Behind the scenes of a live radio broadcast, there are a lot of cords and cables, a couple of laptops, and a few things that don't translate over the air waves--eye rolling, fist waving, and jokes during commercials. A seasoned comedian like Al Franken knows how to work the crowd. Last Wednesday, The Al Franken Show made its way through Chapel Hill as part of a national tour of Air America-supporting AM radio stations. Locally owned WCHL (1360 AM) hosted the live broadcast to an audience of several hundred at UNC-Chapel Hill's student union. It was Franken's chance to show the Triangle, up close and personal, just how much he stands out from the talk radio pack.
Station owner and president Jim Heavner addressed an early breakfast crowd at the Carolina Inn, approximately 60 sponsors and other friends of the station, explaining how WCHL became one of the first stations in the country to play Air America's programs. "People said, 'When did you become so liberal?' and I said, 'I became liberal when I realized it would help us make budget,'" Heavner said.
Air America now airs in 53 markets. O'Reilly is in 400. But the liberal network has been on the air for only 13 months, and for WCHL at least, it's been a big hit.
Wearing thick glasses, jeans, a navy jacket and black sneakers, Franken approached the podium to deliver some of the same lines he would give later that day to the assembled media and to the radio audience. He joked that he was thinking of warming up the UNC crowd "by just trashing Coach K for about an hour." Then he talked about Air America's first year, and the press coverage in which he's been referred to as "the left-wing Rush Limbaugh--as though I am a mirror image of Rush Limbaugh, not the opposite of Rush Limbaugh." That distinction matters, he says.
Franken cited a recent statistic Limbaugh quoted on the air: 75 percent of minimum wage earners are teenagers in their first job. As a regular segment on The Al Franken Show, researchers check Limbaugh's facts. They looked up the minimum wage figures on file at the Department of Labor Statistics, finding that 60.1 percent of minimum wage earners are age 20 or older. "He got that statistic directly from his butt," Franken concluded.
Franken went on to tell this story throughout the day, in press interviews and on the air. It gets at the heart of what he's trying to promote: an alternative to right-wing talk radio, not just in ideology but in substance. "It isn't a game that we're playing," Franken said to the breakfast club. "I take what I do, even though it's comedy, very seriously," he said. "They said we've developed a new format. It's not just liberal talk, it's honest talk."
As the line formed in front of the Carolina Union Auditorium, Franken took a moment's rest in the makeshift green room, a small windowless conference room with a table full of food and bottled water. Inside the auditorium, TV and print reporters sat waiting for their 10-minute interview time with Al. Grateful Dead music played over the auditorium speakers. Banners hung across a folding table and behind it. On the stage were three chairs and three mics. A pretty spare production, but hey, it's radio.
Katherine Lanpher, Franken's co-host, went unnoticed until the show got under way at noon. A veteran of Minnesota Public Radio, Lanpher plays the straight man. "Twenty seconds," she called to Franken, who was still warming up the crowd with his Limbaugh fact-check story. "Ah!" he said, looking at the script in front of him. The audience got quiet, listening excitedly to Lanpher's intro over the Dead tune: "Coming to you live! from the Carolina Union Auditorium at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill," she said waving her hands upward, to hollers and applause from the crowd.
The auditorium was about 80 percent full, with roughly 600 people seated at any given moment during the three-hour show. Those tied to the university class schedule cycled in and out during commercial breaks.
Duke bashing came early and often, beginning with the complaint about Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's American Express commercial. But seriously folks, Franken pulled back to praise the unique rivalry between the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels. Franken's daughter attended Duke for a year before transferring to Harvard, through no dissatisfaction with the school, he said. He praised Coach K's talents as well. "He hosted a fundraiser for Elizabeth Dole!" someone shouted from the audience. "Oh, OK," Franken replied. "Screw Coach K." The crowd roared.
But the message of the day was criticism of John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the testimony during confirmation hearings from fellow conservative colleague Carl Ford, who called him "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy." A clip of Bolton's voice played as Franken made faces, waving his fist to mock Bolton's belligerence, making the audience laugh. Segments on national politics were interspersed with local guests.
The first guest, Jerry Meek, discussed his election as chair of the state's Democratic Party. "This is the first time in the history of North Carolina that we have a chair who doesn't owe anything to the powers that be," he boasted to much applause from the audience. Only those watching Lanpher's eyes roll could tell she appeared unimpressed.
But the most entertaining guest came next. Barry Saunders came onstage wearing a black beret, which he removed as he sat down at the table. Franken asked about a recent column in which Saunders interviewed Fred Phelps, the flamboyant Bible-thumping protester from Kansas, about his plan to protest a high-school theater production of The Laramie Project in Durham. A conversation about abstinence-only education followed. "I'm a living witness," Saunders said. "I carried a condom around for six years and never had sex." So you were one of those guys who had that ring impression on your wallet, Franken said. "When I finally opened it, it disintegrated," Saunders continued. "But you used it anyway," Franken quipped. "I was by myself," Saunders replied in perfect deadpan.
Soon, Chapel Hill Council Member Mark Kleinschmidt came to the stage while his partner, Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, was connected by phone. "The unambiguously gay duo," Franken had called them at the start of the show. His questions about how they met seemed to take Kleinschmidt off guard--"Do you want to take that, Mike?" he asked--but Nelson was on point. "I think we're the only town anywhere in the world with a gay mayor and a lesbian police chief," he said proudly.
As the show went on, with guests that included UNC professors Lawrence Grossberg (author of a new book on how children are mistreated in American culture) and Joel Schultz (mentor of UNC alumnus the late Sen. Paul Wellstone), a guest book circulated for everyone in the audience to sign. Its cover was sequined in red, white and blue.
The Al Franken Show airs weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. on WCHL 1360 AM in Chapel Hill.