The right vs the right-on

Right-wing crazies rule talk radio in America. So can a $10m plan to put liberal shock jocks on air ever work? Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent Online

Wanted: a mould-breaking, iconoclastic American talk-radio host who, unlike just about every other mould-breaking, iconoclastic talk-radio host on the US airwaves, also happens to be left-wing. This host should have the charisma and audience-pulling power to be as popular as the Rush Limbaughs, the Howard Sterns and the other tub-thumping right-wing crazies.

Oh, and a sense of humour wouldn't do any harm, either.

That's the challenge an increasingly despairing American left is setting itself these days. It doesn't seem fair, or just, or even particularly necessary, that the White House, Senate and House of Representatives are all dominated by Republicans, that the country's most popular television news channel, Fox News, is a virtual mouthpiece for the administration, or that the vast majority of popular television is so right wing.

After years of agonising and theorising why this should be - US voters, after all, are considered by most domestic political scientists to be pretty middle-of-the-road - some political progressives have decided to do something about it and face the issue head-on. A group of Chicago-based investors called AnShell have raised an initial $10m that they intend to spend setting up a left-wing talk radio show, on its own syndicated station if necessary.

On the West Coast, a group headed by a former multimillionaire is talking of setting up a "venture collective" (as opposed to venture capital) to raise money for new media projects. And in Boulder, Colorado, a valiant team of woefully underresourced journalists have set up something called Free Speech Television, whose newscasts and documentaries now reach 70 (admittedly little watched) public access stations across the country.

Could the project ever work? On paper, there is no reason why not. The United States certainly has its share of left-wing populists. Just think of Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentary maker, whose comic anti-Bush rant of a book, Stupid White Men, has been at the top of the bestseller lists for more than a year, or the comedian Al Franken - less well known in Britain - who also scored a hit with his anti-talk radio tome, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.

The problem for progressive opinion is not just a matter of finding the right host, however. It is also about confronting the ownership structure of the US media, dominated by big conglomerates who tip heavily towards the establishment and tend to freeze out most dissenting opinion from the left even as they indulge voices from the right or the far right.

In television, the success of Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has tilted all the cable news stations in a strikingly conservative direction. On the radio, the marketplace is dominated by a few corporate giants such as Clear Channel Communications, Rush Limbaugh's employer, which owns an amazing 1,200 stations across the country. Although Clear Channel's main prerogative is making money - rather than cultivating good music or quality programming - it also has a clear political preference for the Christian-inflected right, giving 85 per cent of its political contributions in the last election cycle to Republicans.

The problem of media oligopolies has just become more acute, following a highly contentious decision by the Federal Communications Commission to ease the rules governing both ownership of television stations and cross-ownership of TV and newspapers in the same local market. The FCC's decision is still subject to approval in Congress, where a tough fight looms, but on the left it has made people realise they need to act now if they want to have any room for manoeuvre at all - "fight fire with fire" as the media critic and author Eric Alterman puts it.

It is hard to overstate just how loopy political opinion on US radio is, especially once you leave the major cities and the FM dial fades to a crackle. "There's about as much ideological diversity on talk radio today in the US as there was in Stalin's Soviet Union in 1934. I mean, it's not just right wing, it's very far to the right," Alterman observed recently, and it's hard to argue with him. Limbaugh, who attracts an audience of 15-20 million listeners, is famous for his "35 Undeniable Truths", which state, among other things, "there is only one way to get rid of nuclear weapons - use them", and "the most beautiful thing about a tree is what you do with it after you cut it down", and "feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society".

Not far behind Limbaugh in popularity is a loathsome newish figure called Michael Savage, who specialises in character assassinations, racist rants against new immigrants and heavy-handed ridicule of those promoting diversity. Savage broadcasts from liberal San Francisco, of all places - he calls it "Sicko Frisco". When the city's most famous columnist, Herb Caen, died a few years ago, Savage used sound effects to simulate urinating on his grave.

It may be an ominous sign of his power - and the power of those like him - to study what happened after Savage denounced the cable news station MSNBC as "More Snotty Nonsense by Creeps" and ridiculed its liberal-minded anchor, Ashleigh Banfield, as "the mind-slut with a big pair of glasses that they sent to Afghanistan". Savage now works at MSNBC himself, while Banfield's career has been put on go-slow after she dared to criticise network coverage of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a university lecture.

Finding someone to take on such insidious manipulation of the airwaves is daunting indeed. Several efforts to date - involving Jim Hightower, a very funny populist Democrat from Texas, the former New York governor Mario Cuomo, the eccentrically out-there former California governor Jerry Brown, and Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity defence lawyer - have all flopped.

The reason, according to Sheldon Drobny, one of the AnShell venture capitalists, is that they simply weren't given enough space, that letting local stations sandwich them between the usual right-wingers was like programming an hour of rap music on a country and western station.

The new thinking is that a market exists for left-wing populism; it is merely a matter of ingenuity to make it work. "There are so many right-wing talk shows we think it's created a hole you could drive a truck through," another AnShell participant, radio executive Jon Sinton, said recently. All they need is the driver. And the truck.