Randi Rhodes always gets stage fright before she goes on the air, even after 20-odd years in radio, but this is not her usual pre-show panic; this is different. This, she says, lighting her umpteenth Parliament Light, is "the tensest day of my entire adult life." She managed to sleep, for the first time in several nights, only because "somebody took pity on me and gave me an Ambien."

It's March 31, and Air America, the liberal talk-radio network, is taking to the airwaves for the first time. In a few minutes Rhodes, still padding around her new Park Avenue apartment in bare feet, unwashed hair and sweats, should head for the studio to prepare for her show, which will occupy the crucial afternoon drive-time slot. But instead of feeling triumphant about this high-profile new gig, she's got the shakes. "I'm starting to feel sick to my stomach," she mutters.

There's plenty to be nervous about. Number one, her career: She's uprooted herself, at 45, from her home and her kid in Florida, from the successful daily broadcast that kicked Rush Limbaugh's rear in the local ratings, to come to New York and finally reach a national audience. Will it be there?

In the blitz of publicity that has accompanied Air America's launch, few people seem to have noticed that along with celebs like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, there's this host named Randi Rhodes, the only one in the lineup who actually comes from commercial radio. The pile of press clippings she's been reading -- USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times -- barely mention her name. "I'm the mystery woman," she mutters. "I should wear a burqa to work."

At stake, too, is this fledgling network. For months, industry pros and airwave rivals have been listing the many reasons it won't work. Rhodes doesn't believe that -- "it can't miss, it just can't" -- but the rush to get on the air has produced chaos. Her studio, when she arrived to inspect it, was inadequate in half a dozen ways -- no high-speed Internet hookup for research, no TV, no phone. No phone for a talk-show host! Her producer has rigged up a computer keyboard so she can take calls. Control H to hold, Control D to hang up, F1 to -- "Oh, it's crazy."

A couple of weeks earlier, before the dimensions of the turmoil were clear and true terror set in, Rhodes had confidently explained that in radio as in the Republic, "the pendulum swung all the way to the right, all through the '80s, and it's been like that for 20 years. Now it's swinging back the other way, and it's our turn." There's a "Re-defeat Bush" poster in the control room.

But today, it's all she can do, after showering and pulling on jeans and a T-shirt, to propel herself out the door. "Okay, you can do this," she tells herself in the living room mirror. "You can. You do this every day." She admonishes her little terrier not to bark and heads for the elevator. "Here goes."

At the network's temporary headquarters in midtown, swarms of camera crews, photographers and reporters clog the halls, most thronged around Franken. So many Internet users want to listen via streaming audio that the servers keep crashing. In the studio -- "what the hell is this?" -- Rhodes discovers she can hear out of only one side of her headphones.

But once on the air, the seasoned pro takes over, and Rhodes sounds quite at ease trashing the president and his administration and declaring that the Bush dynasty is much like the Corleones of "The Godfather," with George W. as Fredo. Equipment malfunctions, callers vanish, blunders abound, and she doesn't lose her cool.

Until it's time to talk to Ralph Nader.

She's been waiting to give him a piece of her mind for four years, ever since Florida's electoral mayhem, ever since his 97,488 votes helped swing her state to Bush. Now here's Nader on her makeshift phone.

This year, "we can't afford you," she keeps telling him at increasing decibel levels, until Nader realizes that (a) his argument for his candidacy isn't flying and (b) just because he's on the liberal network doesn't mean he's going to get treated gently.

"You've got a very bad interviewing technique," he finally sputters, "and you're not going to get an audience -- "

"I am not interviewing you," Rhodes interrupts with a cackle.

"Do not overtalk," Nader says. "The -- the -- "

"I am not interviewing you! I am mad at you! Don't you understand the difference?" She's yelling now. "You screwed up the last election, and now you want to screw up this one, and I'm pissed!"

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself because -- "

"But I'm not! YOU should be ashamed of yourself!"

They go on like this for several minutes -- as somebody dashes in to announce that the phones are lit up with callers demanding, "Who is she? What is she? I love her! I hate her!" -- until Nader announces that he won't deal with someone who doesn't let him talk. Click.

The rest of the show sprints by -- most talk hosts broadcast three hours a day, but Rhodes does four -- and finally she reels out into the hallway where a small cluster of staffers applauds and whoops. "Ladies and gentlemen, Randi Rhodes!" someone proclaims; Air America chairman Evan Cohen hands around paper cups of champagne. After a day of nothing but cigarettes, coffee and nerves, the alcohol goes straight to her head. She heads woozily home.

In retrospect, Day One will seem the easy part.

ONCE, PLENTY OF LIBERALS AND CENTRISTS HAD LOCAL RADIO TALK SHOWS. Then, out of the West came Rush Limbaugh. Within a few years of his 1988 syndication, the number of news/talk stations tripled; he grew so dominant so quickly that industry types often credit him with saving AM radio.

But you can also blame him for spawning hundreds of imitators, major and minor. Now, though some liberals or moderates maintain local followings and black "urban" talk shows flourish, nationally syndicated political talk is virtually wall-to-wall conservative. Limbaugh still leads the pack, with an estimated 14.5 million listeners a week on more than 600 stations. Sean Hannity has come up fast with 12 million on 400-plus stations, followed by Laura Schlessinger and Michael Savage and, farther down the list, Bill O'Reilly. G. Gordon Liddy has a talk show. So does Oliver North.

Talk radio's audience, not surprisingly, is now more conservative than the country as a whole. It draws educated, affluent listeners who are largely white (88 percent) and male (63 percent), according to a Mediamark survey last year, and 54 percent more likely than the general population to call themselves "very conservative."

But nonconservatives also tune in to right-of-center hosts, because they find their shows amusing, or because they enjoy arguing with their radios. Or because, as they sit in traffic on the Beltway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or the Santa Monica Freeway, there's little else on the dial. That has agitated Democrats for more than a decade, and a few years ago, discussions began of an alternate radio universe. There should be liberal talk shows, too, one group urged, and it began raising money to produce them. There should be a whole liberal network, another bunch decided.

So out of the East came Air America, its mission both unconventional and dauntingly ambitious. Instead of starting with a single show carried by a few stations -- the traditional radio syndication route -- Air America intended to buy big-city stations. On the day it launched, it could already reach more than 15 percent of the national audience. Finding affordable properties for sale was proving difficult, so it was leasing entire broadcast days on stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and had affiliates in Portland, Ore., and a few smaller places.

This allowed for formatic purity. Listeners don't want to hear Mozart on a rock station, or Garofalo's show sandwiched between Limbaugh's and Hannity's, management believed, so most of its stations would carry Air America 24/7. "Control the real estate," president Jon Sinton likes to say.

He and his team further raised industry eyebrows by hiring hyphenated hosts: author-comics, comedian-actors, writer-performers. Air America was going to offer a different kind of talk -- hipper, younger, funnier. TV comedy incubators like "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" were well represented, but Rhodes was virtually the only host with a track record in commercial radio.

Even if all these gambles succeeded, it would likely take two years or more of impressive Arbitron ratings before Air America turned a profit. But that was okay, because in the meantime it apparently had plenty of cash. "I was told, and so were a lot of other people, that there were 14 months' worth in the bank if we didn't sell a single client a single ad," says a one-time executive who is leery of criticizing a former employer without anonymity.

The Chicago venture capitalists who first undertook to build a liberal network, Anita and Sheldon Drobny, had sold their interest to businessmen Evan Cohen and Rex Sorensen. They, in turn, recruited former AOL executive Mark Walsh as CEO, the network's public face. Walsh assured reporters, as a just-hired staff scrambled to get up and running, that Air America already had about $20 million in operating capital and was on its way to more than $30 million.

It was, from the start, a hybrid enterprise, part political crusade ("George Bush is going down!" Franken ringingly announced to the staff at a pre-launch breakfast), part plunge into a lucrative industry. "Probably two-thirds of the dollars came from investors who wanted to help the cause and had crossed fingers that this also proved a viable, sustainable, profitable business," Walsh estimates. "One-third were investors who saw this as a viable, sustainable, profitable business and had crossed fingers that it would be politically effective."

Because of the political motive, Air America had to be broadcasting nationwide before the election, a tight deadline that exacerbated the tumult involved in any start-up.

Because of the plan to make money, preferably pots of it, the fledgling network went after ratings champ Randi Rhodes, one of the few prominent women in talk radio. "Randi has that indefinable sort of presence on the radio," Sinton says. "It's like a hit record -- you know it the first time you hear it."

MAYBE THAT PRESENCE REFLECTS A LIFE that's incorporated enough hard knocks to qualify as a country-and-western lyric, starting with, Mah Daddy left us.

Rhodes and her sister grew up in a Brooklyn rowhouse. As the family did a little better (her father was a mechanical engineer; her mother worked in a Flatbush Avenue dress shop), they moved from Brooklyn to Douglaston, Queens. But her parents fought and yelled and split when Randi was 15, and she blames the divorce for an adolescent tailspin. "I was lost," she says. "I think I went to Queensborough [Community] College for one day; I thought it was high school with ashtrays."

Next verse: Rhodes, who'd learned about pistons and carburetors from her boyfriend, enlisted in the Air Force in 1977 and excelled as a mechanic.

"One of the best things I ever did," she says. "They gave me discipline. They taught me how to work with a team. And, believe me, they teach liberalism, because they say that the weakest guy in your unit can get you killed . . . So it's your job as a strong leader to reach down to those who have a tough time." When she moved to New York this spring, the one-time sergeant somehow forgot to pack underwear or socks, but remembered to bring the plaque the 732nd Military Airlift Squadron had awarded her for "your tremendous success in meeting the challenges of the new and ever-changing role of women in today's Air Force."

After that came: Two years in the Reserves; an abusive relationship she fled; a weekend shift, playing requests and announcing swap meets, at a tiny radio station in Seminole, Tex.

Eight months of driving a beer truck to pay the medical bills after an ectopic pregnancy.

A cocaine habit picked up as an '80s rock jock in New York, where she also acquired the nom de radio Rhodes. Then rehab. (Last drug use: February 14, 1986.)

Her sister Ellen's death from breast cancer at age 44. Grief and rage.

Parenthood -- she raised Ellen's child, then 11, which is why she refers to Jessica as "my kid," not "my daughter," and Jessica calls Rhodes her "parental unit."

Marriage to her longtime boyfriend, followed by a divorce so nasty that she now says she opposes heterosexual marriage.

Partway through this saga, Rhodes left rock-and-roll behind and landed at a Miami talk station. Her show wasn't particularly political, though, until she moved to WJNO in West Palm Beach in 1994. With O.J. Simpson on trial, Republicans pushing toward a congressional majority and President Bill Clinton under attack, her broadcast veered into left-of-center politics and stayed there. "It caused management some consternation," says John Hunt, her WJNO boss. "But they were certainly okay with it after they saw the ratings."

The Arbitrons were good and got better. By 1998, Rhodes was regularly beating Limbaugh, who aired opposite her on another station, in the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic. After Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that owned both stations, merged them so that Rhodes followed Limbaugh, she beat him some more. "The Randi Rhodes Show" was West Palm's No. 1 talk show.

When Air America went shopping for talent, Rhodes was already trying to self-syndicate. "Last year became this turning point," she says. On the personal front, her divorce was final and her kid was about to leave for college. And politically, "every time I'd make an argument and I'd be right, people who were smart would call up and say, What are you gonna do about it?" She wanted her show to grow beyond South Florida.

It proved slow going, partly because liberals were out of fashion in radio, but also because persuading stations to take on any new show is tough. Then, at a talk radio gathering in Washington last year, an executive from the planned liberal network took Rhodes to dinner and promised a rose garden.

"You know what I was told? State-of-the-art studios! A team of writers! Bookers dedicated to the shows, publicity and PR people, resources like you've never seen in talk radio!" She hesitated; it seemed such a big move. "I said, Why don't I just stay in West Palm and you'll syndicate the show? Who cares where I'm sitting? They said, No no no, you've got to come to New York."

So here she is, the prodigal Brooklynite returning. And where's that rose garden?

"I AM BEYOND BUMMED," Rhodes grumbles after three hectic weeks. She's about to take her terrier, Simon, out for a walk before work. Simon is a good-natured soul, but he's from Florida, where dogs can eliminate on natural surfaces. Now he's confused by the fact that all of Manhattan seems either paved or fenced, so he's been pooping discreetly beneath Rhodes' dining room table. Maybe he's bummed, too.

State-of-the-art studios? Air America's temporary facilities are threadbare, with lousy air-conditioning and irascible equipment. "It's like a halfway decent college radio station," a frustrated tech muttered the first day. The tiny office housing "The Randi Rhodes Show," several floors away from the other shows', has four desks crammed into a windowless space. A promised move is apparently months away; meanwhile, her producer has bought a studio phone and printer out of his own pocket.

Writers? The one assigned to her show got fired early on over "creative differences." Publicity? Big banners in Grand Central Station promote Franken and Garofalo; Rhodes continues to be, she half-jokes, "the Unknown Host." Though she has complained, she understands that all this comes with the distracting frenzy of a start-up. Besides, the guy who recruited her at that D.C. dinner just got fired, and CEO Mark Walsh has resigned.

And all that pales next to the fact that Air America has gotten yanked off two of its major stations in a contract dispute with their owner. In Chicago, a panicky board operator called early one morning: "They've come in and taken over the station and locked the doors! They're broadcasting in Spanish!" In Los Angeles, the same putsch. Air America executives vow they'll find substitute L.A. and Chicago stations, but can't say when.

So instead of reaching a national audience, Rhodes is now heard on WLIB, the New York flagship, and KPOJ in Portland; on two satellite networks and on the Internet; and in a few smaller markets like Riverside, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. Meanwhile, press coverage of the crippling contretemps not only has made the new network look amateurish, but also has spooked potential advertisers.

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]?"

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.