Talk is Cheap

Leslie Carlson

My friend Wendy calls Air America Radio “the box of Godiva chocolates in my office drawer.” She eats one every now and then, and thoroughly enjoys it—but she feels some guilt in the pleasure.

(Note to those in Oregon outside of the range of the Portland station that carries Air America’s programming—you can get audio at

Even though she enjoys listening, Wendy worries (as I do) that Air America Radio cheapens the level of political discourse. When one of the hosts strays from criticizing policy into a personal attack, I cringe. Do we really want to stoop to the level of the vitriol that has been spewing from right wing radio and TV for the past decade?

And yet…I can’t help feel an inner cheer rise up when Al Franken catches Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in a lie or highlights some hypocritical policy of the Bush administration Isn't it time we stood up to the bully? Do we really want him to steal our lunch money day after day after day without protest?

My friends seem about evenly split on whether Air America is a good thing or not. Here’s Eric: “It is about time we used some humor, traded a few shots and stopped playing by the rules that the other side threw out 20 years ago.” Chip says: “We need to retake the rhetorical ground from the right wing.” But my friend Chris worries: “The constant bludgeoning we receive from all sides is making for a coarsened culture of constant conflict.”

Despite my reservations, I keep returning to Air America for a few good laughs and to experience the unique feeling that, for once, there are people out there listening to AM talk radio who believe in the same things I do.

I open the drawer, pop in a chocolate, and thoroughly enjoy it.

  • Matthew Uhre (unverified)

    I don't enjoy Air America, or Michael Moore's films. I'd rather listen to reasonable people reasonably disagreeing rather than the playground taunting that occurs on talk radio of either persuasion. That being said, I tatally agree that it's about damn time the less-than-conservative stop whining about the coarsening of the culture and start playing this game as if lives depend on it. Does anyone really think that if Gore had been appointed President instead of Bush we would be in Iraq. Does anyone still think that voting for Nader instead of Gore was a good idea? Liberals need to be a lot more pragmatic about politics. Most people don't vote on reason they vote for the guy that makes them feel good. Some people feel good when they eat oatmeal, because they know it's good for them. Most people would rather eat chocolate. Let them eat chocolate.

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    The problem is that indulging the taste for chocolate begets the craving for more, and soon, nothing else tastes quite as good. And, to strain the analogy even further, we end up a fat, diabetic, and undernourished nation.

    What I fear about rant talk radio on both sides of the political spectrum is that it feeds an addiction to conflict and easy answers. The citizenry loses the ability and the willingness to engage in nuanced debate, and the details of a very complex world are lost. By satisfying the appetites of our basest emotions, we lose our more subtle senses and our more rational impulses.

    I agree that a lot of the damage has been done because the right has already whetted the appetite of the body politic for blood (or chocolate in this instance). But, I don't want to see angry, trite discourse become the main course.

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    I think I'll disagree. It seems to me that until Air America came along, we lived in a world where Blues sat around politely discussing policy in hushed tones while Reds hollered from the rooftops about the injustices of the left. The problem? That leaves undecided Americans thinking that if one side is really agitated and worked up about something, well then by god, they must be on to something.

    When the left side of the aisle acts as if it'll all be ok if we just have another well-meaning panel discussion, and the right side acts as if the world is about to end - it's obvious what side to sign up with: the people who are saving the world. (Even though they're wrong.)

    Yeah, Air America is often too bombastic for my tastes - but I think it's critical that we match fire with fire. Only then will reason win out.

  • Emily (unverified)

    I dislike every show/person on Air America...except for Randi Rhodes' show. She's on every weekday afternoon from 3-7 pm (rush hour) and I think she kicks serious, informative ass. I pick up a lot every time I listen to her and I like the way she interacts with people who disagree with her - she's excellent at separating out fact from myth/ideology. Before those who have never heard Air America dismiss the network, I highly recommend giving her show a listen.

  • oddlycalm (unverified)

    Listening to Air America is nearly as painful to me as listening to the right wing noise machine, but that's not the point. The fact is that millions of people of average intelligence listen to talk radio at home, in the car and at work every day. The right wing understands that most of these people do very little thinking for themselves and will believe most anything you tell them, even outrageous lies, particularly if it is repeated endlessly from multiple sources. Unless an alternative view is presented, the right will be allowed to promote their views unopposed to a very large number of US citizens. Unfortunately, they have a 20yr head start in this process.


  • Mike (unverified)

    Just a brief comment on Air America; I listen as much as I am able, but of course work complicates my ability to listen. But when I do listen, I am uplifted in spirit. It is nice to know that the left is "fighting back" against the Freepers and their obnoxious ranting. I am a transplanted Oregonian(Pendleton)living currently in California(North California we call it). Your site was recommmended to me by my 87 yr old father. A lifelong Republican, who has seen the light of the left. Keep up the good work!

  • Lynn Siprelle (unverified)

    Al and Katherine are my morning tonic, Randi is my afternoon pick-me-up. Worrying about cheapening the public discourse etc reminds me of the Redcoats complaining that the Minutemen wouldn't stand up in ranks like a proper army and get shot at: "They keep ducking behind trees and stuff!" It's time for us to stop standing around in ranks getting shot at and adopt some guerilla tactics of our own. So go, Air America. I'll be listening.

  • j (unverified)

    I can't stand Air America and I can't stand Rush Limbaugh.

    Then again I also can't stand the idea that the right screams hate filled non-nuanced rants at an "average intelligence" listener who "do very little thinking for themselves and will believe most anything you tell them". Give me a break.

    The average American is not an idiot, and will not believe anything you tell them. The majority of people will notice irrationality, and do not just lap it up. Instead each major party uses a great deal of PR, marketing, and advertising tactics to get people to buy into their message. This is far more subtle that the extremes of their parties. You will never hear Bush call Kerry evil, or visa versa, because they know average people would not stand for it.

    Instead it is the hard-core believers on both sides that turn off their critical thinking skills whenever someone from "their" side starts repeating the party line. The more people who give up on rational arguments and instead slip into ranting about how evil the other side is, the worse off we all are.

    Just because the left did not have an outlet on the radio before this for irrational party rants does not mean you should be cheering for one now. Personally I think you should be sad.

    I understand how easy it is to just fall back into this kind of thinking though. You figure it is useless to try and talk to people, so you might as well start yelling, "Bush lied" (or conversely "Hanoi-Kerry"). It makes you feel good (after all you really can't stand the other side) and who knows it might convince some of those "average" American voters to come to your side (the "intelligent" ones of course are already on your side).

    Emotional appeals like that might have some effect in the short term, but in the long term they cause a great deal of damage. They are also rather insulting to people who are not on an opposite political extreme.

    I suppose it is to be expected though. Everyone turns into a hypocrite when their side seems to be losing or the other side gains power. They start to use the very tactics that they claimed to hate, justifying it to themselves that it is alright because the other side did it before, and really we must do everything we can to get the other side out of power before it is To Late.

    The number of people these days who think the world will end if the other side wins is truly frightening. It is the root justification for all kinds of horrible behavior.

    Oh and for the record, yes I can understand comedy. No I don’t think things like AA, Michel Moore, the Washington Times, or Rush are pure comedy. Instead they seem to include comedy so they can hide behind that mantle when they get attacked for being hacks (even if some of them are comedic by accident, like the WT). At the very least if you attempt to be more than just a pure comedy show (an example of one that falls to the left of center would be the Daily Show, and I can’t really come up with one for the right) then you should not use comedy as a defense when you get called on something.

  • JJ (unverified)

    Unfortunately, they have a 20yr head start in this process

    Try 60-70 years in some areas of the country. The first radio networks were networks established for evangelism. Don't think for a minute that those ministry networks were letting politics just slide idly by. They were hammering at their "issues" long before Al Franken, Randi and Big Ed were born.

    AS for the harshening of public discourse: these folks call us "leeches", "Idiots" and "People who worship Mao and Joe Stalin", and "vermin" <-- thanks to Michael Savage for those quotes, by the way.

    I am NOT hearing Al or Randi call the conservatives "vermin" and suggesting that they be rounded up and killed as enemies of the state.

    Wake up folks! These people say that they want us eliminated from the political equation (or in the case of Savage--dead).

    Civil disobedience and satyagraha ONLY work when the majority of the populace is in the same position, and only if the other side agrees to the rules. Otherwise, you get a Krystalnacht.

    We play by THEIR rules and thankfully, guns aren't involved (cuz we would be outgunned and until our voice is heard and understood, outnumbered), We will win, because at the end of the day, we aren't talking about restructuring the order of things, we are talking about everyone having a place in the order of things.

    Hasn't anyone noticed how "liberal" is a dirty word now? How a career can be sidelined or derailed because someone spoke out about something that was just plain wrong? How the unions are systematically smashed? How they want to reach further into our daily lives and outlaw activities that are right and good?

    Stay silent, and we will see scary things.

    Enjoy the radio station. Enjoy your voice, and use it. Speak to your friends, come out of whatever closet you were in, and make it clear that you WON'T go back in there.

    Let the 'pubs sit back while WE drive the political discourse for a while. I can guarantee you it won't be without rancor, but I can likewise guarantee you we won't be calling them "vermin" and hinting at extermination.


  • Jeff (unverified)

    I listen to Air America and stomach the stupid stuff - mainly the uncritical embrace of John Kerry, who is fine, but he's hardly the tonic for all that ails us. Of the three shows I regularly hear, I've also found the the shows vary with the talent. Al Franken's morning show isn't bad and, while he's clearly partisan, he takes a plausible stab at accuracy; he's nowhere near Rush in this regard. In any case, he gets fantastic guests, which papers over a lot of his quirks. So far as I've heard, Ed Schultz (hope I spelled that right) is the best show they've got, but that's got less to do with his own "brilliance" as it does with his willingness to actually engage in DIALOGUE - as opposed to monologues - with anyone who calls. For my money, this forgives a number of inaccuracies. To sit and listen to him discuss an issue with the occasional bright conservative makes for decent radio. If we can find a way to provide living, breathing, politically cross-polinated forums, we'd have a damn good, damn useful radio program. Yes, I know that's not going to happen anytime soon... Finally, Randi Rhodes is a nightmare. She's gratingly knee-jerk and shouts over nearly everyone who calls, even if she agrees with them. I might broadly agree with her politics, but I don't last more than 15 minutes on her show. I haven't listened to her since a show a few days back when a caller mentioned that a lot of Americans take issue with taxation as a means to redistribute wealth. Now, if you live in Oregon, I think that's a harmless statement, borne out by the success of multiple anti-tax iniatives. Randi Rhodes chose to turn this into a fight over the fiscal policies under Clinton versus Bush. But that wasn't the caller's point and she, with that exchange, she left her listeners a bit dumber. Like the guy/girl above (J), I've got issues with rah-rah outlets, dumbed-down political discourse, and cheering when the Left gets a "Rush of their own." But, apart from Randi Rhodes - whose greater sin is stylistic - I think Air America offers roughly credible partisan programming. That said, it can do better. Call it harmless, agitate to make it better and, in general, be happy you've got alternatives beyond Rush and Michael Savage.


  • Simp (unverified)

    Just seconding what seems the be the majority opinion here.

    Air America is not directed at those of us who are seriously politically engaged. I do listen, but have to turn it off when it goes south (a lot).

    For quite some time, I've taken the high road of discourse. However, when a intelligent discourse and sound arguments are drowned out by 50 vitriolic sound bites that capture the minds of the short attention span group. We can claim the high road, but pragmatism calls for indulging in the dark succulent sweet taste of chocolate on occasion.

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    I don't know if this is an either/or proposition. Air America isn't the sole voice of the left--or, shouldn't be, if the left can find its voice--it's a voice. Back at the turn of the last century, progressives came in all stripes. Emma Goldman had radical views and radical arguments. She argued for a proletarian revolt--violent if necessary. ("If you're hungry, take bread from the rich.") Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a mainline progressive. He busted a few trusts and supported workers' rights. One could argue (and I do) that without Emma Goldman, you couldn't have a moderate progressive like Teddy Roosevelt.

    Air America and Michael Moore are muckrackers. They're more PT Barnum than Brookings Institution. Given the fantastically anemic opposition the left has put up over the past 20 years, their revolutionary language has the quality and inspiration of an Emma Goldman. Their call to action isn't a call to sober public policy--but it's not pretending to be, either.

    The downside of the Air Americas is the same as the downside of the right wing scream machine--it blots all other modes of dialogue out. If the only voices we heard on the left came in the Air America mode, that would be a problem. But I think the reverse is just as true--without any voice like Air America's, the left is failing in its duty to keep people pumped and emotional. A little chocolate? What diet is complete without it?

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    Incidentally, KPOJ has vast tracts of programming that merely rebroadcasts the Air America lineup. I don't know what their contractual obligation there is, but it seems like an opportunity for a local progressive show.

    I worked with some folks from the Bus Project last year on a show for KBOO called "The Rogue Hour." We only managed a single show, but it was a pretty damn good one. Perhaps its time for someone to give KPOJ a call and see what they think about producing a local show. Clearly, we've got scads of talent who could make it go. My guess is that it would be better than Air America.

  • jj (unverified)

    GET MAD!

    You folks aren't getting it, unfortunately. This isn't the sweet chocolate. This is the political discourse. For the last 10 years, we have sat idly and used our own, rather mellow forms of political discourse, while the right wing has been hollerin' at us and about us to their constituents. While we sat by, the rules of political discourse were rewritten, and unless we adopt the same rules, we will be drowned out in the din of hate and fearmongering. Once we are in control of the political discourse, or are at least participating in it, we can rewrite the rules, bring them back toward a level of civility that is necessary.

    Think of this as a household where everyone screams and hollers as a matter of course. If you want to be heard, you have to holler along with the rest. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a quiet conversation with your dad in the other room, but rather, to make your voice heard, you must be as loud.

    The differences are not in the volume used, but rather in the rhethoric. How bombastic are our words vs. theirs? I actually think we lose out to them. The call us murderers, and liken us to vermin. We call them liars (correctly so).

    If you don't like to be noisy, don't want to challenge the BS, and are afraid of offending someone who thinks you are out to sacrifice babies (stem cell research) and kill senior citizens (death with dignity), then go back to academia, obscure political journals and silent boycotts. But if you do so, be prepared to face the fact that you can't be a participant of consequence in the political discourse if no one can hear you in the first place.

    Go Air America. Go Jones Radio Networks. Go Lewis Black. Go Margaret Cho! Go Howard Stern! More voices!

  • Fish (unverified)

    Sometimes a piece of chocolate is just a piece of chocolate. How many of us can eat chocolate without saying to ourselves "I really shouldn't eat this, it's bad for me"? From the posts to this thread, it sounds like most of us feel a bit guilty about listening to Air America Radio (AAR) because, well, maybe it isn't PC enough, or maybe it's mean which isn't nice, or maybe it's too much like THEM!!

    AAR isn't about anything except talk radio, from a left-leaning point of view. It's funny, it's informative, it's political, it's sometimes mean, Randi Rhodes is sometimes dirty and naughty, but it's just radio, and even though my doctor says I should show constraint, I often nibble a piece of that particular chocolate just cuz it tastes so damn good!

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