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Roseanne Barr is still speaking out, but few are listening

ON THE MEDIA

The onetime TV titan struggles to find a radio audience as she rails against 'people at the top.'

December 02, 2009|James Rainey
  • BEHIND THE MIKE: Roseanne Barr hosts a weekly KPFK-FM show called “The Tipping Point.”
BEHIND THE MIKE: Roseanne Barr hosts a weekly KPFK-FM show called “The… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

With jobs disappearing, bills piling up and the horizon appearing ever-narrower, the American middle class might be asking: Where is our voice? Where is our champion? Where is our . . . Roseanne?

Actually, the original is raring to go. Roseanne Barr is angry. She's outspoken. And she would once again like to unleash her acid, comedic tongue on behalf of everyday Americans.

"I think we should say something about class in America," Barr told me this week. "It's the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about."

One problem: The people who control television -- where Barr did her memorable work on her eponymous show of the late 1980s and 1990s, as a rare, working-class heroine -- appear to have no intention of letting her back on the tube.

So even as she continues intermittently to pitch ideas for a TV comeback, Barr has spent most of the last year breaking into a new venue, radio, and struggling to find the audience and the voice that she enjoyed a couple of decades ago.

"The Tipping Point" with Roseanne Barr airs Tuesday at 3 p.m. on KPFK-FM (90.7), the local affiliate of the left-wing Pacifica radio network. Barr uses the hourlong show to interview politicos, pop culture figures and others and to rail against corporations, politicians and other "people at the top," whom she depicts as hopelessly corrupt.

From a network perch that once beamed her into more than 20 million households per episode, Barr faded to relative obscurity before a 2003 comeback push that included a cooking/lifestyle program and another show about her life.

But those efforts died and Barr has recently returned to some stand-up comedy, writing a book about women and to pitching new ideas to executives who, she protests, don't seem interested in baby boomer women like herself.

As a longtime KPFK supporter, she was welcomed to the air by new management in January as a possible stabilizing and ratings-building personality. The station was undergoing a rough period in which a controversial manager was ousted and ratings swooned.

Her presence has paid no obvious dividends thus far, as the four-hour afternoon-evening block that Barr occupies averaged a paltry 3,200 listeners per hour in the most recent Arbitron ratings. And that is for a station that, at 113,000 watts, has the strongest FM signal west of the Mississippi.

But Barr says she pays no attention to either the ratings or to programming changes, like the one that bumped her in October from a preferred 5 p.m. drive-time slot to the earlier hour. "I don't know about any of that," Barr said. She said her only goal is to try to "give a voice to Americans who are totally censored, to the common person's opinion."

On air, Barr sounds as sincere, and fierce, as she did in her heyday as the fictional Roseanne Conner, whose struggles with depression, marital infidelity and economic desperation were a brave new world for a sitcom.

But in her new incarnation as radio host a few of her most valuable TV accouterments go missing -- like a story line, a professional writing crew and the ample doses of disarming self-deprecation that eased even the most serious plot lines. Now, humor tends to get consumed by the message.

Take, for example, Barr's guest last week. Though he was a practitioner of cabala, the set of mystical beliefs stemming from Judaism, Barr still managed to work in a rant against those unnamed enemies of the people.

"What about the people at the top," she asked guest Yehuda Berg, "who are evil and corrupt and don't want to change and don't want to give up the positions of power that they inhabit to make other people suffer and to make actual real horror in the world? They don't want to change. What do we do about them?"

I couldn't tell if Barr found much satisfaction in Berg's answer: that individuals need to focus on changing themselves.

On another recent program, focusing on healthcare reform, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) described his proposal to allow each state to impose universal, single-payer coverage. The liberal congressman seemed hopeful.

Barr took off after the big medical and insurance interests, which she compared to "a bunch of psychopathic predators" and wondered how Kucinich could stand to work with fellow Congress members, whom she described as "all those sellouts around you."

The soft-spoken congressman seemed a bit taken aback. "They're actually pretty good people," Kucinich said. "The problem is we have a system here that makes it hard for people to break through."

Like a lot of what goes out across the air on KPFK, Barr's program has a homemade, conversational quality. That can be charming, or disorienting, as it must have been for any listener who tuned in late for the recent cabala program.

Barr failed to reintroduce herself, or her guest, for more than half an hour. Anyone who happened across the station after the first minute must have felt like they dialed into the midst of a mystery phone call.

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