We had the WTO riots. We've got Jim McDermott. A city council more concerned than average with the well-being of circus animals. Eddie Vedder. Yet talk radio in the liberal Puget...

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We had the WTO riots. We’ve got Jim McDermott. A city council more concerned than average with the well-being of circus animals. Eddie Vedder.

Yet talk radio in the liberal Puget Sound region, as in most of the country, is dominated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, John Carlson, Michael Medved and other conservatives. That could be changing, however, as New York-based left-leaning Air America, heard here since late October on KPTK-AM (1090), is finally establishing a beachhead in Seattle and elsewhere after getting off to a rocky start when it launched in March.

“That’s putting it kindly,” Air America President Jon Sinton remarks.

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Beginning on just four stations and the Internet, the liberal network hit a precarious financial low point when star Al Franken announced in May he’d forego a salary. But, “Other investors all stepped up. We got everybody paid, Al included. To us it’s old news,” Sinton says.

Franken and host Randi Rhodes have just signed new multiyear contracts. Air America is now on 40 stations, XM and Sirius satellite radio, and the Internet with 3.5 million users per month.

Host Marc Maron, a gifted comic whose “Morning Sedition” airs 3-6 a.m. in Seattle (because of the time difference with New York), is trying to refocus on the network whose programming had been so much geared to the November elections.

“It’s been a really difficult transition because I was so just fuming all the time. And also a lot of people want to do nothing but cover election fraud — which really hasn’t been validated in a lot of ways, and it’s not clear whether or not [Bush] wouldn’t have won anyway. My fear of that is, if we set this tone that we’re going to be the [screwed] people who never get justice. I don’t want to come from there for four years.”

Not that he still doesn’t have plenty of related material to work with: “I think real Republicans do believe in evolution, because they seem pretty sure the poor will adapt to whatever [expletive] they put them through. Maybe they’ll just develop gills and move back into the ocean. Then we can have them at sea parks, and perhaps eventually eat them once people forget that they were once poor.”

Striking a balance,
or just striking?

So did Air America’s personalities — who also include Janeane Garofalo — wind up just as strident and obnoxious as some had accused their conservative rivals of becoming?

“You know, I start to think that,” Maron admits. “I was definitely over the top in my attacks on the president and the administration, because that’s what I wanted to do, and we had the freedom to do that. In retrospect, I don’t know if it alienated people that were more moderate but still against Bush. The truth of the matter is that on our network there’s a little something for everybody.”

KVI-AM’s (570) right-wing drive-time host John Carlson says he welcomes the competition. “It makes for a more robust marketplace of ideas and a wider debate.” What about the conservative-dominated status quo?

“For the most part, conservatives add something to the discussion that people are not already getting from the rest of local media,” Carlson says. “They’re giving a point of view and presenting a body of information the rest of media have either missed or chosen not to include.”

Talkers industry magazine editor Michael Harrison says, “Of the big-time political talk-show hosts, a good 75-80 percent are conservative, which really is a dominant situation.” (Of the oft-claimed liberal bias of National Public Radio, Harrison says, “The fact is that it does service a tremendous number of people, and although it claims not to be liberal per se, it is quite moderate.”)

Those conservative hosts superserve a niche audience, and radio is a niche medium — not a mass-appeal medium, Harrison explains. For instance, he says, “Even Rush Limbaugh has not been heard by most people in the country. At any given time, only 5-6 percent of the radio audience are listening to Rush Limbaugh — at his peak.”

Some answers

So why the dominance? Is it that liberals prefer to read? Harrison dismisses that with a hearty vulgarity. Then is it simply possible that there would be more liberal radio if there were a demand for it — and there just isn’t much demand after all? Not really, Harrison explains.

There’s an ebb and flow to the dominance, influenced by the ebb and flow of the marketplace and the available talent, and especially by who’s in political power, Harrison says. The radio tide has begun a slight turn, radio is a corporate business, and corporations are slow. “That’s changing now — one, just because there’s a perception that it’s not balanced. For the last 10 or 15 years, liberals haven’t all been walking around saying ‘I’m liberal.’ And conservatives are no longer saying ‘We’re on the outside.’ They have the president and the Supreme Court.”

Translate that to Seattle: “The fact that it’s a liberal market makes it better for conservative talk radio because conservatives feel they need someone talking to them. Why is Michael Savage, who is such a strident, die-hard conservative, so big in San Francisco? The answer is, he’s not running for mayor. He has a strong minority listening to him. Talk radio works best when it takes on the establishment, when it gives voice to people who aren’t in control.”

Radio & Records reports that Clear Channel Radio has changed a number of its stations across the country to “progressive” talk, but this is very much in the early stages of the game, says the trade mag’s news/talk/sports editor, Al Peterson. “Comparatively, Rush Limbaugh is on about 600 stations. Hannity is on upwards of 400 stations. Michael Savage is on 350-400.”

Yet another reason for on-air dominance, Peterson says, is just having a viable operation up and running.

“Launching a 24/7 network is an extremely expensive proposition. The bottom line is what’s available. I don’t think it’s being driven by listeners — if you really believe there’s a 50/50 split in America.”

So while Harrison was critical of Air America initially (“It wasn’t a great idea for business in radio, having a political idea being its agenda”), now he predicts the company will be a driving force.

“They’ve opened the door for a demand for liberal talk radio, and we’re seeing that grow. By getting ratings, getting Clear Channel to take their programming, they’ve opened their door to expansion of the talk radio menu, which we think is good for business and good for the country.”

(Yes, Clear Channel: the same huge conglomerate that’s fielded repeated allegations of right-wing leanings.)

“Big companies just want conservative talk shows? Baloney,” Peterson says. “If they could find the liberal Rush Limbaugh, they’d be fighting all over each other.

“The political ideology being subscribed to here is capitalism.”

Meanwhile, Maron says that the ecstatic responses from grateful listeners have been overwhelming. Except, “Now, of course, the people are sort of like” — he switches to a whiny, nasal voice — ” ‘How come you guys don’t deal more with the fish’s pain? When are you going to talk about what’s going on with the dams?’ The interesting thing about progressives and liberals is there’s just a barrage of kind of boutique issues, and you can’t honor everybody. So I’ve had to take a certain sense of humor about that.”

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com