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Al Franken's ready for a tussle

By Marlon Manuel

Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- If a liberal commentator performs on talk radio and nobody listens, does he really make a sound? Stay tuned.

Al Franken, voice of the political left, tests the ideology's commercial radio-worthiness today, when he debuts his call-in show, the centerpiece of the Air America network.

The political author and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian offers himself as an antidote to Rush Limbaugh, whose conservative shtick has filled AM airwaves in national syndication since 1988.

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In a country evenly divided politically, talk radio is not. Limbaugh is the leader, spawning legions of on-air copycats.

"We're going to call them on what they say," Franken said during a phone interview after a recent practice run in New York. "It's Jiu-Jitsu. We take what they say and hold them up to scorn and ridicule. That's what I do."

In the beginning, Franken's reach certainly won't compare to Limbaugh's. The network will debut on small, mostly ethnic stations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and on the Internet (www.airamericaradio.com) and XM Satellite Radio. It is searching for languishing stations elsewhere to take its daily programming, which begins at 6 a.m. with "Morning Sedition," a play on NPR's "Morning Edition," and runs till 11 p.m.

In contrast, Limbaugh is on hundreds of mainstream stations nationwide.

Air America President Jon Sinton doesn't expect to make a profit for at least three years -- the trade-off to build an audience aged 25 to 54, the most lucrative for advertisers.

"In some terms, it's all about ideology. In other terms, it's all about business," he said.

It will be a slow build. Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, a trade publication, estimates that Air America should be happy to hit 1 million listeners a week in its first year.

After signing with Air America, Franken dubbed his show "The O'Franken Factor," a dig at conservative Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who calls his show "The O'Reilly Factor." Franken also jabbed not-so-subtly at Limbaugh's treatment for addiction to painkillers, proclaiming, "Our hope is to do drug-free talk radio, although I understand it's never been done."

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But if Franken screeches for three hours a day that Limbaugh is a big fat idiot (as he suggested in one of his book titles), Air America may fly like the Concorde: Nowhere fast.

"If the goal is to convert or rather to reinforce political opinions to the left, it's DOA, because you're not going to attract a new audience based on political philosophy," said John McConnell, senior vice president of programming for ABC Radio Networks, which syndicates conservative icon Sean Hannity.

"You're going to attract a new audience because I want to listen to you. I really want to listen to Al -- that's why it will work or not for him."

It's showbiz, said small-government advocate Neal Boortz, the Atlanta area's top-rated talker for WSB-AM, owned by Cox Enterprises, as is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"They're going to be preaching to their own choir until they start making a name for themselves through entertainment value," Boortz said. "If people start cheering, 'Hey Franken's a liberal, but damn, that show is funny,' then they'll tune it. I hope it succeeds. I love the competition."

If Franken has a predecessor, it was liberal talker Alan Berg, who stirred passions in the early 1980s with his pointed attacks on the right. White supremacists shot him to death in his Denver driveway in 1984.

Few commercial networks have tried liberals on a large scale since. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo attempted a show, as did former Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower. Both signed off with poor ratings.

But for hosts on the right, it's been rave reviews. The gate to money-making political talk opened in 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission, pushed by President Reagan's deregulation policies, set aside the Fairness Doctrine. The policy had required stations to offer balanced views on controversial topics.

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Limbaugh, once an upstart host in Sacramento, Calif., stepped in the next year and offered his program nationwide to a handful of stations. Today, his network spans more than 600 -- including some of the largest talk stations in the country.

A host of imitators followed.

Harrison's magazine last year named Limbaugh the most important radio host of the modern era. Before Limbaugh, he said, many radio listeners felt politically ignored. They considered "that Hollywood was liberal, that television was liberal, that most of radio was liberal, that music was liberal, that newspapers are liberal."

BOX: Al Franken's new show will be broadcast on Minneapolis' WMNN-AM 1330, the station said Tuesday,

"The O'Franken Factor," was to air from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today "if we can pull things together from a technological standpoint," station manager Scott Murray said.

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