WASHINGTON — Al Franken is host of "The O'Franken Factor" on the liberal Air America radio network. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, scheduled to air on “Hardball” Tuesday, O’Franken talked about Air America’s success and the news, including the death of President Reagan.
Chris Matthews: Is there a market for liberal thought on the radio?
Al Franken: Thank God there is! We just got our first numbers. Let me first say that the thing I like the least about the radio business is the business. But we did get numbers that I think I understand. In our first Arbitron numbers in New York, which is our biggest market, we beat WABC, which is where Rush is, in the same period, among the 24-55 year old market. And we clobbered them in 18-34 years old. know that sounds like a lot of jargon, but there is a big audience there. And we’re also the biggest provider of streamed audio on the Internet.
Matthews: Are you secretly close friends with Rush Limbaugh? (laughs)
Franken: No. And I feel bad that he and [wife] Marta didn’t make it. He’s a had a couple of rough patches. He’s the radio host most expert at explaining bad news to his listeners.
On Ronald Reagan's death and news coverage
Matthews: Let me ask you about the political campaigns? The country took a week off (because of Reagan’s death). Was that a good idea?
Franken: I think it was. It seemed a little long … and I was worried about Bush the father with this parachute thing. Like, what if that didn’t open, we would have had another week of funeral coverage. One week of funeral coverage, after another would have been intolerable.
Matthews: George Bush Sr. gave the best speech at the funeral services last week.
Franken: Yes,Bush had a good week. I thought it was rare to see him emotional. I thought W. gave a good speech, too. Except one part bothered me a little, that Reagan didn’t know what bigotry or whatever. I’ m sure it was true of the man. When he went to Philadelphia and Mississippi in 80 and talked about this and states rights… that was horrible. I wouldn’t have put that in his speech.
Matthews: What do you think of the discussion by Grover Norquist and some of the other real gung-ho guys about putting Reagan on the $10 bill and that sort of thing? Or making the Pentagon called the Reagan building? What do you think of that stuff?
Franken: I was thinking of putting him on all the currency— just on every bill. And then it's just like, so the kids growing up will just think of him, oh, there's the money guy. Either that, or I was thinking of putting him on the $1 billion bill. And that way, we can just pay off the interest on our debt every year.
On John Kerry's potential VPs
Matthews: Let me ask you about the Democrats—do you answer hypothetical questions?
Franken: I only answer hypothetical questions.
Matthews: OK, let me ask you a hypothetical question. Would John Kerry have been smart to somehow seduce John McCain into joining his ticket?
Franken: Oh, yes. There's going to be a lot of Democrats who would say, no, that would have been a bad idea because he didn't get him.
Matthews: Like, “I wouldn't drive a Mercedes” is what somebody says because they can't afford one, right? And if they could, they would.
Franken: Oh, I see what you're saying. I think that whoever the veep is, that Kerry should run as a uniter, not a divider. And he should run saying, “I'm going to restore honor and dignity to the White House.” And I think he could say, “Those things may sound familiar, but I mean it.”
Matthews: Yes. That sounds good. And how else can you explain that? If he can't get McCain on the ticket, who else would be a uniter, not a divider, as a ticket mate?
Franken: Well, I actually do think that any of the Democrats he's considering—Edwards.
Matthews: Come on. John Edwards will take Cheney's kneecaps off on Halliburton every day of the week.
Franken: Oh, yes.
Matthews: How is that going to unite the country?
Franken: Because—because he should be taken off at the kneecaps about Halliburton. (laughter)
Matthews: You're one hell of a uniter.
Franken: No, but I'm saying that it's uniting the country to be for, to go back to the ideal that we're all in this together. And to rail against crony capitalism isn't a bad thing, isn't a divisive thing. It's a uniting thing. But what we have now is a government where it's run by the cronies. And McCain is against that kind of stuff, too. And McCain is against these huge tax cuts.
Matthews: How many McCains are there out there? There's only one that I know of, maybe...
Franken: Well, Chuck Hagel is a McCain-like...
Matthews: Feingold. Feingold is a good guy. He is another guy.
Franken: Oh, Feingold. There's a lot of good guys in the Senate.
Matthews: According to the papers this week, there's three guys in the running right now. They're all men. They're all white guys, because it seems to be the list we go from anyway.
Franken: OK, white men. So you're talking Edwards, Gephardt and Vilsack?
Matthews: No, Edwards, Gephardt and Clark still.
Franken: Oh, Clark.
Matthews: Clark is back in. Vilsack seems to be out.
Franken: Oh, I don't follow these as closely as you do.
Matthews: Which of those three do you think is the most likely to be picked by the next convention?
Franken: I'd say Edwards is. They have to make a sort of threshold choice, Edwards or not. So I think that's a 50-50 on Edwards.
Matthews: That's very shrewd. That's exactly where I think it is. No, I really do think that's what he thinks, too.
Franken: Thank you. (LAUGHTER)
Matthews: Fifty-fifty on Edwards. Which way would you—if you were putting together the ticket, where would you go?
Franken: I would go with Edwards. I'll tell you why: The job of the running mate is to make the case for the guy at the top of the ticket. Well, who would you like to make the case for you other than one of the great trial lawyers in our country?
Matthews: So he's the up-up man. He's the guy who's going to say, “I give you John Kerry. “ I think he complements more than supports. I think he would be the regular guy, humble upbringing, son of a factory worker, a father who lost his job, a good thing to take that case to Ohio, places like that.
Franken: Yes, absolutely. The two Americas.
Matthews: And Missouri, where people do feel that kind of pain in real economic life in a way that Kerry never could or would go through that kind of experience. He's much better born, he benefited from wealth.
Franken: But not anywhere near as well born as Bush.
Matthews: Let me ask you about, do you think that he would be wise to pick a person who voted for the war, supports the war even now, and is from North Carolina? Do those pieces of the thing add up?
Franken: Yes. Yes, I think they do. I think any of the three choices you talked about are good. I love Gephardt.
Matthews: But not enough juice there?
Franken: Jews? I think Jews would love him.
Matthews: Juice. This is not a Woody Allen movie.
Franken: No, I think there's plenty of juice there. One of the things I know about Dick Gephardt is, there is no one who has met Dick Gephardt who doesn't like him.
Matthews: That's true.
Franken: I think he is the embodiment of every white-bread, good value in America.
Matthews: Ronnie Howard.
Franken: Ronnie Howard, not enough experience in government. Great director, but no.
Matthews: You're suggestible.
Why talk radio works
Franken: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons why talk radio works.. But one of which is, to their credit, Rush did it. And Rush did it about, what is it, 12, 13 years ago. And, you know, music was all going to FM. And the AM spectrum was more abundant. He...
Matthews: That's a weaker signal, isn't it, AM? Why was it sitting there?
Franken: I think the music sounds better on FM. So everyone is going to FM. And he just created this thing, which is, you know...
Matthews: No guests, just him, for three hours, incredible power.
Franken: Yes. Unbelievable. His format in radio is called non-guested confrontation. Literally. That's the name of it.
Matthews: Do you know why he has no guests? He told me once.
Franken: He doesn't like people?
Matthews: No. He was doing guests for years and not making it in the business. He finally went up to Sacramento and he couldn't get any guests up there, because they all go to San Francisco. So he made the best of a bad thing. He said, you know what? If I'm not going to get any guests, I'm going to write the show, because guests distract me.
Matthews: They just want to sell books, push causes. I want to tell people what I think is in the news. And it's pretty smart, how he handled this.
Franken: There's something to be said for that, but we have a lot of guests. I can't do what he does.
Matthews: You can't talk for three hours straight.
Franken: I haven't tried it yet. I'm not a bloviator in the way that he is.
Franken: I do think that he distorts the truth and says offensive things and lies a lot.
Matthews: But other than that, he's a talented man.
Franken: Yes, yes.
Matthews: Let me ask you this about this. This is my theory—and let me run this by you because you're on the air and you've learned this: My theory is the people that are listening to radio during the day—not in drive time. But, during the day, they tend to be salespeople. They tend to be people that have to make sales budgets. They have to work out there. They're out there all by themselves. They're lonely a little bit. There's nobody really with them, except the boss calling up once in a while. The wife and kids don't really respect what they do. They don't get it, how much hard work they put in.
And I make the case that Rush supports them. He talks about feminazis. He talks about the enemy. He always builds up basically the working guy, the Willy Loman in the car, the guy trying to make his quota. He says, you're the good guy. You're the guy pulling the train out there.
And that's why they like him. He's a support group.
Franken: I think that's a theory that sounds good. I know from our audience, and, as I'm saying this is—I don't know the radio business yet as well as I should. But from what I can tell from the people who are blogging in and calling, that we're actually getting a different audience than the normal talk radio audience. We're getting a younger audience.
Matthews: Are they turning you on in their home?
Franken: No. They're at the office. There are a lot of people streaming at the office.
Matthews: What, are they screwing around? Why are they listening to the radio instead of working?
Franken: They can do both.
Matthews: You're like that guy that Kevin Spacey played in “American Beauty,” just sitting around, screwing around, wasting time.
Franken: Some people do it at the office. But I think there are some people who have the kinds of tasks that you can listen to the radio.
Matthews: Yes, I realize. If you're running a diner, for example, you like a little stimulation, conversation.
Franken: Yes. If you're a craftsman.
Franken: We have an incredible number of craftsmen.
Matthews: If you work in auto body shop, it wouldn't hurt to have some intellectual stuff coming in your head.
Franken: No. No. And they're very liberal, auto body shops.
Franken: No. I don't know.
Matthews: But office workers, it would seem you have to have your head trained on the paper in front of you, the screen in front of you.
Franken: You would think. (LAUGHTER)
Matthews: You're draining off that value added, that marginal utility of the working force. You're lowering their efficiency.
Franken: Yes. Productivity is going down every day.
Matthews: Every day your market goes up, every day your rating goes up, a little less production.
Franken: No. We had a guy today call in from Tennessee. And we heard roosters. So he was at home. He was retired. And he was a veteran. And I said, is that a rooster? And he said, yes. And his name was Billy Bob. So we have the Billy Bobs.
Matthews: Are you getting that rural audience?
Franken: We're getting people from all over the place. And I guess it's from streaming. And streaming is getting it on the Internet. The Internet is this big thing. It's a huge thing.
Matthews: Here's my knock on radio. All day long, basically, you get one point of view. It's basically ditto-heads. Look, I get along. I understand this stuff. But it's basically one point of view.
Franken: Well, that's why we're on.
Matthews: But suppose you had a real debate show and it was you against Rush for like two or three hours. Would that work? And would it get an audience for it, an honest debate of two smart people going at each other? Would that work on radio? And why doesn't it get tried, so you hear both sides all day long? Do people not want both sides?
Franken: I don't know. That would be an interesting show. And I don't know if anyone is doing it. I think that there are little shows that do that.
Matthews: Remember the old days, like Gore Vidal fighting it out, duking it out with Bill Buckley?
Franken: Well, remember, we used to also have—we had a law saying that you had to give equal time.
Matthews: The fairness doctrine, yes.
Franken: Yes, the fairness doctrine. And then that went away. And that opened it up obviously for Rush, too. Once the fairness doctrine went away, you didn't have to offer equal time.
Matthews: But remember Nicholas Von Hoffman fighting it out with James J. Kilpatrick on “60 Minutes”? There was great debates in the old days. I just wonder if it would work. I'm not sure would it work, because I think some people want to hear it from one side.
Franken: They have “Hannity & Colmes.” I mean, actually, this is something I've learned about their format is that they're not allowed to argue with each other. (LAUGHTER)
Matthews: Is that right?
Franken: Yes. Yes. I'm talking to Alan about this, because we're not allowed to argue with each other. The format is, they have a right-wing-movement conservative who is willing to lie, Sean, and a kind of reasonable Milk-toasty, middle-of-the-road, moderately liberal guy.
Matthews: What, Mr. Peepers meets Godzilla? That's the format?
Franken: Well, it's a guy who—it's the oddest combination. And then they call it fair and balanced.
And, also, Alan is forced to read things like, what is Kerry up to and why are people mad at him about it?
Matthews: Hey, that's great We love you. Anyway, thank you.
Franken: Thank you.
Matthews: Al Franken, you will take on anybody. Thank you very much, Al Franken. Good luck with more success.
Franken: Thank you.