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  1. Long reads
17 April 2006

Voice of America’s left

Right-wing shock jocks have dominated talk radio in the US for years. Not any more

By F Brinley Bruton

“Happy, happy, happy birth- day . . . right wing!” A low laugh and an explanation follow the jingle being broadcast across the United States: today is the birthday of Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist at the centre of a corruption scandal engulfing some of the nation’s top Republicans.

“Hate to be a little dark cloud here,” says the Air America Radio morning host Rachel Maddow as the sun rises over New York City. She segues swiftly into official claims that Jill Carroll, the American reporter kidnapped in Iraq in January, is safe. She doesn’t buy it. Standing and gesticulating while on air, Maddow goes on to talk about the thousands of Muslims rounded up and held after the 11 September 2001 attacks, noting that one just received a $300,000 pay-off for his troubles.

Air America is a young network tapping into a growing dissatisfaction with President George W Bush and taking on the behemoth that is right-wing talk radio. And Maddow, 33, with her new 7am-9am show and regular television appearances, is at the forefront of that battle.

“Maddow seems to be what Jon Stewart and others were hoping for: someone with a sense of history . . . doing the media-heretical – making serious points ‘from the left’ without centrist pandering or apology,” writes Ken Tucker, the New York Magazine reviewer. He says she outshines the conservative Tucker Carlson during their appearances on The Situation, his show on MSNBC, giving liberals a “feisty” voice. Her popularity is also surging in cyberspace, with blogs buzz-ing about her politics, sense of humour and looks. Her radio show’s podcasts are among the network’s most popular.

Maddow “is making a real name for herself because she is turning out to be very talented,” says Michael Harrison, an elder statesman of radio and publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade bible of the industry. With her morning slot, she will be key to Air America’s success. The network, which also has Jerry Springer in its line-up, has been plagued since it launched two years ago by financial problems typical of media start-ups. But it has had “a tremendous impact in terms of publicity”, making it well placed to capture the ears of liberal Americans, Harrison says.

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What makes Maddow popular? Not conventional media experience. She was the first openly gay American to win a Rhodes Scholarship, taking a PhD in politics at Lincoln College, Oxford, and then working her way through a variety of jobs that included bucket washer and advocate for prisoners with HIV/Aids, before sliding into radio five years ago.

Maddow is confrontational and articulate on air, but not gratuitously nasty. “I don’t tolerate cruelty,” she says. This and the news-packed nature of her work – she and her producers prepare for five hours every morning – make her an exception in talk radio, where humiliation and rambling opinions dominate.

But do not call her “nice”. “It sounds like I’m a softie,” she says. “It’s like when the New York Times described me as ‘sunny’. Sunny and buoyant, I wouldn’t describe myself as being. Nobody wants to be buoyant; it is just a shade shy of dim.”

Maddow’s profile is rising as the president’s approval ratings plummet – by some measures Bush is less popular than Richard Nixon was during Watergate. Nevertheless, the right still dominates, with a Republican president, a Republican-controlled Congress and a presumedly conservative Supreme Court.

Conventional talk radio, railing against big government, big media and political correctness, has been given much of the credit for this grip on power. It can be extremely conservative. For example, Rush Limbaugh, poster boy for the medium, once excused evidence that detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were being tortured with, “You ever heard of the need to blow off some steam?” He commands an audience of 13-20 million per week, the biggest in the country.

In contrast, the Air America network reported 3.3 million listeners over 67 stations for spring 2005. But the new network is growing fast, adding at least 20 stations since those numbers were compiled. Maddow says she and her show stand to win given the public mood, and she is boosted by the conviction that Bush “will be judged quickly and for ever as the worst American president in at least a century”.

That the Democratic Party is hardly capitalising on the problems plaguing the Republicans ahead of midterm elections due in November does not put Maddow in a “slough of despond”, she insists. The elections will be a referendum on the Republicans and they have already des-troyed any viable programme they might have. “What’s the [Republican] platform? There is nothing left.”

Maddow doesn’t confine her criticisms to the western side of the Atlantic. Tony Blair’s loyalty to Bush will, she says, eclipse any other positive policies Blair may have promoted. “You spend your life helping old ladies cross the street and the one old lady who you butcher, that’s the one they remember you for,” she says, before striding out into a bright, cold Manhattan morning.

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