Out Foxed

On America's top 45 AM radio stations, 310 hours of every week is occupied by bilious chatter from conservative talk show hosts.

By comparison, liberal hosts account for only five hours of programming, or, my computer calculator says, 1.6 percent as much.

Phoenix is devoid of any major liberal-leaning talk. The only lefty presently getting airtime here is former gubernatorial candidate and profoundly earnest nice guy Dr. Mike Newcomb, who, earlier this year, began buying an hour each morning on 1100 KFNX, the outrageously powerful 50,000-watt station that, as far as I and Arbitron can figure, allows anybody onto the air to do shows nobody has ever listened to. Newcomb now has two hours each afternoon.

I found the station recently in my car and was informed by a really nice cat lady that I should neuter the dog I don't have. (I imagined her holed up in her bathroom, broadcasting animal wisdoms while 30 cats scratch through the feces overflowing from the tub).

Later I learned from another host that socialism has ruined America. And I could have learned about a police-involved wreck that closed a major boulevard, but the KFNX traffic guy has such poor diction, a sort of muffled effeminate septum squeak, that I thought he was reporting a power outage in Queen Creek.

Mike had an excellent show about Martin Luther King Jr. He was extremely erudite, knowledgeable and urbane on the subject. I learned much about intolerance in the 10 minutes I could tolerate his show before switching back to KUPD.

KFNX is where the liberals are left to chat, the bunkered, forgotten cat lady house of American radio.

But why? It makes no sense. Liberals are typically the funny ones, the entertainers, the artists, the Saturday Night Live writers. And with George W. Bush increasingly taking the "crypto" out of "crypto-Fascism," they have so much about which to be angry. And by looking at voter registries, they would seem to have so many potential listeners.

Nonetheless, Rush rules. O'Reilly factors. There seems to be no brooking of this strident, yammering institution.

But now, a movement is afoot. By next year, radio listeners in Phoenix will likely find on their AM dial a station wholly devoted to liberal talk radio.

This is the plan of Jon Sinton, a longtime national radio consultant who is now CEO of a new company called Anshell Media.

With the help of $10 million in seed money from two longtime Chicago-area Democratic supporters, Sinton and his backers hope to create a sort of national liberal talk-show network that would be broadcast, ala ESPN radio, on stations across the country.

Sinton, who spent time in the 1970s at Phoenix's KDKB and has a son studying journalism at ASU, presently is recruiting talent and stations. Al Franken, who has somehow become the slashing new voice of the left, has tentatively signed on to the project.

The concept is simple, the motives overt:

"We are unabashed liberals and progressives," Sinton told me recently. "And we're willing to bet our own money that we can create entertaining programming that will both make money and balance the argument."

Sinton plans to pull together top writers and on-air talent with a liberal bent to create a steady flow of programming from studios in New York. Radio airtime would then be purchased in large blocks, effectively turning single stations in America's largest markets into wholly liberal talk radio stations.

"In the past, you've had liberal-leaning programs tossed onto stations between typically rabid right-wing shows," says Sinton, who produced Jim Hightower's ill-fated liberal radio talk show. "Then you're at odds with everything around you, and typically at odds with ownership.

"The fact is, radio is a mood service drug, it's about formatic purity. Like you'd turn to a rock station for rock, we want people to be able to turn to our stations for progressive talk radio."

Sinton says his company will probably begin looking at buying Phoenix radio time sometime next year. During the rest of 2003, he says, his company is concentrating on the 10 largest markets for radio syndication.

He imagines an inspired mix of talk, comedy and political satire aimed at the conservative assholes of the day.

It sounds like a cool plan. And there's no doubt radio needs some countervailing force.

I just have a sinking feeling that Sinton's network has the legs of a McGovern campaign. And something about the idea of a party-sponsored left-leaning entertainment network makes my independent skin crawl.

I generally like my political satire from the heart and the spleen, not from the party.

That's the same reason my favorite political satirist, Harry Shearer, the Saturday Night Live writer, Derek Smalls channeler and the primary brains and mouthpiece of The Simpsons, the guy I'd most love to hear on my radio each morning, plans to have nothing to do with Sinton's new network.

"It just sounds like you'd be having to answer to somebody," Shearer tells me from his home in Los Angeles. "I want to make fun of whomever I choose. I want to have at them all, all across the spectrum. Stupidity doesn't only live on the right."

Ehh-cellent point.

Shearer imagines a more organic rise of left-leaning radio. But he believes that won't happen until some legitimately good liberal talk show hosts emerge from the radio world.

"I found the Jim Hightower show pretty unlistenable," Shearer says.

"At its core, I think it's a backbone problem. I have this very unpopular theory that the Democratic Party has been feminized. It's afraid of confrontation. Somehow they've gotten this idea that politics is a cotillion dance. It's not. It's a muddy, tough affair. And they've got to get up the nerve to engage."

That was my argument against Janet Napolitano becoming the Democratic nominee for governor. She had shown a maddening lack of courage as U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General to fight politically difficult, but extremely just, fights. In contrast, I believed Alfredo Gutierrez had proven he had the fortitude to offer a legitimate counterbalance to Arizona's lunatic right.

Interestingly, Gutierrez will himself be starting his own radio show. Perfect, I thought when I learned this. Then this gringo learned he would be on Spanish-language radio.

His trenchant insights will therefore be as clear to me as a KFNX traffic report.

So I hope that in time, he will do double linguistics duty and bring his show to English-language radio.

Or, perhaps, another trenchant, ballsy, polished, left-leaning guy or gal will emerge from the desert.

But don't hold your breath. Because history tells us that liberal talk show hosts usually have two left feet.

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Robert Nelson