On Radio, More Laughter From the Left
Monday, June 13, 2005
NEW YORK -- Stephanie Miller is watching Fox News, as she does every night, looking for laughs.
"It's like Comedy Central for liberals," says the Los Angeles radio host. "They don't know they're funny -- they just are. It's a right-wing freak show."
Miller's presence here at a weekend radio conference sponsored by Talkers magazine -- which gave Air America's Al Franken its Freedom of Speech award -- suggests that left-wing hosts are gaining a foothold in a conservative-dominated field. Eight months after launching a show in a handful of towns such as Columbus, Ohio, and Anchorage, the former stand-up comic is on in 30 cities, including such major markets as Boston, Washington (on WRC-AM), and Los Angeles, where she manages to be funny at 6 a.m.
Air America, which was nearly grounded by financial woes after its takeoff last year, is on in 61 cities, although registering scant ratings in some of them. And radio giant Clear Channel is flipping some of its stations to liberal talk.
As recently as 2000, Miller hosted a popular show on Los Angeles' KABC but had trouble getting syndicated, and then, she says, "I was fired for being too liberal." (She also says the station didn't like the "racy content" of her show, where she sometimes referred to male callers as "love puppet" and "stud monkey.") There was, she concluded, no place for liberals in a talk radio world dominated by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Liberal radio is still a relative blip, but the turning point, says Miller, is that stations stopped putting on ex-politicians such as Mario Cuomo and turned to professional broadcasters. "The minute we think it's a political movement, we're dead," she says. "You've got to get ratings. It's about money."
Miller isn't delicate when it comes to language. She told listeners last week that the argument by Hannity and Bill O'Reilly that "we're the only ones who support the troops" is "making me projectile-vomit." She gloats that "the Republicans have their panties in a twist" over this or that issue. She challenges the veracity of some conservatives with a jingle called "Lying Sack of Crap."
Hannity, who once gave her a well-publicized hug, says he's never heard her show. "I've never seen any medium get more attention than liberal talk radio with absolutely no benefit," he says. "There's been more written about liberal talk radio than I've had in my entire career, and I began in 1987."
Much of that attention has been lavished on Air America, which says it is running ahead of projections, with an average of 222,000 people listening at any one time (compared to the roughly 4.4 million that Limbaugh averages at any one time on 600 stations). Franken, who spent part of his award acceptance speech ripping O'Reilly, says the industry is no longer laughing at liberal radio. Hannity's liberal co-host, Alan Colmes (who joked at the conference that there are some liberals at Fox -- on the janitorial staff) is now heard on 70 stations.
But even some on the left say liberal radio could use more laughs. "Everyone on the liberal side seems so serious and so grim," says Sam Greenfield, a liberal host at WWRL here. "If you listen to some of the shows on Air America, there's a sense of self-righteousness." Democracy Radio, which just sold Ed Schultz's North Dakota-based show to a former Clear Channel CEO, also funds upstarts such as Miller.
Miller's emergence as a wisecracking liberal crusader carries a touch of irony, since her father was the late Buffalo area congressman William Miller, Barry Goldwater's running mate in his landslide loss in 1964. Stephanie, who was 3 at the time, says her dad wouldn't recognize today's more conservative GOP, but sometime after voting for Ronald Reagan, she rejected the "extra-crispy bucket of Republican upbringing" served by her parents.
"George Bush could have sex with a sheep on the White House lawn and set it on fire and my mother would say, 'Oh Stephie, the president is just trying to help. Why do you hate America so much?' We try to talk about politics, but it never ends well."