- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

PORTLAND, Ore. — The restaurant that radio talk show host Thom Hartmann — comedian Al Franken’s heir apparent on Air America — has chosen for lunch speaks volumes.

On the one hand, it’s an old-fashioned Midwestern fish fry joint, where the perch comes battered and the fries are thickly cut, perfectly in keeping with the Michigan-born Mr. Hartmann’s well-honed message of economic populism, of the sort that’s been popping up with increasing frequency as both major parties try to lay claim to the country’s middle-class voters.

On the other hand, all the food served at the restaurant is gluten-free, and the menu takes care to note that their cooks use 100 percent rice bran oil — par for the course for a man whose broadcasting booth is virtually wallpapered with anti-right wing paraphernalia, including a poster of Dick Cheney dressed as a member of the Gestapo.

Both sides of Mr. Hartmann’s personality are about to go on much wider display beginning Monday, when he takes over the departing Mr. Franken’s plum noon to 3 p.m. slot on Air America, the liberal radio network that aims to be the left’s answer to conservative juggernauts such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. Franken, the network’s headliner since its inception three years ago, on Wednesday announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Minnesota. He’s leaving Air America at a pivotal juncture — the network is being acquired by a New York real estate agent after filing for bankruptcy protection last fall.

Mr. Hartmann’s show, already syndicated nationally on about 30 stations, with a listening audience of about 1 million, will now be offered to about 80 stations, as the network moves to right itself. The trick is to persuade local stations that liberal talk radio is as viable a business model as its conservative counterpart, especially after a handful of affiliates dropped the format in its first few years, citing low ad sales.

Air America affiliates in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and the District have already pledged to air “The Thom Hartmann Show,” boosting his total to about 3 million listeners.

“Everybody does different shows,” Mr. Hartmann said. “People have really bonded with Al’s show — he had a lot of loyal listeners. I will do my best for them.”

New listeners will find a distinctly different voice from Mr. Franken’s, industry observers said. Mr. Franken rarely took phone calls and relied on a small stable of regular guests to appear; Mr. Hartmann runs a more traditional talk show program, with each hour organized around a theme. It will feature a mix of interviews, calls and e-mails from listeners and Mr. Hartmann’s own thoughts on the day’s topics, from illegal immigration to the war in Iraq to the presidential elections of 2008.

“My opinion is that Thom Hartmann is a far superior host, one of the leading liberal thinkers in American today,” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, an influential industry journal. “He’s not a comedian, not ambitious where he wants to become a senator, he’s not an egotist — he’s a very earnest guy who tries to present intelligent material that makes a case for the progressive point of view.”

The Portland-based Mr. Hartmann began in radio in 1968 and is also a prolific author, most recently of “Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class.” He’s convinced there’s a permanent place on the dial for liberal talk shows such as his, especially as the Democrats rise to power in Washington, and even as President Bush, who has provided ammunition for a virtual cottage industry of anti-administration naysayers, winds down his presidency.

“There is at least as much demand for liberal talk radio as there is for conservative talk, maybe even more,” he said. “For years, program directors just bought the story that was told to them, that all the liberals were listening to NPR (National Public Radio). We have busted open a mythology. There are a lot of stations carrying this format and doing well with it.”

During his three-hour show, the lean, bearded Mr. Hartmann, 55, keeps things moving, cueing up greatest-hits quotes at a moment’s notice — think Ronald Reagan’s dulcet tones, uttering his so-called scariest phrase ever, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” — swaying to a clip from a Cat Stevens song, and occasionally veering off into his specialty, discourses that reach back into American history for still-relevant trends and cycles.

Each week, Mr. Hartmann touches base with iconoclastic Sen. Bernard Sanders, the independent from Vermont, where Mr. Hartmann and his wife lived for many years. Other guests range from former Democratic National Committee boss Terry McAuliffe to the chief of staff to global-warming-doubting Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.

The show has attracted dozens of die-hard fans, many of whom listen to the show while typing their own commentary in a real-time chat room on which Mr. Hartmann keeps a watchful eye while broadcasting for instant feedback on whether he’s hit a sweet spot or strayed off-track.

He’s not above hurrying along a rambling caller, but his real penchant, Mr. Hartmann said, is to take callers and interviewers who disagree with him. Yaron Brook, a free market disciple who is the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute and a frequent guest on the show, calls Mr. Hartmann “definitely well-informed — though selectively.”

“I am pretty aggressive, so he can’t just run over me — we wind up yelling at each other a lot,” Mr. Brook said. “We go at it on every show, and he likes that. A lot of other people are too intimidated to do something like that.”

That’s not to say, though, that Mr. Hartmann always toes the party line. He has noticeably split with the Democrats on illegal immigration, which he says takes away jobs from the American middle class.

“Jackie Gleason was a bus driver on ‘The Honeymooners,’ and he was celebrated as the American Dream,” Mr. Hartmann said. “It was a good union job, with pension and health benefits. Those jobs don’t exist anymore, in part because of a million people coming north and staying put. It doesn’t do us a service, or Mexico and the countries south of us a service.”

Still, his message about empowerment for a rising middle class looks to have staying power, built on increasing fears about free trade, globalization and outsourcing, plus the constant churn of corporate scandals and the growth of CEO paychecks. His rhetoric is shared by many of the newly elected Democrats in Congress, such as Missouri Sen. Clair McCaskill, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Still, Mr. Hartmann says he considers himself on the edge of his party, in its current incarnation.

“The Democratic Party is nowhere near yet being a progressive party,” he said. “It’s a moderate to liberal party. Voices like Limbaugh on the right, mine on the left are always going to be outside the mainstream of the parties themselves.”

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