If you drive across America and switch on the car radio you are bombarded with radio stations - some reaching a large audience and lasting many miles as you travel, others staying with you only an infuriating few minutes. The power of the transmitters varies enormously: at night in Washington I can get a faint signal across hundreds of miles from the all-news talk station in New York, yet some local stations are difficult to pick up in Washington itself.
The FM stations invariably seem to broadcast rock music, while the AM ones usually consist of nothing but talk. Talk radio has had a huge resurgence and almost all the stations have call-in programmes where callers and hosts alike are very right-wing. The champion of these hosts is Rush Limbaugh, who earns tens of millions a year, and whose daily programme is syndicated on more than 600 radio stations across the nation and even abroad.
It has long been a mystery to most why right-wing shows thrive everywhere you look in the United States - G Gordon Liddy (the Watergate felon), Mike Reagan (son of Ronald) and Colonel Oliver North are among those currently with syndicated shows - while nearly every attempt to combat them with more centrist or left-wing alternatives has not succeeded. Mario Cuomo, the highly articulate former governor of New York, failed; so did Jerry Brown, former governor of California.
But if a new, $30m conglomerate has its way, all this will change. "Air America Radio" took to the airwaves on 31 March with an avowedly liberal agenda. "The radical right wing has taken over the White House, Congress and . . . the courts," said Al Franken, a writer/ comedian who will star on the new network with the noon-2pm slot (against Limbaugh). "And, most insidious, the airwaves." He calls the Air America venture "a battle for truth, a battle for justice, a battle for America itself".
The new enterprise had a shaky start, though, with transmissions failing and the internet link not working. Compared with Limbaugh's hundreds of stations, so far only six have signed up for Air America. The scheme is not expected to make money for years and will probably lose millions in the meantime. But Mark Walsh, the chief executive, says he is confident it will take off; he is a former news anchorman himself and, until Air America started, was John Kerry's adviser on internet operations.
I am not confident that Air America will ever compete successfully with Limbaugh et al. Janeane Garofalo (a comedienne), Chuck D (a rapper) and Randi Rhodes (one of the few successful liberal talk-show hosts) will all host programmes, but Franken is the star. I have not heard them all, but I have heard Franken give private monologues and I fear he has a problem: he's a comedian, but he's not particularly funny. His is a polite, middle-class sort of humour, more suited to the politically ultra-correct National Public Radio than to a rambunctious talk show. His first outing was meandering and disorganised and even his star caller - Al Gore - sounded bemused by what was going on ("What are you saying?" he asked).
Yet there are more profound reasons, I suspect, why right-wing talk radio works while its liberal equivalent does not. Limbaugh is funny and articulate. But it is also much easier to jeer at those seeking compassion for others than vice versa; the liberals are softies and naIfs who are always grist to the right-wing mill. Limbaugh et al preach the virtues of school-of-hard-knocks selfishness in a land where individual furtherance is all. And there are no shades of grey in Limbaugh's world - just the reassurance that personal and group self-interest equates with righteousness. Limbaugh's supporters, many of whom meet together for lunch to listen to Rush, proudly call themselves "dittoheads" - a tacit acknowledgement that they are stupid and prepared to be led by Limbaugh's prejudices.
However, even Limbaugh got a shock in 1995, when the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed with the loss of 168 lives. For years, like the other right-wing radio hosts, he had been preaching against the power of federal government. Though there was no evidence that the bombers were influenced by Limbaugh, he significantly scaled back his anti-government rhetoric - showing that he has a firm grasp of the type of listener his show attracts.
Alas, Air America is nothing like as entertaining or as biting. In its first week, the nearest it came to mixing it politically was when Garofalo dismissed the Bush administration as representing "the politics of extreme belligerence" and of being the disseminator of "very malleable . . . truths". Another presenter likened the administration to the Mafia, with George Bush as gangland boss. Side-splitting stuff that's bound to pull in the listeners, eh?
If I was Limbaugh or Liddy or North, I would not be shaking in my shoes.