America's first left-wing talk radio begins with a right stutter

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The Independent US

So this was it, the start of America's first left-wing talk radio station, the much-ballyhooed beginning of the end of the dominance of Rush Limbaugh and the other raging conservative blowtorches on the AM dial.

So this was it, the start of America's first left-wing talk radio station, the much-ballyhooed beginning of the end of the dominance of Rush Limbaugh and the other raging conservative blowtorches on the AM dial.

"Broadcasting from an underground bunker 3,500ft below Dick Cheney's bunker, Air America radio is on the air," announced Al Franken, the comedian and Bush satirist who carries the weight of the new venture largely on his shoulders.

At least, that is what he was supposed to have announced. Here in Los Angeles, one of a handful of major cities receiving the Air America signal on distinctly out-of-the-way stations, we got a dying blast of Mexican mariachi music, then an abortive programme announcement, then a lot of awkward silence followed by a few bars of the Beatles singing, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand".

When Al Franken's noontime show finally aired, we were accidentally given the second hour first. The first hour came on third. There was, of course, the option of listening on the internet, but the server kept crashing because of listener overload.

Teething troubles were perhaps inevitable in a venture of this size, but they were greeted with delight by conservative radio pundits who cannot wait to watch Mr Franken and his roster of celebrity colleagues fail.

The show itself also had a few problems finding the right pacing and tone. Interviews with Bob Kerrey, the former senator now grilling Bush administration officials about their failings ahead of 11 September, and Michael Moore, the author and documentary maker, sometimes sounded too earnest for talk radio, and sometimes too flippant for the serious subject-matter at hand. On the plus side, Al Gore called into the show, as did G Gordon Liddy, the one-time Watergate burglar who is now a radio host in his own right, and a handful of other political and media celebrities.

The interview with Mr Kerrey was serious and full of tough questions, especially from Mr Franken's co-host, a seasoned radio pro called Katherine Lanpher, who did not miss a beat when Mr Kerrey complained of interference in his headphones. "Go ahead and ignore it," she said. "This is the first day of a new radio station."

Mr Franken had fun at the expense of Ann Coulter, the liberal-hating media pundit, pretending to have her locked in the green room screaming to be let out. "We'll check on her a little later," he remarked with gleeful abandon at one point. Initial reviews were mixed yesterday, with many accusing Air America of "preaching to the choir". Variety's critic Brian Lowry suggested Mr Franken may find it "easier to lampoon the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity than to walk a mile in their shoes". Howard Kurtz, of The Washington Post, said the programme sounded "more like someone shooting the breeze at a dinner party than trying to persuade listeners".

Some commentators believe Mr Franken and friends may be more interested in generating ink for their anti-Bush views in this election year than they are in starting a viable long-term radio network. Yesterday's schedule included a long interview with Hillary Clinton, to be followed in the next few days by Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief who has attacked the administration.

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