THERE’S “THE O’FRANKEN FACTOR” ON AIR AMERICA, a little island, an outpost, a brand-new infidel in the empire of conservative wrath and rant radio, the solitary liberal midday talk show in America, with Al Franken, the comedian and writer, in command. Around the offices of The Factor, it is sometimes observed that March 31st, the day the show began broadcasting, marked the end of the television era and the beginning of the era of radio.
Air America put four shows on the air on March 31st, on five stations (Rush Limbaugh is on 600). The Factor is the network’s flagship, and it is intended to supply the missing half of the country’s acrimonious political dialogue — the exchange, that is, between people who ardently believe that the president is a decent and well-intentioned man, and those who recoil at the mention of his name.
Franken is just learning about radio. Unlike movies and television, radio is a single-sense medium, Franken has relied to a degree on gesture and expression for the effects of his humor. Gesture isn’t a radio tool. Furthermore, people who listen to radio often crave regularity. It’s called appointment radio. Each segment needs a slot. “The Oy, Oy, Oy Show,” for example. People who think, “The Oy, Oy, Oy Show’ is my favorite part of The Factor” have to know that Franken performs it routinely at, say, twenty minutes past the second hour of his three-hour show. On “The Oy, Oy, Oy Show,” Franken’s partner, Katherine Lanpher, reads provocative newspaper headlines — COLLEGE FOR THE HOME-SCHOOLED IS SHAPING LEADERS FOR THE RIGHT, for example — to which Franken responds by saying, “Oy,” and so on. “Radio’s a severe task mistress,” Lanpher says. “You have to have a format, and you have to stick to it.” Before moving to New York to take part in The O’Franken Factor, Lanpher had her own show, Midmorning, on Minnesota Public Radio. One of the things she’s in charge of teaching Franken is the necessity of a format.
Franken has a satyrlike body — short and bulky, with a low center of gravity; he looks as if he would be difficult to knock off his feet. He has a big, wide head and a wide mouth. The lenses of his glasses make his eyes look watery. He has a habit when he says something funny of searching the faces of everyone around him for a reaction. When he listens to people, he tends to rest his elbows on the table or cover his chin with his hands. His hands are thick; they look quilted. He is rarely still.
A few weeks before The Factor is to go on the air, Franken has assembled his staff for the first time, in a conference room in midtown Manhattan. In addition to Lanpher, there are two executive producers (Billy Kimball and Gabrielle Zuckerman) and Team O’Franken (Ayo Griffin, Tim Bradley, Jim Norton and Ben Wikler), who will provide research. While Franken waits for someone to bring him a sandwich, he is asked how the idea for the show came to him. “I looked at what I could do in this election year,” he says. “Where I could have the most influence, I was actually speaking to Hillary Clinton last night, and she said twenty-five percent of people get their news from radio — and there has been such a right-wing element to the whole radio landscape.”
He begins drawing with a felt marker on a piece of paper. “Doing this show is risky, it’s ambitious,” he says, “but I’m just coming off a huge best seller, and my profile is as big as it’s ever been, and I think it’s going to work. Anyway, I’d be mad at myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t try it.”
The drawing looks like a grid. Franken works on it while he talks. “I know when our show was announced about a year ago, Sean Hannity said, ‘Good luck, let him try to face twenty minutes without anything to say,’ and I can understand, reading his book, why that’s challenging for him,” Franken says. “Katherine’s been doing radio for about six years. If worse comes to worse, I’ll just have her interview me.”
From the droopy curving line Franken makes with his marker, it becomes apparent that he’s drawing a map of the country. After Florida, he begins filling in the Western states. “At SNL, I wrote a lot with Jim Downey,” he says. “We did some political stuff, but we never really felt that it was our job to have a political ax to grind. When I left SNL, I decided that I could express my viewpoint. I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot because I was angry at the Gingrich revolution. I was essentially a typical Minnesota progressive liberal. I like what Hubert Humphrey was fond of saying about the role of government: ‘Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.’ The judge of a society is how it treats those in the shadow of life — the sick, the poor, the old and the disappeared.”
Franken finishes the map. “I’m really hungry,” he says. He leaves the room to check on the sandwiches. When he comes back, Mark Walsh, the head of the network, appears in the doorway. Walsh wants to know where he can reach Franken the next day for a call with sponsors.
Franken says he’ll be in New Orleans.
“Is that Central or Mountain time?” Franken pretends to be taken aback.
Walsh shrugs and says, “Draw me a map. I failed geography.”
“I drew you a map,” Franken says, holding up his drawing.
A young woman puts her head in the door and says, “Al, David Gans for you.” David Gans has made a career of being informed about the Grateful Dead. For the music that will accompany the show, Franken is going to play only Jerry Garcia. Franken has called Gans for help. “What I’m looking for is the clean, melodic, upbeat, soaring solo and less the vague, spacey, acidy solo,” Franken says. “I don’t want people to be scared.” He listens, makes a few comments, then hangs up.