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."
Miller got her start on a Buffalo music station -- "being funny for 20 seconds between the songs" -- which led to a show in her blue-collar suburb of Lockport. She bounced around different markets -- a syndicated television show lasted three months in 1995 -- still hosts "I've Got a Secret" on Oxygen and is in talks with CNN about a satire show. During the Clinton years, the Los Angeles Times reported, Miller drew complaints about being mean by depicting Monica Lewinsky as a mooing cow, Linda Tripp as an elephant and calling Ken Starr a "horndog."
But only since Jones Radio Networks began distributing Miller's program last fall has she seemed to catch fire. With bits and impressions from her "voice guy" Jim Ward, Miller ridicules the administration -- from "Baghdad Bush" to John Bolton's mustache -- with undisguised glee. Miller generally has no guests, though the likes of Howard Dean and Barbara Boxer have made brief appearances.
Watching Fox with Miller makes clear where she gets her material. Hannity teases the next segment by saying Rep. Charles Rangel "compared the war in Iraq to the Holocaust -- did he really mean it?"
"They always pose questions like that: 'Is Hillary the spawn of Satan, and should she be burned at the stake?' "
Miller is amused when Hannity, listening to Rangel insist that the Bush administration "preplanned" a "preemptive strike" against Saddam Hussein, declares: "There's no such evidence that exists, and you know that." The congressman tries to offer some, which Hannity dismisses as talk about "black helicopters."
Says Miller: "He just starts talking over them or laughing or slamming his notebook up and down while people are talking. I'm continually amazed that Democrats go on there."
Why does she spend so much time deconstructing Fox hosts, to the point of constantly chiding O'Reilly for selling "no spin" mugs and jackets? When prodded, she admits she admires their skills as broadcasters.
"I'm sure they get that we're promoting their shows," Miller says. "O'Reilly is laughing all the way to the bank."
Alter vs. Ailes
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter took a satirical swipe at Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes in the magazine, writing that if Watergate happened today, the "former Nixon media adviser" would ban the word in favor of the logo "Assault on the Presidency."
Now Alter writes on HuffingtonPost.com that "Mr.-Dish-It-Out apparently can't take it. . . . I heard that his stooges were out peddling a story to the press that I was guilty of a conflict-of-interest and should have disclosed in my column that I twice unsuccessfully sought employment at Fox News and now do part-time work under contract to NBC News and MSNBC." Ailes, he says, "assumes his adversaries are patsies who will be easily cowed into silence."
Ailes says Alter asked him for a commentator's job several years ago but balked at being identified as a liberal when Ailes told him "I can't pretend you're a straight journalist." He says that he was just a 28-year-old aide in Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign with "no editorial input" and that in his nine years at Fox, "I've never deleted a word, a phrase, a story." Unlike Newsweek and the Koran incident, he adds, Fox hasn't just issued a major retraction.
Alter reminded Ailes in a letter that the column was satire, asking if he really believed "that MSNBC -- which apparently can take a joke better than Fox -- would pose as its question-of-the-day: "Firebombing Brookings: Good Idea or Not?' "
Tucker Carlson, who makes his MSNBC prime-time debut tonight, says he doesn't plan to book partisans who recite talking points.
"Because the analysis is by definition stilted," says Carlson, who felt locked into a left-right format at CNN's recently deceased "Crossfire." While he is "very conservative," he says, "I am not interested in having the show be an echo chamber for my views." On his 9 p.m. program, "The Situation," says Carlson, "there's going to be a lot of disagreement, but no nastiness at all. I don't like that. On my PBS show for a year, I never barked at a single person."
Carlson says the show, which will open with two radio yakkers, conservative Jay Severin and liberal Rachel Maddow, will offer a fast-paced series of stories with a countdown clock.
"The Washington Times yesterday inadvertently published a photograph of D.C. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb misidentified as the late soul singer Marvin Gaye." -- Wednesday's Washington Times.
Stephanie Miller, who grew up in a Republican household, now hosts a liberal radio show that's heard in 30 cities, including in Washington on WRC.