Does NPR Have Competition? More All the Time : NPR Public Editor Many listeners tell me they find NPR to be an example of liberal media bias. When so much of the radio landscape is explicitly right wing, anything that is not openly conservative can sound liberal in comparison. But with the arrival of "Air America Radio," it's NPR that sounds a lot more conservative -- and a lot more sedate.

Does NPR Have Competition? More All the Time

Many listeners tell me they find NPR to be an example of liberal media bias. When so much of the radio landscape is explicitly right wing, anything that is not openly conservative can sound liberal in comparison. But with the arrival of "Air America Radio," it's NPR that sounds a lot more conservative -- and a lot more sedate.

Air America is the new radio service that hopes to provide openly liberal viewpoints to counteract that overwhelmingly conservative commercial sound. Air America is heard on the AM dial on a half dozen stations around the country and of course, on the Internet. The name Air America is somewhat unfortunate -- that was the logo on the CIA-funded airline that shipped arms to Laos in the '60s and to El Salvador in the '80s.

'Morning Sedition?'

Its early morning show is called Morning Sedition, a title that has raised a few eyebrows around NPR. Unfiltered is the mid-morning show and is hosted by Lizz Winstead, Chuck D. and Rachel Maddow. Other hosts on Air America include Al Franken and former Minnesota Public Radio host Katherine Lampher on The O'Franken Factor (raising eyebrows at Fox, I hear).

Air America differs from public radio in a number of ways: It is commercial radio in that it takes ads from the local market. The online version I heard had a commercial for in-home elder care in New York -- not exactly the expected demographic.

Unlike NPR, it has no features or reports. It is talk radio of the left-wing persuasion.

It is also advocacy radio in that it doesn't let the literal truth get in the way of a good punch line.

As Reviewed on NPR

NPR responded to Air America's debut with a sniffily dismissive review from Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers Magazine. The magazine describes itself as the "leading trade publication serving the talk radio industry." It seems an odd choice because of talk radio's overwhelmingly conservative bent. Perhaps it's not surprising that the magazine's Web site has links to events hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Asking Harrison to review an anti-establishment program might be like asking someone from PETA to be your restaurant reviewer. There probably won't be much that will appear appetizing.

On All Things Considered, Harrison described Air America as not having "that intangible skill at handling a radio show, and there's a herky-jerkiness."

Harrison not surprisingly went after Air America's best-known host, the satirist and comedian Franken. From Harrison's review:

"Al Franken, the most celebrated person on Air America... comes across the dullest on the radio because he relies a lot on his facial expressions."

Really? How did Harrison know that Franken uses or doesn't use facial expressions on the radio?

Harrison (also not surprisingly) lauded Rush Limbaugh for being "articulate," but his most intriguing point was one that he failed to explain:

"(Air America's) got to bring a liberal perspective to the public that you can't get anywhere else, because there are so many articulate purveyors of liberal philosophy that already have the attention of people who really care about that."

And where might that be? CBS? NPR? Pacifica? Everywhere but Clear Channel? Harrison doesn't say.

By asking Harrison to review the fledgling service, NPR's welcome to Air America struck an odd tone. The unspoken message seemed to be more about NPR's defensiveness over a newcomer on its turf.

Trash Talking the Opposition?

Some listeners were similarly frustrated.

Mr. Harrison's screed reaches its obtuse zenith when he lauds Rush Limbaugh as "articulate." Not only unbelievable, but shameful that NPR broadcast it. I have counted on NPR for decades for the objectivity it brings to what is otherwise a radio wasteland of bad music and bad talk. The ONLY other radio station I have the stomach for is Air America. Just you and them. Remember that. It is not a zero sum game out here and your network should not lightly trash the only other station most of your listenership can stand to listen to.

Dave Savidge

What's Left?

If Air America is still too conservative, there is always Pacifica Radio and its flagship program -- Democracy Now! -- hosted by Amy Goodman.

"DN" has more journalistic rigor than Air America but unless you are heavily into left-wing politics, it can sound very intense -- even moralistic. Democracy Now! recently shifted its broadcast to start an hour earlier at 8 a.m. Eastern Time possibly to compete directly with NPR's Morning Edition. So far, no audience figures are available to indicate if a shift from NPR to Democracy Now! is taking place.

'Energetic... but Rough'

I listened to Air America online the other day and I found it to be lively, smart and surprisingly energetic radio, if still a little rough around the technical edges. A recent edition of Unfiltered had some very funny riffs on Wal-Mart, the need for a new logo for the Green Party and a wickedly tough analysis of the Blair-Bush connection from London journalist and one-time Trotskyite activist Tariq Ali.

As a purveyor of opinion, Air America seems designed to provide a refreshing view from the liberal chattering classes. There are lots of good one-liners, but those start to feel a little thin and repetitious after a while. What passes for wit at the beginning of a program sounds a lot like "smarty pants" radio after an hour. But there are points-of-view (Tariq Ali for example) you don't hear anywhere else -- even on NPR.

Will Air America be a short-lived election year phenomenon, or will it draw listeners away from NPR? Some listeners say NPR has become more cautious in recent years. NPR would do well to pay close attention to Air America's fortunes to see if monolithic and conservative commercial radio has begun to run its course.

A greater worry for NPR might not be from Air America but from an attitude of complacency that ignores what else is interesting and valuable to Americans.

At least in one other respect, Air America seems very savvy, and ironically it's in the realm of marketing. Their programs were launched at the beginning of the spring 2004 ratings season. NPR may know in August whether Air America has found its audience and whether it used to belong to NPR.