Left Talk Ahead | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Left Talk Ahead

Some of the best left-leaning talk on the radio only comes out of your computer.

With the election looming, where does the left-leaning listener turn to get away from right-wing and centrist static?

Your friendly neighborhood conservative talk-show host will tell you: public radio. In fact, the presumption that liberal listeners and public radio go together has become a kind of cliché in contemporary American culture, accepted as much by the left as by the right. And with the domination of the AM airwaves by Rush Limbaugh, et al., the openly conservative Fox News Channel setting the tone for cable news, and the recent gambit by Sinclair to use their stations to smear John Kerry days before the election, the news programming offered by NPR sounds downright commie-pinko in comparison.

In truth, however NPR is not a vast, left-wing conspiracy. In 2003 a study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (itself a left-leaning group) found that NPR relied "on largely the same range of sources that dominate mainstream commercial news." FAIR found that NPR used mostly Republican (61 percent) and male (79 percent) sources. The FAIR study found that right-wing think tanks were cited more often (62 times) than centrist (56 times) or progressive (15 times) think tanks.

Fortunately, NPR is not all there is. If current trends continue, we are in for some left talk ahead. Surprisingly, some of it is on Limbaugh's AM-radio stomping grounds. And a lot of it is now available in Pittsburgh -- though you may need something other than your radio to hear it. Here is a beginner's guide to (mostly local) radio shows that are explicitly left, and explicitly talk.

What: Lynn Cullen
When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
What you'll need: A radio (1360 AM WPTT), or the Internet (www.1360WPTT.com)

It is a few minutes after 10 a.m. The news is over, the commercials have been played, and the opening lines of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" come blaring out of the radio. These few bars signal the beginning of Lynn Cullen's talk show:

"If you start me up

If you start me up I'll never stop"

Cullen is sitting in a studio into which crisp, golden September sunlight comes flooding through a large picture window. She is casually dressed -- wearing a periwinkle sweatshirt that matches her bracelet, a delicate, artsy concoction of wire and blue-violet glass. Cullen is an imposing figure, 5' 9" tall, so that even when she is sitting she has an almost regal presence. She presides over her computer, a TelePrompTer built into her desk (where she can monitor the names of her callers), a stack of newspaper clippings with key quotes highlighted and a sizable microphone. Her show is hardly new; she's been on the radio for many years, and on WPTT for six. But her show in recent years has been more political than ever before. And, on this Monday morning she is telling her audience why:

"I have a reluctance to get political. But I have to: Our nation is sending our young people to die. It behooves everyone to look at the decisions, to question, to educate themselves. Why? I feel like the blood is on my hands. I have been incessantly political since 9/11. It wasn't always like this. I am by nature hawkish -- I stood with President Bush in Afghanistan. You heard me wrestle with myself. I'm not a mindless partisan. I am a thinking human being, but [Bush and his advisers] have failed to even acknowledge their mistakes. Being resolute when you are wrong is not a virtue. And as for those weak-kneed Democrats who are moaning that it's all over: Suck it up. It's not."

Her voice rises to a piercing crescendo and crashes down a few octaves into a throatier range. Her words crackle with moral indignation. With a 30-year background in theater, radio and the hard-knock world of TV news, Cullen is whip-smart and funny. Her tone can shift from sweet to outraged, from hard-edged to inquisitive, and from "I'm on your side" to "What in the heck are you talking about?" in less time than it takes you to turn the dial on your radio. And, if Cullen has her way, you won't turn the dial. You will sit through the advertisements for Castle Windows, A Pleasant Present and Engraveyard, so that you can hear her read, with genuine, lump-in-throat emotion, the list of Americans killed in the Iraqi war this week, or remind Democrats that the polls are unreliable. Or respond to angry conservatives, like one who recently accused her of not being "fair and balanced":

"How dare you lecture me, the lone liberal voice? I'm like a two-pound person on a seesaw, and on the other side is a 500-pound gorilla. I owe it -- to what I suspect is the majority of the American people -- to give the perspective that is not heard anywhere else in this country."

Cullen is proof that liberal talk radio can thrive in Pittsburgh. She is successful in getting advertisers (she says she turns down more than she accepts) and her show garners a 2.5 ratings share for its time slot, equal to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 listeners. That doesn't compare with Limbaugh's 9 share on KDKA -- which is a 50,000-watt station -- but it's pretty good for a 5,000-watt station.

From the sound of the callers, Cullen attracts a slightly older demographic -- baby boomers on up. A lot of younger lefties are probably afraid of AM radio and its grating commercials. But echo boomers and Gen-Xers might be surprised when they tune in; since the beginning of the war in Iraq Cullen has offered some of the most coherent, intelligent and persuasive arguments against the war and the Bush administration that can be heard anywhere on the radio dial.

Cullen is currently the "lone liberal voice" on WPTT; her show is followed by the nationally syndicated Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly. But O'Reilly is moving to KDKA, and Cullen is crossing her fingers that the new show will be "liberal and local."

"I don't have anything to listen to when I leave the station!" she complains.

What: The Al Franken Show
When: Noon-3 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
TV 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
What you'll need: The Internet (www.Airamericaradio.com), or a subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio, XM Satellite radio, or The Sundance Channel on cable

Air America was launched on March 31 of this year with great fanfare, in large part because of the visibility of Franken himself. In the beginning he called his show the "O'Franken Factor," to piss off Bill O'Reilly.

Many early reviews applauded the spirit behind this effort but slammed Franken and his lesser-known colleagues for not being funny -- or angry -- enough to keep listeners tuned in. Even worse, Air America burned through its start-up capital, rumored to be $20 million (but was actually $6 million), in the first few weeks on the air. CEO Douglas Kreeger acknowledges that until a few weeks ago he was "working out of a closet."

But under Kreeger's leadership, Air America has exploded in popularity in recent months, increasing its number of affiliated stations to 36, including stations in such plum media markets as San Diego, San Francisco, Boston and New York. In Miami Air America has been picked up by Clear Channel Communications -- even though the broadcasting conglomerate is renowned for its ties the Bush administration and for allegations of right-leaning censorious behavior (preventing songs like "Imagine" from being played on its music affiliates in the days following 9/11), allegations Clear Channel denies.

"We used to rail against Clear Channel," Franken recently told a live audience in Boulder, Colo. "And it worked," quipped Katherine Lanpher, Franken's co-host.

"When we started doing this," Franken continued, "Rush Limbaugh said, 'Liberals won't listen to talk radio, they like nuance too much.' Then, when Air America clobbered Rush in Portland, Oregon, Limbaugh complained, 'Of course they beat me there, it's a very liberal town.'"

Franken shifted into one of his signature impressions of Limbaugh clearing his throat: "Bloo, blah, bloo bloo, blehh?"

Franken is still a little slow for the brisk pace of talk radio. He mumbles, covers his mouth with his hands, and pauses -- for an excruciatingly long time -- between his thoughts. Some of his bits are the height of cornball, like the "Oy, Oy, Oy" show, in which co-host Lanpher (formerly of Minnesota Public Radio) reads the news straight and Franken reacts like an elderly Jewish man from a bygone era: "Oy, I need a flu shot," etc. At the same time, Franken has a good feel for the intimacy, satire and schmaltzy humor that made 1930s radio the most popular medium of its era.

The most surreal thing about Air America Radio is the banality of its advertising. Apparently liberals are just as likely to need Abicor hair treatment and Ionic Air Purifiers as anyone else who listens to AM radio. There are some more unusual plugs -- like an ad for the Communication Workers of America (CWA), as well as ads for The Nation magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the League of Women Voters and the Web site www.seeyageorge.com ("where the left has never been so right"). Air America may, in fact, be opening up commercial space to new kinds of advertisers: unions, liberal magazines and lefty outlets like "seeyageorge."

There is a lot more to Air America Radio than Al Franken. Before Franken, there's Morning Sedition -- obviously going straight for the NPR crowd's beloved Morning Edition -- and Unfiltered, with Chuck D and two women you have never heard of (Lizz Winstead and Rachel Maddow). After Franken, the drive-time host is Rhandi Rhodes, who you should listen to, because she's the only real radio professional in the bunch. The nighttime show, The Majority Report, is hosted by Sam Seder and every thinking man's sexy smart chick, Janeane Garofalo.

What: The Young Turks
When: 2-6 p.m. (Saturday); 4-6 p.m. (Sunday)
What you'll need: A radio, 1550 "The Edge" AM, the Internet (www.youngturk.com), or a subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio.

This quirky radio outfit is part Howard Stern, part Howard Dean, and comes to us from Los Angeles. Their mantra? "We don't make the news, we make the news sexy."

The Young Turks include their founder, Cenk (pronounced "Jenk") Uygar, an East Coaster of Turkish origin (hence the name of the show) who kicked around law firms and mainstream TV/radio stations until he moved to L.A. He started the Young Turks with his friend and former co-worker in TV, Ben Mankiewicz. They have been joined by a twenty-something woman, Jill Pike, who is a cross between the show's sex-kitten mascot and the poster child for their demographic: Pike is a former non-voter who now chastises her audience for being apathetic.

The Young Turks offer a host of innovative programs with a political edge, and a few that are just plain silly. They provided a real-time "play-by-play" of the presidential debates as if the debates were a sporting event. This format, claims Uygar, has since been copied by Michael Savage (on the right) and Janeane Garafalo (on the left). Another segment, called "You're Going Straight to Hell by Pat Robertson" offers "quotes from Pat Robertson's book that in essence tell you why you're going to hell no matter what you do." Another segment, called "Kickin' with Kerry," is a "totally political segment" in which the Young Turks talk to high-level Kerry advisers. This is mostly serious, they claim, except when they ask "what it's like to drink or party with John Kerry."

Today the Young Turks are comfortably left-of-center, but they didn't start out that way. Uygar used to be a Republican. One of his favorite presidents is George Herbert Walker Bush. And he supported Bush Jr. during the war in Afghanistan. But the invasion of Iraq pushed the Young Turks to the left. In the early days of the war they lamented what they call the twisted doctrine of "pre-emptive strike," and the difficulty U.S. troops would face in an urban war zone. They decried the Bush tax cuts. They railed against the "Fake News Channel" (FOX) and what they call the "copycat" networks, CNN and MSNBC.

When Uygar and Mankiewicz started peddling their show they met with a lot of resistance from L.A. radio stations. "Station managers," Uygar tells me, "are cowards."

"Then again," he adds, "they have to be. If they try a new format, and it doesn't work, they are fired instantly." One company, however, was willing to take a chance on the Young Turks: Sirius Satellite Radio.

Sirius broadcasts the Young Turks and Air America Radio on the line-up they call the "Sirius Left." Sirius spokesman Ron Rodrigues says he sees "a pent-up demand by people who want a liberal viewpoint. [R]adio stations, including Sirius, are identifying entertaining and liberal talk-show hosts to engage their audience." Rodrigues argues that it took the left awhile to figure out what it was that made Rush Limbaugh successful: "The left got too caught up in Rush Limbaugh's ideology and not his personality. It was both. Finally, radio is getting it."

What: The Bev Smith Show
When: 7-10 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
What you will need: A radio (860 WAMO AM)

Bev Smith has a voice that is a combination of butter and anger. She is one of the few famous women -- let alone black women -- in talk radio. She tapes her show at WAMO, one of Pittsburgh's black radio stations; syndicated by the American Urban Radio Network, she has an audience of 8 million listeners.

Smith gained recent notoriety as one of the talk shows Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe recommends that listeners call during this election season. Born and raised in Homewood, Smith told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year that her childhood role model was the redheaded newspaper hound/cartoon character Brenda Starr. She started her career in consumer affairs reporting for WPXI-TV in the early 1970s, hosted Vibrations on KDKA, and then hosted Night Talk with Bev Smith for 20 years, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Last year she moved into prime time.

Smith is often called on to represent the "liberal" point of view in the mainstream media. On a recent CNN appearance, the bright-eyed "can-I-carry-your-books-to-school?" Bill Hemmer tried to trap her with a question about voting in Florida. Smith stayed nimble:

HEMMER: Hey, Bev, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for November 2. Thousands of lawyers on each side ready to fan out in case there is an issue. Is this any way it pick a president?"

"SMITH: Well, it's the way we have to pick a president today because of the things that the Republicans have done. In Florida already, 45,000 to 50,000 names, eligible people were put on a list [of ineligible voters]. Now the Republican National Committee in Florida said, oops, sorry, but those names remain on the list. It's the way it goes. I'm not so worried about the lawyers, because their purpose is to make sure that the election goes the right way. We do it around the world all the time. But I am worried about John Ashcroft sending out police officers, sending out agents from the FBI to monitor. I think that can be rather intimidating."

Smith's topics range widely -- she has interviewed such diverse figures as perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, Jesse Jackson and Bill Cosby. She has also been known to talk on the side of working-class African Americans -- like janitors and house workers.

What: Democracy Now!
When: 8-9 a.m. (Mon.-Fri.); Internet 9-10 a.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
What you will need: A radio (88.3 FM WRCT), the Internet (www.democracynow.org), or a television (Comcast Cable, PCTV 21)

Democracy Now!
is hosted by Amy Goodman, a radical journalist who risked her life in East Timor in 1990 to produce a documentary called Massacre: The Story of East Timor. In the last 8 years she has seen the circulation of her program grow from a few outlets in 1996 to over 270 radio and television stations across the country. Goodman offers a decidedly anti-NPR perspective on the news; listen in for coverage of the "Million Worker March" in Washington, D.C.; interviews with Arhundati Roy, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky; and even a spirited exchange with Bill Clinton (who called Goodman "hostile" and "disrespectful"). Democracy Now! is in Pittsburgh thanks to the work of an activist group called the Pittsburgh Campaign for Democracy Now (PCDN). One of the group's members, Danny Sleator, says the group worked for several years to find a station that would air the programming. They struck out with WYEP, but finally found a home for Democracy Now! at CMU's student-run station WRCT.

Goodman makes no concessions to commercial production values; she reads from a paper script (rather than a TelePrompTer) and allows her guests to ramble. But she is a compelling figure; with the success of her documentaries, her new book Exception to the Rulers, and her commitment to alternative media, she has turned Democracy Now! into something that is part alternative news program, part movement; the campaign in Pittsburgh is similar to campaigns that have been launched all over the country. In Boulder an activist group went so far as to buy an AM radio station in order to broadcast Democracy Now!

What: Left Out
When: 6 p.m. (every other Tuesday)
What you will need: A radio (88.3 FM WRCT) or the Internet (www.wrct.org)

After getting involved with the Pittsburgh Campaign for Democracy Now!, Danny Sleator went one step further: He created his own radio talk show.

This CMU computer science professor, who has a display in his front yard that lights up at night proclaiming "W LIED," says he was tired of what he heard coming out of his radio: "In the spring of 2003 I was so outraged by the war and the idiotic pusillanimous media coverage. I was just so angry, I would turn the radio on in my car. There was nothing but garbage on, like 'National Pentagon Radio' [NPR]." He named his show Left Out because that is how the mainstream media makes him feel.

Left Out is a call-in show which Sleator hosts with his computer science colleague, Robert Harper. Left Out is not for the faint of heart. After a few bars of a classical music intro, be prepared for high-level discussions, like the recent interview with nuclear physicist Richard L. Garwin, who advocates the carefully guarded use of nuclear energy. It was easy to get lost in the discussion of the difference between "pebble bed reactors" vs. "gas cooled reactors," but the topic served as a reminder that there is a progressive wing of the scientific community in the U.S.

Sleator and Harper also respond to articles they read in the alternative press, from The Nation, www.truthout.org, and, of course, Democracy Now! Listening to their show is a bit like overhearing a conversation between two pointy-headed friends in a smoky café; then again, this may be a refreshing contrast to AM radio -- which is more like overhearing a conversation between two drunken blowhards in smoky bar.

What: Indymedia Rustbelt Radio
When: 6 p.m. (every other Tuesday)
What you will need: A radio (88.3 FM WRCT) or the Internet (www.wrct.org)

Matt Toups is a wiry, energetic CMU undergrad who grew up listening to college radio in New Orleans. One of his co-hosts, Quentin Steeinhius, is soft spoken and clear-eyed, and plays labor hymns from the 1920s on his music show at the station. They started Rustbelt Radio with another CMU student, Andalusia Knoll; together they make up the core of the grassroots radio team that tries to fit as many progressive voices into their show as they can. Toups explains:

"I think that what makes what we're doing unique and interesting is that we're not just two liberal talking heads; that's not what we want to be. It's certainly valid -- liberal talk should be in the marketplace considering how many conservative talking heads there are -- but that's not what we're going for. We try to be an outlet for grassroots activism. So instead of saying, 'Hey, there is a rally Downtown for healthcare, and the unions and the anti-war groups are there,' we bring our tape recorder to the rally and we get the people who are there, their voices, on the radio."

Rustbelt Radio starts with a reading of the news that Toups says "the corporate media overlook." There might be: a report about a recent protest at the KFC in Oakland which featured the appearance of a giant "crippled chicken" mascot; or an unlicensed radio station in Santa Cruz that operated for nearly 10 years, and which was raided by the gun-toting FCC agents in September; or a demonstration by anti-logging activists in Oregon.

Rustbelt Radio is affiliated with the larger Independent Media Center, which was born out of the grassroots coverage of the World Trade Organization meeting and protests in Seattle in 1999. In addition to having an international flavor, it also has an edgy college feel; it is punctuated with songs you won't hear anywhere else, like "Hitler Day" by Public Enemy, and Eric Idle (from Monty Python) singing "#@%* you very much, the FCC."

What: Fightin' Lefty Review
When: 6 p.m. (Friday)
What you will need: A radio (88.3 FM WRCT)

When Victor Cohen speaks you can hear his cool, laid-back West Coast cadence. Cohen, a Ph.D. student in the English department at CMU, has been active in local labor politics, and a college radio deejay for the many years. For the last three years, however, he has been one of the rotating hosts of Fightin' Lefty Review, which brings a labor perspective to the airwaves.

Cohen sees a connection between the alternative music on WRCT and its alternative politics:

"What drew me to this show was being a deejay on college radio for 10 years, and playing everything from avant-garde jazz to garage rock. I think most of the people who are drawn to that music gravitate towards progressive politics. The music is an organizing force. The current political situation since George Bush took office has made a lot of people at WRCT feel like it's not enough to play music; it's also a resource for information that is not getting out."

Fightin' Lefty Review begins with the reading of news compiled from Labor Notes -- reports about mine accidents in China, or the story of a striking casino worker in Atlantic City who had his kneecap broken by a corporate security guard. You will also hear Donald, a charismatic former steelworker and regular caller, who has been urging listeners not to vote for John Kerry. Kerry, says Donald, is not nearly liberal enough, in spite of how George Bush might portray him. Donald is persuasive: Even Cohen has confessed his reluctance to vote for the mainstream Democratic contender.

In addition to interviews with such prominent lefties as Robert Meeropol (son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg), the lawyer for Mumia Abu Jamal, and Scott Nova, head of the Workers Rights Consortium, Fightin' Lefty Review broadcasts the weekly prison radio essays recorded by Mumia himself. This, ironically, is the most professional sounding portion of the show; Mumia, imprisoned now for 22 years, has one of the most compelling voices in all of left radio.

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