE? You can provoke spirited debate over whether talk radio really has as much influence on political behavior as people often assume. Can it elect a candidate? Or defeat one?

In the mid-'90s, when Republicans were thanking Limbaugh for helping them win control of Congress, University of Pittsburgh political scientist David Barker began tracking 500 voters through the American National Election Studies survey, controlling for ideology and party identification as well as demographic variables.

He published his research in a book titled Rushed to Judgment. Over three years, it showed, the more people listened to Limbaugh, the more their attitudes conformed to his on subjects he frequently discussed, like the Clintons or environmentalists. On matters he rarely raised, opinions barely moved. Limbaugh could even cause his audience's viewpoints to swing along with his own: When he criticized Bob Dole in 1994, listeners were also negative; after Dole won the 1996 GOP nomination and Limbaugh became a supporter, listeners did, too. Moreover, Limbaugh listeners became more politically active.

"Over time," Barker concludes, "people were persuaded. They did become more conservative, more likely to vote Republican, more mobilized to try to go out and get involved to persuade others. And, interestingly enough, less well-informed" -- about both ideologically charged facts like welfare spending and neutral data like the length of a senator's term. Limbaugh's liberal listeners, however, grew slightly demoralized. "You start to feel like a minority," Barker explains. "Ninety percent of the callers are Dittoheads, and it's easy to believe, 'Nobody else thinks like I do.' "

Various pollsters and academics -- and the people trying to spawn liberal talk radio, of course -- agree. "My God, Rush Limbaugh talks to about a quarter of everybody who votes Republican, every week," says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network. The power of talk radio is "something we've discounted as a party."

Others, more skeptical, believe conservative talk radio effectively preaches to the choir. "I don't think it converts people," says Georgetown political scientist Diana Owen, who's done considerable research on the subject. "It has a reinforcing effect." Barker's sample size shrank over time, Owen points out, making generalizations difficult, and some attitudinal shifts seem to be "a strengthening of opinion as opposed to a change."

National data don't even clearly establish whether talk radio leads listeners to vote, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Talk radio fans are already more likely to vote than other folks.

In any case, it's hard to find a dispassionate observer who thinks Air America can wield much influence on this particular election. It doesn't yet reach enough people, and most of its affiliates are in already Democratic cities or states. Rhodes herself talks in terms of modest political gains for now. "Maybe I can talk a few people into running for election supervisor," she muses. "Maybe we can make an impact on participation, on smaller offices, on registration drives. Maybe we can get the party to stop being so afraid."

In fact, the talk host who may actually create Democratic voters this year, media-watchers say, isn't anyone on Air America -- it's Howard Stern, who's become a Bush-basher in the wake of the FCC's actions against him. A sizable chunk of his 8 million-plus weekly listeners are swing voters, therefore persuadable, a poll conducted for the New Democratic Network recently reported. "If his listeners go out and talk to their friends," Barker says, "you can imagine a scenario where Bush loses a lot of votes he would otherwise get."

But even those who doubt talk radio's power to convert agree that it has significant political impact. It helps create a focus on certain issues, shifts the prevailing atmosphere, influences the tone and terms of the debate. It creates party loyalists, who could prove critical in off-year elections when small changes in turnout matter.

Perhaps the most verbal of mass media, it affects the very language Americans use to discuss public affairs. "If you can change the intellectual climate so that anyone who favors legal abortion in the third trimester is a 'partial-birth abortionist,' that's power," notes Jamieson. "Let me control the language, and I'll control the outcome of legislation."

Political talk radio seems to function most effectively, moreover, when its audience is out of power and aggrieved about it, when there's a convenient target to attack. Those are the conditions that Limbaugh rode to glory, and they currently exist for liberals and Democrats, a good omen for Air America -- if it can stay on the air.

LATELY THERE HAVE BEEN A NUMBER OF GOOD OMENS. Take the bouquet of red roses in Rhodes's apartment, sent by Sinton with a card: Great ratings! We love you!

Air America got its first "book" -- the three-month Arbitron ratings -- in late July and exulted. In New York, its flagship WLIB generally trailed the leading talk station WABC in the 25-54 demographic but beat out rival WOR. Rhodes's afternoon show outdrew conservative stalwarts Bill O'Reilly, Bob Grant and Michael Savage, though not WABC's Sean Hannity. It was a strong debut.

Moreover, Air America got even higher numbers among 18-to-34-year-olds. "Amazing stat," marvels Rhodes, who did top Hannity in that group. "Nobody on AM gets 18-to-34-year-olds."

The Media Audit, a ratings company, surveyed New York listeners for Air America and found an affluent, ethnically diverse young audience, more female than is typical for talk, that gardens, works out at health clubs, disdains SUVs, attends concerts -- and votes. (Almost 11 percent self-identified as Republican, nearly 19 percent as independent.) "Most stations would kill for this kind of launch," said Media Audit executive Mike Bustell.

Consequently, commercials for blue-chip advertisers like Ford, Home Depot, Charles Schwab and American Express were increasingly joining the ads promising to help listeners lose weight, improve vocabularies and grow hair.

The ratings in Portland, so far the only other city with ratings, were even more dramatic: Air America affiliate KPOJ had suddenly jumped to the highest-rated commercial talk station in town from 8 in the morning to 10 at night among 25-to-54-year-olds. In her time slot, Rhodes's show was tied for first among all commercial stations -- AM and FM, talk and music.

That helped Air America add several outlets, including stations in Miami and San Diego, its first new incursions into the top 20 markets. By late last month it had 23 affiliates, with Atlanta and Madison, Wis., supposedly next.

"We have money in the bank," Sinton reported just before the Republican National Convention arrived. Though there wasn't yet as much in the bank as the network needed, he felt able, for the first time in a long while, to say, "We're solvent. We're not going anywhere. It's a business."

Even some pessimists were coming around. "To have competitive numbers in New York after one ratings book is very difficult to do, and they're doing it," said Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. Though it was too soon to declare victory, he cautioned, "they're acting like a professional operation instead of a political party."

For Rhodes, there have been bright spots and blows. She broke a toe and hobbled to work for two weeks. She interviewed Bill Clinton ("I was floating"), though it bugged her that Franken had landed him a week earlier. She had a swell time broadcasting from the Democratic National Convention, meeting her "C-SPAN heroes." She lost 15 pounds on Atkins. Simon, however, was still pooping in the dining room.

Whatever happens to the liberal network, radio biz people predict, Rhodes is likely to prosper. In the industry, Air America has done her only good: If it connects nationwide, she's a star. Should it fizzle, no one will blame her, and everyone will know who she is.

Even now, she's less the Mystery Host than she was a few months back. As hordes of Republicans were about to descend on New York, Air America was preparing to greet them with a Randi Rhodes billboard in the Crossroads of the World, Times Square.

Rhodes was allowing herself a bit of excitement. As a kid, going to see the Christmas spectacular or "The Sound of Music" at Radio City Music Hall with her mother and sister, "I had this little ritual, a superstition almost: If I could touch the brass door, then I would be on Broadway one day." A bit older, allowed to ride the subway into Times Square on her own for New Year's Eve, she remembers gazing up at the enormous images, wondering, "God, what does it take to get up there? Who do you have to be?"

Her billboard is of modest size, as these things go, and fairly low-key. No flashing neon or digital display; no video screen. But it is, indisputably, on Broadway. Under a stylized black-and-white portrait of Rhodes, looking mischievous, there's the Air America logo and a line that's half-invitation, half-command: We Need to Talk.

Paula Span (spanp@comcast.net) is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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