Franken hits Air pocket

Air America wings it with rough takeoff

HOLLYWOOD — The liberal Air America radio network got off to a somewhat disjointed start on Wednesday, as flagship host Al Franken — who has made a nice living skewering the titans of conservative broadcasting — discovered it may be easier to lampoon the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity than to walk a mile in their shoes.

Already subject to what has arguably been media overexposure in the run-up to its debut on just a half dozen stations (among them WLIB-AM 1190 in New York) and satellite radio, Franken’s program marked the launch of Air America, a network introduced to offset radio’s rightward tilt.

Yet while star-studded by radio standards — including arranged call-ins by Al Gore, G. Gordon Liddy and Ben Stein as well as in-studio guests such as 9/11 commission member Bob Kerrey — the opening three hours were an awkward affair, characterized by a lot of laughter at the hosts’ own jokes and, not surprisingly, preaching to the choir.

The maiden telecast was also marked by a technical glitch in the Los Angeles area, where local outlet KBLA-AM 1580 — which was running Spanish-language music up to the premiere — jumbled the delayed three-hour broadcast, carrying the first hour third and the second hour first.

As a result, the hosts kept touting segments that had already aired, promising interviews “in the next hour” with Kerrey and Michael Moore that actually were heard in the previous hour.

Almost like Magic Johnson’s short-lived TV talkshow, Franken was flanked by a sidekick, Katherine Lanpher, a public radio veteran there principally to smooth the show’s rough edges.

“I’m not a very good interviewer,” Franken confessed — accurately — to like-minded filmmaker Moore.

Along those lines, in fact, at one point Franken seemed to render Kerrey temporarily speechless by recommending a Kerry and Kerrey presidential ticket, suggesting that people would be inclined to vote in order to figure out which was which.

Beyond interviews and a smattering of phone calls, the program incorporated comedy bits, among them a recurring gag in which conservative firebrand Ann Coulter was invited to appear but was then locked in the show’s greenroom because she was so unpleasant. Franken also stated that the title was chosen to “bait and annoy” the easily provoked O’Reilly and that he was doing the show “drug-free,” a jab at Limbaugh.

Air America is offering a full lineup of programming, including shows hosted by rapper Chuck D and Janeane Garofalo.

Still, Franken’s remains the signature show, and his durability in broadcasting three hours daily has yet to be tested. Ignoring their respective viewpoints, his gravely, at times halting delivery certainly stands in stark contrast to the smoothness of an experienced broadcaster such as Limbaugh.

With the first show behind them, the assumption is that media coverage will wane, allowing Franken and Air America time to locate a comfort zone. A fair appraisal would require checking back in a few weeks to see if the show is running more smoothly, but based on the maiden broadcast, that may be a conservative estimate.

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