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 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, 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 Hitler's feared SS corps.
Both sides of Hartmann's personality are about to go on much wider display beginning Monday, when he takes over the departing Franken's slot on Air America, the liberal-leaning radio network that aims to be the left's answer to conservative juggernauts.
Franken, the network's headliner since its inception three years ago, announced Wednesday that he's leaving to seek 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.
Hartmann's show, already live-syndicated nationally on about 30 stations (including KPTK-AM/1090 in Seattle), with a listening audience of about 1 million, will now be offered to about 80 stations as the liberal network moves to right itself. The trick is to convince 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, Washington, D.C., and Miami have already pledged to air "The Thom Hartmann Show," boosting his total to around 3 million listeners.
"Everybody does different shows," 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 than Franken's, industry observers said. Franken rarely took phone calls, and relied on a small stable of regular guests; 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 Hartmann's own thoughts on the day's topics.
"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."
Portland-based 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 progressive talk shows such as his, especially as 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," Hartmann 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."
Copyright 2007 Associated Press