Air America: the good and the bad

'O'Franken Factor' rivals best right-wing programs, but 'Rhodes Show' is awful

by David Kopel

May 22, 2004

You can't listen to the new left-wing talk radio network Air America on the air in Colorado yet. But people who have Internet access can tune it in at Is it worth doing so? I would say yes.

The network's flagship program is The O'Franken Factor,co-hosted by comedian Al Franken and Katherine Lanpher (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Colorado time, weekdays). The two make a good team and, overall, the show is about equal in quality to many of the syndicated right-wing talk programs, such as the Sean Hannity or Michael Medved programs.

Right-wingers sometimes ask, "Why does the left need a talk radio show? They've already got NPR,The New York Times,CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN." Well, it is true that all of those news outlets (and much of the news staffs at both The Denver Postand the Rocky Mountain News) tilt left. However, the need to maintain a veneer of impartiality usually prevents direct ideological instruction.

Freed from the pretense of impartiality, talk radio hosts (like newspaper columnists) provide the audience new frames for understanding the news. The best columnists and hosts do not just talk about the events of the day, but advance the story.

Like Rush Limbaugh, Franken is unabashedly ideological but brings enough new information to his program so as to be persuasive to some moderates, and worthwhile listening even for ideological opponents.

Unfortunately, Franken is followed by four hours of The Randi Rhodes Show.A good radio host knows much more than the average caller, but Rhodes does not. Last Monday, for example, several callers raised issues (including Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan's controversial voter instruction letter), about which Rhodes had no idea. Like KHOW 630 host Scott Redmond on a bad day, Rhodes had a single idea (Donald Rumsfeld is responsible for Abu Ghraib) which she vainly tried to stretch into a full program.

On the radio, hyperbole and invective usually succeed only if they're funny - as they sometimes are on Franken and Limbaugh. With Rhodes, however, all you get is the same kind of flat pronouncements you could hear from a seventh-grader in Boulder: George Bush is "deaf, dumb and blind" and "stupid" and "an idiot" and people who vote for Bush are "morons" and "pathological."

For someone with such a smug sense of intellectual superiority, Rhodes is remarkably ignorant. Monday, for example, brought the bizarre claim that United States bombed Dresden after the Germans had surrendered in World War II. Actually, the bombing was three months before the Germans surrendered.

In the Rhodes early afternoon time slot, Colorado listeners who want leftist radio would do much better to tune in Enid Goldstein on KNRC 1150-AM. Goldstein's not good enough to be a national host, but neither is Rhodes, and Goldstein has a better voice. Goldstein brings the advantage of doing Colorado stories. Moreover, Goldstein provides very good coverage of the performing arts in Colorado, and frequent interviews with local artists and critics.

The Colorado legislature recently lowered the legal standard for "driving under the influence." The new standard for DUI is a blood-alcohol content level of at least .08 percent (down from the previous level of .10 percent). The standard for the lesser crime of "driving while impaired" remains at .05 percent. On May 11, the Newspresented a pair of charts that purported to explain "The new DUI law and you." The charts, however, were almost entirely wrong.

The charts showed the approximate blood-alcohol percentage of men and women of various weights who consume various numbers of drinks. Some boxes were shaded to show when a person is "Legally intoxicated." For example, a 220-pound male who has six drinks within 40 minutes, would have a BAC of .10, and be legally intoxicated. The chart, however, misinformed readers about the new Colorado law. According to the chart, persons with a BAC of .08 or .09 (e.g., a 120-pound man who has three drinks) were not "legally intoxicated." Thus, the chart was precisely wrong on the effect of "The new DUI law."

Other boxes on the chart were shaded to indicate "Driving skills significantly affected. Possible criminal penalties." The proper boxes for this shading would have been BAC of .05, .06, or .07 - which is below the legal limit for intoxication, but which still constitutes the crime of "driving while impaired." The Newschart, however, wrongly claimed that a BAC of .04 was illegal. Bizarrely, the Newsdeclared that a BAC of .03 (which is always legal for adults in Colorado) was illegal for some people (a 240-pound man with two drinks) but legal for some other people (such as a 140-pound woman with one drink).

The Newscompounded the false charts by shading all levels for zero drinks (.00 BAC) to declare them the "Only safe driving limit." Certainly this is the position of alcohol prohibition advocates; the Colorado legislature, however, does not take this extremist view, and the extremist view had no business appearing in a chart which purported to describe Colorado's laws.


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