Politics & Policy

Err America

Day One.

Everything you need to know about Wednesday’s debut episode of Air America’s The O’Franken Factor is this: Al Franken actually said the sentence “Think globally, but act locally.”

No, it wasn’t a punch line.

I happen to think the name The O’Franken Factor is the best thing about the show. Nobody needs a lancing of the ego as badly as the preeningly pompous Bill O’Reilly, who combines the journalistic integrity of Walter Winchell with the self-effacing modesty of Howard Stern.

Unfortunately, the counterpoint to pomposity is wit, a commodity in dangerously short supply on Franken’s first outing. His closest brush with comedy was a bit where Franken’s cohorts allegedly had Ann Coulter locked in the green room and had cranked up the thermostat. What made the joke work was the listener’s knowledge that, had the media-omnipresent Coulter been invited, she would have gladly been O’Franken’s first guest. And she would have stolen the show, which in this case would only qualify as a petty larceny.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a talk-radio host and, therefore, it could be argued that it’s in my self-interest to demean a competitor. But it’s hard to call a show that’s only heard in a few cities (none of them remotely near me) a competitor.

Then again, it’s hard to call a network heard in a handful of cities “Air America,” but I digress.

I am actually a booster of Franken’s efforts because I happen to like Al Franken and because I ascribe to the theory that the more good talk radio there is, the better for my entire industry. A thriving, lively radio network on the Left would actually bring more ears to the AM band, which would be a good thing for everyone.

I also have special empathy for Franken who, like me, comes to radio later in his career and is learning what I learned (and my listeners might argue I’m still learning today): Making good radio is a lot harder than it sounds.

Franken has some of the right instincts. While The O’Franken Factor is dangerously close to NPR–his “giggle chick” sidekick Katherine Lanpher is a veteran of Minnesota Public Radio–he clearly understands that his job is to entertain people, not lecture them. But knowing you need to be entertaining is not the same thing as entertaining people. Franken’s first effort had the air of George H. W. Bush delivering his “Message: I Care” line.

Acknowledging the value of humor is no replacement for actually being funny. Believe me, I know.

Franken also seems to understands that there’s a stereotype he needs to avoid to make his show work, that of the angry, anti-American. That instinct kicked in during an interview with rapper Chuck D, the politically active star of the greatest rap group ever, Public Enemy, and co-host of his own Air America show. Chuck D offered his Air America philosophy by saying “The Right will dip into the old-style American rhetoric. The best Americans think of themselves as citizens of the world.” He added that Americans should stop complaining about jobs going overseas because foreigners need jobs, too.

Franken may be a novice talk host, but he sensed the problem. On Air America, the “best Americans” think of themselves as something other than Americans? Franken gamely jumped in with what passes for jingoism in the world of liberal talk radio: “Here at home we have to invest in our people, and create value added jobs,” Franken suggested. “And we need to invest in education–you know, think globally and act locally.”

Ouch.

Franken’s debut guest was former Senator Bob Kerrey, who let fly a bit more unrefined partisanship than he might have on Morning Edition, but mostly confirmed the show as NPR Lite–assuming you mean “Lite” as in “less,” and not “having a light-hearted tone.” Franken followed up with Michael Moore who was, well, Michael Moore.

This was the most telling segment of the show. The question that keep coming to mind as they ping-ponged their Bush-bashing bits between them was “Didn’t at least one of these guys used to be funny?” There was a time when SNL alum Franken was on my imaginary “If you could have dinner with anyone alive today” list. His Lying Liars book, while pure nonsense politically, was far more humorous and insightful than anything on day one of Air America

Like the joyless John Kerry claiming insult over President Bush’s WMD joke last week, Moore and Franken’s broadcast duet was yet another reminder that the days of the American Left being the “fun guys” are long gone. Even an appearance by the genuinely funny (and radio savvy) Bob Elliott couldn’t save the day.

One last comment: The O’Franken Factor features several “liners” (one-sentence promotional bites) announcing the show to be “Farther to the Left than Betty Crocker” or “…than the NRA” or “…than the John Birch Society.” If I’ve unlocked the secret humor code, the joke is that my brand of talk radio is not to the Left of the John Birchers and the House Un-American Activities Committee, but right in there with them.

If this is how hard listeners have to work to get the jokes, and the jokes remain this far from worth getting, Air America is in for a short and bumpy flight.

Radio-talk-host Michael Graham is an NRO contributor.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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