PORTLAND, ORE. — The restaurant that radio talk show host Thom Hartmann -- comedian Al Franken's replacement on Air America -- has chosen for lunch speaks volumes.
On the one hand, it's an old-fashioned Midwestern fish fry joint, where the perch comes battered and the fries are thickly cut, perfectly in keeping with the Michigan-born Hartmann's well-honed message of economic populism, of the sort that's been popping up with increasing frequency as both major parties try to lay claim to the country's middle-class voters.
On the other hand, the menu takes care to note that their cooks use 100% rice bran oil -- par for the course for a man whose broadcasting booth is virtually wallpapered with anti-right wing paraphernalia, including a poster of Vice President Dick Cheney dressed as a member of Hitler's feared SS military corps.
Both sides of Hartmann's personality went on much wider display Monday, when he took over the departing Franken's plum slot on Air America, the liberal-leaning radio network that aims to be the left's answer to conservative juggernauts such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. In the Southland, he's heard from 9 a.m. to noon on KTLK-AM (1150).
Franken, the network's headliner since its inception three years ago, is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from Minnesota. He's departing Air America at a pivotal juncture -- the network is being acquired by a New York real estate agent after filing for bankruptcy protection last fall.
Hartmann's show, which already had been syndicated nationally on about 30 stations, is now offered to about 80 stations, as the network moves to right itself. The trick is to convince local stations that liberal talk radio is as viable a business model as its conservative counterpart, especially after a handful of affiliates dropped the format in its first few years, citing low ad sales.
"Everybody does different shows," Hartmann said. "People have really bonded with Al's show -- he had a lot of loyal listeners. I will do my best for them."
New listeners will find a distinctly different voice than Franken's, industry observers said. Franken rarely took phone calls and relied on a small stable of regular guests to appear; Hartmann runs a more traditional talk show program, with each hour organized around a theme. It features a mix of interviews, calls and e-mails from listeners, and Hartmann's thoughts on the day's topics, including illegal immigration, the war in Iraq and the presidential elections of 2008.
"My opinion is that Thom Hartmann is a far superior host, one of the leading liberal thinkers in American today," said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, an influential industry journal. "He's not a comedian, not ambitious where he wants to become a senator, he's not an egotist -- he's a very earnest guy who tries to present intelligent material that makes a case for the progressive point of view."
The Portland-based Hartmann began in radio in 1968 and is also a prolific author, most recently of "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class." He's convinced there's a permanent place on the dial for progressive talk shows such as his, especially as the Democrats rise to power in Washington, and even as President Bush, who has provided ammunition for a virtual cottage industry of anti-administration naysayers, winds down his presidency.
"There is at least as much demand for liberal talk radio as there is for conservative talk, maybe even more," he said. "For years, program directors just bought the story that was told to them, that all the liberals were listening to NPR. We have busted open a mythology. There are a lot of stations carrying this format and doing well with it."
During his three-hour show, the lean, bearded Hartmann, 55, keeps things moving, cuing up greatest-hits quotes at a moment's notice -- think Ronald Reagan's dulcet tones, uttering his so-called scariest phrase ever, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" -- swaying to a clip from a Cat Stevens song and occasionally veering off into his specialty, discourses that reach into American history for relevant trends and cycles.
Each week, Hartmann touches base with Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, where Hartmann and his wife lived for many years; other guests include former Democratic National Committee boss Terry McAuliffe and the chief of staff to global-warming-doubting, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
The show has attracted dozens of die-hard fans, many of whom listen to the show while typing their commentary in a real-time chat room on which Hartmann keeps a watchful eye while broadcasting, for instant feedback on whether he's hit a sweet spot or strayed off track.