Previously, the only way New Orleanians could catch any Air America programming was by streaming it over the Web or by watching the cable TV network Sundance Channel to catch a portion of the radio show hosted by Air America's most popular figure, satirist Al Franken. This Monday, July 25, New Orleans and Baton Rouge join the ever-expanding Air America markets; local radio station WSMB (1350 AM) locally debuts Air America's lineup, which can be viewed at www.airamericaradio.com or www.wwl.com.
Franken, a five-time Emmy winner from his days as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, has written the best-selling books Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The 54-year-old Franken co-hosts the show with Minnesota Public Radio's Katherine Lanpher. His popularity is so great that he has been pondering a run for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Minnesota.
Franken took some time in between hosting his three-hour weekday show and working on his next book to talk about the new network, his new grind and conservatives he loves.
Q: How difficult is it maintaining the balance between partisan commentator and humorist?
A: Well, it's a little tricky. It changes depending on the day, on the show. There are certain days where it might depend on what the subject matter is. We had this Nobel Peace Prize-winning woman from Nigeria (Wangari Maathai). It wasn't funny. (Laughs) There's nothing funny about it. Here's this amazingly powerful, elegant, courageous woman. There was just no place for humor. There was no laughing about the circumstances that she rose above -- which were quite amazing -- and the work that she's doing. Then I become the closest I become to a journalist, interviewing someone and finding out what they're doing.
Other days we do very, very stupid low humor. Or in the same day we'll do something like, Strom Thurmond talking about how "the pecker knows no bigotry." And in the same day we'll do a Bob-and-Ray piece. An example is we'll have an American Indian on talking about creationism, but it turns out it's really the Ogalala Sioux creation myth.
Q: Now that your gig has become more partisan, if there was a great John Kerry joke out there, would you feel less compelled to say it now, to tweak the nose of the left?
A: My job isn't to be an equal-opportunity offender. My job is to push back against these assholes on the right. (Laughs.) I've actually had people go, like, "Isn't it hypocritical just to go after the right?" And I go, "What are you talking about? No." These guys are out there, and 22 percent of Americans say they get most of their news from talk radio.
I did a joke the other day where (Hendrik) Hertzberg (of The New Yorker) was on talking about (philanthropist) George Soros being a part of this group trying to buy the Washington Nationals, and some Republican congressman (Virginia's Tom Davis) threatened to lift their anti-trust exemption if Soros was a part of the group that bought the team, because he contributed so much to the Democrats. And so I'm talking to Rick Hertzberg, and Soros did spend like $20 million (on the presidential campaign) but he's also spent billions on building open societies in Eastern Europe, and I think Rick said he's spent like $4 billion. And I said, "Oh, if Kerry had one more billion dollars, he coulda won."
Q: Your co-host, Katherine Lanpher, has much more radio experience than you, and it seems like she's a rudder for you and not just a foil. She seems to guide you if you digress or you need to cut for a break -- or even disagrees with you.
A: She came off a number of years as the host of her own two-hour show on Minnesota Public Radio, and that's how we met. When I'd go to Minnesota for a book tour or whatever, I'd go on her show. And I figured that when I was going to take this on that I'd never hosted a show, but I've always felt comfortable being a guest on a show. So if I get Katherine, worse comes to worst I can always have her interview me. (Laughs.) It was a safety net about a foot below the tightrope. I just felt like Katherine is someone I could just talk to.
And we've fallen into certain areas of disagreement. She's more from the church of journalism than I am. So, when it comes to the subject of Judy Miller being in prison, I will tend to both think at the same time that she probably shouldn't be in prison, but on the other hand, I just don't mind that much. (Laughs.) I can admire her for being there, while at the same time still being really mad at her for her bad WMD coverage -- I mean her disastrous coverage -- and make fun of her. Like she's the Nazis in Skokie. You have to let the Nazis march, and you have to be on Judy Miller's side on this one.
Q: As opposed to Katherine's opinion, which would be what?
A: "It's horrible she's in prison, the right of journalists to protect sources is sacrosanct and a serious, serious, serious matter -- not to be joked with in that manner." Or that comparing her to the Nazis in Skokie (laughs) ...
Q: She might have taken exception to that comparison?
A: Yeah, and then I'll go off on a tangent comparing (Miller's) four months in this not-so-bad jail to over a year that our soldiers spend in Iraq, and they're there in no small part to her terrible reporting. (Laughs.) Katherine might take exception to that. So there are very, very predictable fault lines between us. And another is, I have a tendency to get passionate and yell at people. (Laughs.)
Q: How did you get your old friend Mark Luther on the show to become your "resident dittohead"?
A: He's been my conservative foil for like 10 years. He's a dittohead, listens to Rush every day, so I suggested this segment. It was a way to do Rush and keep up with Rush and listen to what he does that's more interesting -- a more conceptual way to do it.
Q: Has he ever gotten the better of you with you trying to call Rush on something?
A: I think he's made a good point or two. And Mark will exercise his sort of prerogative to say, "OK, I wanna play one (sound clip from Limbaugh's show)." And we'll almost always do it.
Like on this one (last week), this is very last minute, I get in in the morning, and the researcher who's in charge of the segment says, "Mark wants to change it to this," and I heard it, and I said, "Get me the two pieces, get me [Joe Wilson's] op-ed piece from July and give me the piece he's referring to from February. This might be perfect because it looks like typical Rush, it looks like he's distorting in about four or five different ways here." So I got the articles, and lo and behold, he was. And I talked to Mark last night, because it ended up so harsh on the show, I said, "This guy keeps fooling you. And if you keep getting fooled by this, you're just a fool."
Q: How did he take the "fool" comment on the air?
A: We were doing this on TV, too, on the Sundance Channel, and we have a Web cam there. So I saw him there trying to say something, and Chris Rosen (the engineer) cut him off because we were just out of time. So I saw his lips flapping, after I said, "You're a fool," and his lips are flapping and nothing's coming out, and I thought, "Aw, f--k, poor guy." So I called him up, and Mark goes on and looks at the comments we get on the blog for his segment, and I say, "Aw, Mark, I gotta apologize, you got cut off after I called you a fool. I didn't like ending that way." He said, "Oh, no, that's OK. Everybody liked it (on the blog)." They just liked that I called him a fool finally. It was good radio.
Q: It's pretty clear who some of your least-favorite conservative commentators are. Which conservative commentators and journalists do you like to listen to or read, and whose opinions do you respect?
A: There are people who are worth listening to and reading who I don't always agree with, and whom I don't always respect. I'll read (New York Times columnist) David Brooks. I'll read (syndicated columnist) George Will. I'll read (The Weekly Standard publisher/editor) William Kristol. They're all at least, you know, smart -- and sometimes, you know, even right. (Laughs.) But sometimes they just make me angry, all three of 'em, for one reason or another. But I will read them.
Q: You haven't mentioned anybody who's a regular radio guy.
A: I can't think of a regular radio guy. I don't know. I remember I heard that (syndicated radio host) Dennis Prager out in L.A. was somewhat interesting ... but I haven't heard him and I don't know him. Conservative radio guys, I just don't like. I can't think of one. If you could name one, I could ...
Q: Oh, I won't. You're on your own on that one.
A: Obviously, I hate Rush, I hate (Sean) Hannity, I hate (Bill) O'Reilly. G. Gordon Liddy is a friend of mine. It's a very odd friendship, and I don't like his views.
Q: How did y'all become buddies?
A: I did this sitcom, Lateline -- which was for NBC and lasted a couple seasons -- that was behind the scenes of a show like Nightline. And we had G., as I call him, on the show, once as a guest, and he was great, and so we had him on like three or four times. And I enjoyed having him on. His wife, Frances, and my wife, Franny, the four us would go out to dinner. And I find him really funny. And I think he has a certain odd integrity -- from, you know, not being a stool pigeon. (Laughs.) And I just kind of have an affection for him -- which doesn't extend to his views. At all. That's a right-wing radio talk-show host that I have a good relationship with.
Q: Air America started slowly, and immediately a lot of conservative wags were dissing it and saying it was going to bomb. Then there was turnover, a money infusion and it seems over the past year it's gained momentum. It's coming into our state. How do you feel about the direction of Air America in terms of the numbers?
A: There's a lot of things to talk about there. First of all, Air American is a very different model for radio than almost any other thing. Because we're a network. The possibility of me doing a syndicated show, it just wasn't there. You couldn't put me on between Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It would be like putting a hip-hop show between two country shows.
Q: Which would actually be kinda cool.
A: You listen to hip-hop and country?
A: Yeah, but you don't listen to a radio station that has both.
A: What happened was, of course, we had financial difficulties about three or four weeks that were really the function of the original CEO telling people that we had more money than we did. So after three weeks we lost our L.A. station and our Chicago station out of the five or six stations we had. So that was an enormous blow, and the thing teetered on the brink of collapse for quite a while, for several months. And of course right-wing radio and TV were saying, "This shows there's no audience for it." Well, it didn't show anything of the sort. It shows that we weren't capitalized. FOX News Channel lost $130 million in its first two years. Didn't mean there wasn't an audience for conservative TV. It just meant they lost $130 million its first two years, and Rupert Murdoch had the money to keep it going.
Basically heroes stepped in. I came in as an involuntary investor in that I wasn't being paid for quite a while. What I figured was, there was nothing I could do about the money so I could just do the best show I could. So I kept working on the show, and kept my head down, and maybe made an occasional joke about the money. But that was about it.
Gradually, gradually, then our first ratings came out, and they were good for the first spring, spring of '04. Then it was trying to learn what Arbitron was and how it worked. I come from TV, where you get overnights and then a few days later you get the whole nation. The overnights are just like the big 14 cities. The Arbitron system still puzzles me in terms of, why would anyone fill out a diary, and all this kind of stuff. That can't help with younger audiences. Let's face it; old people like to fill out diaries. (Laughs.) I know that, for example, depending on the day I'm the No. 2 or the No. 3 podcasting (on iTunes) show, and I know that our streaming numbers are huge. So both on podcasting and streaming, we're much more popular than any other radio show in the country by a large margin.
Now part of the streaming thing has to be probably that we're not in every market. That may be an unfair comparison, but the whole point is people are listening to us. Now we're up to 68 stations. We're in nine of the top 10 cities, and 18 of the top 20. The only top 10 city we're not in is Houston.
Q: Really? Coincidence?
A: I have no f--king .... I don't know. I have no clue.
- "My job isn't to be an equal opportunity offender. I've actually had people go, ';Isn't it hypocritical just to go after the right?' And I go, 'What are you talking about? No.'"