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By Stephen Thompson
Al Franken dabbled in political subject matter as a writer—and performer during two lengthy stints on Saturday Night Live, as well as on his short-lived NBC sitcom, LateLine. He has also worked in film—most notably as co-writer and star of 1995’s Stuart Saves His Family, a spin-off of the Stuart Smalley character he’d created for SNL. But today, Franken’s politics overshadow his comedy at virtually every turn. Born in New York City, raised in a suburb of Minneapolis, and educated at Harvard, Franken has become a full-time political figure.
The transformation began in earnest with his 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, followed by his 2003 work, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Now Franken is one of the major players behind Air America Radio—the liberal talk-radio network introduced in March 2004 to counter rightwing domination of the medium. At fifty-four, he spends the bulk of his time touring, preparing, and performing for the sixty-seven-station network, on which he appears as co-host of The Al Franken Show. But his goals are more ambitious still: He recently moved from New York back to Minnesota to prepare for a U.S. Senate run against Norm Coleman in 2008.
Franken recently spoke to The Progressive about his career evolution, the network’s past and future, and the political pros and cons of a comedy background.
Question: What are you working on right now?
Al Franken: Really, Air America is my main focus. I’m doing fifteen hours a week on air, and that’s pretty all consuming—you know, preparing for it, doing it. It’s really building Air America that I’m focused on, and for me, that almost only means doing a good show. We go on the road and see the affiliates, also, being an ambassador of goodwill.
Q: How is Air America doing? In the beginning, the press was all about how it had gotten off to a rough start, but now it seems to be doing better.
Franken: Yeah, we shot ourselves in the foot right out of the gate. The guy who ran it at first misled pretty much everybody about how much capital we had. He said we had enough to go three years without making money, and we had enough to go three weeks. So in week four, we learned that we bounced a check or two, and that we’d lose our stations in Los Angeles and Chicago, which were our second and third largest markets. It was horrible, and everybody was counting us out, and you can imagine how attractive our network would be to radio stations when it looked like we were going under. So there was really no growth for quite a bit after that, and what we had to do was prove that we were viable. And we did that by getting good ratings and showing that we’re fulfilling a need in a business sense—that we’re bringing in an audience. The thing that interests me least about the radio business is the radio business. But I’ve had to learn a little bit about it. It’s not rocket science: You get ratings, that’s good.
Q: Did you have a difficult time attracting talent in the beginning?
Franken: Well, we didn’t really have a problem attracting talent, because there is no talent to some degree. [Laughs.] The right wing has had a radio apparatus for years and years, so they’ve had minor leagues—they’ve had local rightwing guys who’ve become national rightwing guys, and who build slowly, and that’s how it goes. We haven’t had that. It isn’t like we have a farm team.
Q: You do have some experienced radio veterans.
Franken: Yeah, but you need an experienced radio veteran who is a liberal advocate. And there just hadn’t been any radio that did that. And so they weren’t trained—they had developed all these bad habits of being objective and balanced and stuff like that. [Laughs.] It’s hard to get that out of a person. I mean, obviously, I value objectivity and actually caring about facts, and we do that on the show. I’m not saying we’re objective, but we’re advocates. Katherine [Lanpher, co-host of The Al Franken Show] is certainly much more objective than I am, and tries to rein me in and keep me in check, which is good.
Q: Who are your dream Air America contributors? What funny people on the left do you covet?
Franken: Well, you know, if Michael Moore did a show. . . . But why would he? That’d be fun to see him do. Ray Suarez [NPR veteran and NewsHour With Jim Lehrer correspondent] is someone I’d like to see. I would love to have a Washington bureau. I’d like [Clinton Labor Secretary] Robert Reich to do a business show for an hour every day. I think he’d be great.
Q: Do you see Air America as looking to attract more mainstream Democrats, or moving more toward the left? Obviously, further to the left, you’ve got many people working in community radio.
Franken: Yeah, I’m not that leftwing, which is the odd thing about this: My views on most things would jibe with most Americans’. On most issues, most Americans are certainly left of this Administration. Not necessarily left, but more common-sensical. Given a chance, they’d spend less on the military, they wouldn’t make more nuclear weapons, they would want to increase environmental regulation rather than reduce it, they would want to spend more on education and health care, they would enforce corporate-responsibility laws and make corporations pay their taxes, all those kinds of things. Crazy talk. [Laughs.]
Q: Do you think Bush’s reelection is good for Air America?
Franken: Well, yeah, obviously. But I would have taken John Kerry in a second.
Q: Assuming you run against Norm Coleman for the Senate in 2008, what becomes of Air America?
Franken: By then, I think Air America will be on its feet and a going concern. It is now, but it’ll have been in existence for four years, so it’ll be fine.
Q: Would you still have a role in the network?
Franken: Well, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Once you’re an official candidate, you can’t have a radio show. I suppose I could be a consultant, but this is far enough away that we haven’t figured that out yet. I’ve thought about not wanting to leave the network in the lurch. That wasn’t the main reason I decided not to run in 2006, but it was a factor.
Q: How does a career as a comedian prepare you for a career in politics?
Franken: Well, a lot of politics is communicating with people, and obviously comedy has something to do with that. I’ve been a producer and led people. Also, being a comedian, you’re under pressure. [Laughs.] You have to deal with stress and pressure to perform—to deal with pressure without stress. And obviously, people know me.
Q: Where is it a liability?
Franken: I think the liabilities will be short-lived. People say, “He doesn’t take this stuff seriously,” and I think it’ll become clear that I do. And that’ll be over.
Q: Getting elected is one thing, but governing is another. You haven’t had to be gentle when you’re talking about Senators on the show. Do you think that the things you’ve said will come back to haunt you?
Franken: No, one thing I’ve noticed about politics is that these guys have pretty thick hides. I know a number of Republican Senators, and have had no problem socializing with them. Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, John McCain. I’ve talked to ten or fifteen Republican Senators in the past, and I’ve even gotten along with people like Rick Santorum. I’ve never told one of them to go fuck himself, like the Vice President did with [Patrick] Leahy.
Q: Given that Air America is part of a larger movement to match the right’s propaganda apparatus, what’s next in that movement?
Franken: Well, I mean, the pieces of that movement are things like the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, the media watchdog group, and there are other think tanks that have been there for a while, and newspapers and magazines like The Progressive and The American Prospect. You know, I feel like we’re just starting, and people are asking us to sort of catch up in a year or two. And we can’t. The other side has funding from people who benefit financially from the policies that their think tanks espouse. We don’t. Other than, I suppose, labor unions, which don’t fund us. Most of [rightwing radio’s] funding comes from billionaires who pollute the country and put out fake research or lobby for deregulation of utilities. They have a direct financial interest in changes to the tax structure. The rightwing media are actually financed by people who get a real bang for the buck. Their people make money from this. Our people don’t.
Q: Five or six years ago, you were a comedian who dabbled in political subject matter. Now, you’re essentially a political figure who does comedy.
Franken: Who every once in a while is funny. I know what you were going to say.
Q: Is there any turning back at this point?
Franken: That’s an interesting point. I don’t know. Well, yeah. It depends on what you’re talking about. I still do pure comedy—I recently did Prairie Home Companion, and I told a sweet, funny story that had nothing to do with politics. I do USO tours, and when I do a USO tour, I don’t go, “Your President lied to you and you’re dying for no reason.” I do, “Boy, this army grub doesn’t agree with me. So far, I’ve had five MREs and none of them seem to have an exit strategy.” I’m a comedian: I do a Saddam bit, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] So, if I do a venue where it’s only appropriate to be funny and not political, I can do that. The question is whether I’m going to do The Al Franken Sitcom soon, and the answer is probably not. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Stephen Thompson is a writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information on Air America Radio, visit www.airamericaradio.com.