The first 24 hours of Air America, the much ballyhooed liberal talk-radio network that debuted midday Wednesday, brought to mind another radio voice from another time.
Depression-era humorist Will Rogers once said, "I am not a member of any organized party -- I am a Democrat." But in spite of technical glitches, dead air and a lineup of mainly radio novices feeling their way through the medium, the hosts on Air America got their message out.
"This show is about taking back our country. It's about having fun. It's about relentlessly hammering away at the Bush administration until they crack and crumble this November," said humorist Al Franken, in a manifesto to open the network's premiere and highest-profile show. "Our friends on the right -- and they are our friends ... except for the ones who aren't -- say that we liberals are angry. Yeah. Yeah, we're angry."
His "O'Franken Factor," whose title is a dig at rival TV and radio host Bill O'Reilly's successful show, also took shots at conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. A running gag on Franken's initial show had him locking a ranting and raving Coulter sound-alike in the green room. Comedian Janeane Garofalo, during her 7 p.m. show "Majority Report," surmised that Coulter was actually the latest performance-art persona from Andy Kaufman, the comedian thought to be dead.
As network executives promised before the launch, Air America tried to leaven its political diatribe with sometimes-biting humor, even in the bumper announcements that preceded commercial breaks, such as "Air America Radio: The laughingstock of talk radio," and "Air America: Radio Rush Limbaugh would listen to, if he hadn't lost most of his hearing to drug abuse."
The network -- sold as a counterbalance to the legion of conservative talk-radio hosts populating the airwaves, and in the works for more than a year -- debuted on a half-dozen stations, on KCAA-AM (1050) in San Bernardino and KBLA-AM (1580) in Los Angeles and in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. It's also available on XM Satellite Radio and on the Web at www.airamericaradio.com.
"I think they're off to a decent start," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry. "It sounds OK. It sounds good. Al Franken is a creative and interesting guy.
"I don't know if any radio program could rise to the level of expectations they've set for themselves," he continued, saying the most noteworthy thing about Air America is how much publicity it generated before it ever hit the airwaves.
And as for the network's stated goal of being the point of a liberal sword, "if they mean it, it's silly; if they don't mean it, it's a very effective tool of publicity."
The network featured a star-studded roster of guests from the left and right -- honoring another promise from Air America executives: guest diversity.
Those joining in the network's first 24 hours included former Vice President Al Gore; liberal filmmaker Michael Moore; economist, comic actor and former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein; former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark; humorist Bill Maher; and on Thursday's 6-9 a.m. show, "Morning Sedition," former presidential candidate, Nixon speechwriter and longtime CNN talking head Pat Buchanan, dubbed by host Mark Riley "the man liberal mothers use to frighten their babies when they're bad."
And while Air America's conservative rivals mostly ignored the upstart on their programs, Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy called during Franken's show Wednesday to wish him luck. He said his unlikely friend Franken is the only person allowed to call him "G," and promised to kill anyone who crossed him.
Because of the network's decision to delay its programming three hours for the West Coast, so that Franken's show airs at noon in New York and Los Angeles, the "O'Franken Factor" somehow got shuffled before it hit the West Coast. So Southland listeners got the third hour of the show first, hearing teases for an interview with former Sen. Bob Kerrey long past, and getting Franken's opening monologue after they had already been listening for two hours.
The tape delay deviates from the practice at other shows, such as Rush Limbaugh's, for example, which airs live at noon on the East Coast and 9 a.m. here.
"That means nobody on the West Coast can call," Harrison said. "There's something about knowing it's happening now that adds a level of excitement. People like to know that they could call in, even if they don't."
In addition, Harrison said, if a show happened three hours earlier and didn't make news, listeners know they're not going to hear anything earth-shattering when they tune in.
For listeners to the service's Southland affiliates, Air America started Wednesday with the British Invasion.