Al Franken launches his new talk-radio program next week. The nation’s news media is working overtime to help him succeed. The cover story of the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday was an extended appeal to the readers to give Franken a shot and to explain why he ought to succeed. I can recall no parallel attention ever being lavished on Rush, Sean Hannity or any other center-right host on radio or television. Clearly there is a lot riding on Franken.
Radio talk-show hosts like me love this exercise. If Franken succeeds in attracting an audience that Arbitron can measure, he will be bringing additional listeners to the AM dial. This is exactly like adding a popular new store to a successful mall. Everyone wins. Folks who understand radio know that everyone on the dial hopes for the overall success of the dial, not just their own station. Sure we compete, but capitalists especially understand that rising tides lift all boats.
But it is more than likely than Franken will fail, and that scenario as well has a silver lining: With all this hoopla and all this cheerleading from the bigs like the Sunday Times, if Franken still falls on his face, there will be no excuses. A lesson will be written in stone. That lesson: The left doesn’t have a popular following, only special interests addicted to benefits or power or both.
If Franken can’t match Limbaugh’s audience, or Hannity’s, or Medved’s, Prager’s, O’Reilly’s or mine, he’s going to have to explain why. A lack of talent? Let’s stipulate that Franken’s the most talented voice on the left, a combination of nastiness and satirical humor as well as a little guy’s fury, as demonstrated by his knock-down of a heckler at a Dean event earlier this year.
No, he should succeed if talent is all that it takes.
But it takes more than talent – it requires an audience interested in listening to arguments that depend, at least in part, on logic and fact. And that’s the Achilles’ heel of “Air America,” the new liberal network that Franken anchors. The modern Democratic Party is supported by interest groups that align themselves in large part because of power, money and fear – not deep-seated beliefs. These folks aren’t going to tune in for re-education on why they ought to believe in an agenda. They expect payoffs, and don’t need to be tutored on the niceties of debate.
Sure, there are true believers in the agenda of the left. These are the folks who make Michael Moore a best-selling author, and Franken a celebrity in the first place. But their proportion of the radio population is miniscule, and already attached to NPR.
One example: A large segment of the left’s coalition in America is the African-American vote. Does anyone seriously believe that Franken – the lily-white, privileged Minnesota boy turned acidic voice of west-side Manhattan – is going to bring south-central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit to his station?
Franken’s appealing to the campus elite and newsroom hand-ringers. How many of them listen to AM radio ever? Sure, he’s got the New York Times Sunday Magazine crowd, but how is his ad force going to sell that demographic in the middle of America?
Franken’s got a big subsidy and a loud cheering section. But Arbitron ratings require listeners. The first set of ratings to judge Al by will be available in early July after a 3-month period elapses. Given the push he’s getting from free ink, he won’t have any excuse for not starting strong. If he can’t make it here, he won’t make it anywhere, and radio general managers and program directors know this and will watch the rollout closely.
I just hope we get updates on Franken’s success or lack thereof every bit as detailed as the accounts of his launch. If he ends up in the box marked Mario Cuomo, Jim Hightower and Mike Malloy, there won’t be any excuses except this: The folks who care about reason and humor find neither in the whining of the angry left.