- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Rep. Bernie Sanders has struck a blow for liberal talk radio, the dream broadcast venue of those who mourn the defeat of Al Gore and the triumph of Rush Limbaugh.

The Vermont independent hosted his first one-hour show from a small station in Waterbury on Monday afternoon, joined by Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman, author of the recent book “What Liberal Media?”

Mr. Sanders has no beef with Mr. Limbaugh, or ABC Radio’s Sean Hannity, for that matter, his representative said yesterday.

“He does have a problem with corporate media owners who are making it almost impossible for the alternative viewpoint to be heard. And that’s not American,” said spokesman Joel Barkin.

“In a nation as politically divided as this, which gave more votes to Ralph Nader and Al Gore than to George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan, many Americans find it peculiar that all radio shows are very right wing,” Mr. Barkin said.

“The congressman hopes that in launching his show, he will encourage people to demand balance,” he said.

Mr. Sanders did well in his initial broadcast, according to Ken Squier, owner of “mostly conservative” WDEV. The lawmaker, he said, is part of an effort to balance the on-air ideology.

“We’ve gotten six e-mails so far,” Mr. Squier said. “Five were in favor of the show. One was not.”

Mr. Sanders — who is unpaid — will be heard once a week, while self-described “populist” host Anthony Pollina will fill in the rest of the time.

Meanwhile, liberal talk radio continues to grow on a fragmented basis around the country. After the 2000 presidential election, the Democratic Party issued a call for a champion to promote their message on airwaves dominated by conservatives like Mr. Limbaugh, who attracts 20 million listeners a week on 600 stations.

Conservatives gleefully watched the high-profile failures of Jerry Brown, Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo, who sat behind the microphone but could not win a comparable audience.

In February, however, Chicago-based Democratic philanthropists Anita and Sheldon Drobny pledged $10 million for a liberal-leaning radio network to “fill the hole in the market.” What the concept needed, the Drobnys reasoned, was a healthy dose of Hollywood, and brought in comedian Al Franken as an initial consultant. The as-yet unnamed network should be operational this fall.

“Their faith in human potential is reaching laughable levels of utopianism if they think they can somehow clone the success of Rush Limbaugh,” said L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center at the time.

“The notion that a network, liberal or conservative, can somehow be just imposed on the populace” is faulty, said Mr. Bozell, who noted that Mr. Limbaugh spent years building his audience at the grass-roots level.

Said Colorado-based conservative radio host Mike Rosen: “This is one of those unintended consequences of campaign-finance reform. If their contributions to candidates and parties are limited, well-heeled activists can influence elections by buying the media.”

Meanwhile, a spate of local liberal hopefuls have emerged, all eager to spar as the 2004 election looms. The Detroit-based I.E. America Radio Network and Radio Left in Dallas are among those that tout liberal or progressive agendas.

“Liberal talk radio is not going to go away. There’s a huge market for this, particularly as the election nears,” said Al Lawrence of Democratic Talk Radio, described as the alternative to “radio storm troopers of the right wing” and based at WEKR, an AM talk station in Fayetteville, Tenn.

“We were founded right after the stolen election to promote the Democratic viewpoint and attack Republican policy,” he said. “Right-wing programmers don’t say they’re conservatives. We don’t fool our listeners. We say who we are.”

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