"It's casual Friday!" announces Sam Seder, halfway into his daily nine-to-noon show on Air America Radio, where Conservatives are periodically asked to "put down the stupid juice" and call in for an on-air fight. I'm in the control room, and the mood is more than casual, despite the fact that AAR recently filed for bankruptcy. Everyone's giddy over the latest right-wing scandal involving prominent evangelical leader and homophobe, Ted Haggard, crystal meth and a gay prostitute.
Seder's comedy background never fails to surface when the dirt starts flying, and he could be accused of doing what the media did to Bill Clinton nearly a decade ago, saturating the airwaves with salacious muck instead of substantial analysis. But Seder's not interested in the high road right now. In this latest scandal, he sees the opportunity to simultaneously get laughs, gloat and expose right-wing hypocrisy.
Air America may have financial woes, but they're likely to be bailed out by the end of the month. All bids are due Nov. 23, and there are already four or five contenders to buy the company.The precarious financial situation may have arisen from the fact that the progressive talk format was foreign prior to the station's founding in April, 2004. Air America was set up with the goal of countering the right-wing radio Goliath. But Seder can be just as loud and damning as talk radio fat cat, Rush Limbaugh, when it comes to badmouthing the politics and politicians he opposes. He will even depart from punditry altogether with occasional prank calls to senators' offices. The key difference is that his material is fact-checked.
Much like the radio show, Seder and Stephen Sherrill's book, FUBAR: America's Right-wing Nightmare, mixes biting satire and hard facts in an effort to entertain, inform and mobilize those liberals who haven't yet fully realized what a dark road the Bush administration has dragged the country down. "We wanted to make it explicitly clear that we perceive [Republicans] as fundamentally attacking American values," says Seder.
Former Saturday Night Live writer and actor Al Franken, one of the station's imports from the showbiz world, hosts Air America's most popular show from his home state of Minnesota, where he's gearing up for a senate run in 2008. Seder's former co-host, Janeane Garofalo, was an anti-war spokesperson prior to the Iraq invasion, and for this she's been demonized by everyone from Fox News bloviator Bill O'Reilly to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose 2004 film Team America essentially put her and fellow activist actors on a par with Kim Jong-il.
"There was nobody who could get on American television and say these things but her,' says Seder. "It's because these right-wing shills saw the ratings value in it and they also liked the opportunity to say, 'Well, the only person saying this is an actress.' Frankly, I have more respect for someone who is willing to use what they've created in their career and expend some of that cachet to speak truth to power, than those who don't."
During his New York years, John Lennon set the precedent for the likes of George Clooney, Danny Glover, Moby and Bono, who've all used their celebrity to draw attention to causes such as Darfur, AIDS, Iraq and Katrina. And some other celebrities choose to work dissent into their art, among them protest-music veterans Steve Earle and Public Enemy's Chuck D (Air America hosts present and past, respectively). Three days prior to sitting in on The Sam Seder Show, I sat two metres away from Earle, Chuck D and Ms. Garofalo at Lincoln Center, where the CMJ Music Marathon had organized a panel about music activism.
"I grew up in an era where it never occurred to me to separate music and politics," says Earle. "This idea that artists are not qualified to comment on the society that they live in is a relatively new, conservative idea. I don't ever remember hearing that in the sixties and seventies. In fact, I thought that was our job."
The recurring theme of the panel discussion seems to be "shut up and sing," now the name of a book by Laura Ingraham and a new documentary about the Dixie Chicks, who were vilified in 2004 for making a lightweight comment about being ashamed of sharing a home state with George W. Bush. But despite the occasional record-burning, the impenetrability of mainstream airwaves and the banning of peace signs at the Grammys and protest songs on Clear Channel stations, the biggest impediment to dissent among musicians, whether in their music or in interviews, is self-censorship.
"We're in a period where people are really afraid of the corporate umbilical cord being cut from their career," says Chuck D. "I never had any problem not being on a Rolling Stone cover-it didn't mean jack shit to me."
Ironically, the current Rolling Stone cover features Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the kings of fake news whose Comedy Central TV shows have clearly influenced political discourse in the USA. The Daily Show was as popular as network news during the 2004 presidential election, and its O'Reilly-riffing spin-off, The Colbert Report, has practically outpaced it, especially after Colbert's devastating roast of Bush and the mainstream media at last spring's White House Press Corps dinner.
Though both men insist that they're comedians and not activists, bent on getting laughs and not forging social change, they effectively cover serious political issues that CNN and company deem less important than the missing white woman of the week. They deflate the authoritarian administration in Washington by debunking its lies and satirizing its worst qualities, leaving the tired late-night old-guard in the dust.
Stewart has said that he would prefer less weighty subject matter, perhaps pining for the days of Clinton blowjob jokes, but his and Colbert's popularity have soared as the Republican pall has descended on the people, partly because their comedy is an outlet and a showcase for dissent, partly because people desperately need a laugh.
And as I sit among the screaming fans in Colbert's audience, hours after the music activism panel, I wonder a) why I'm the only person here wearing a costume on Halloween (Siouxsie Sioux, incidentally), and b) whether fake news is the new punk rock.
Before noted actor-activist Tim Robbins makes an appearance, Colbert screams in terror over a vision of California Democrat Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the house, a nightmare that came true with the Democrats' mid-term sweep last week. Of course, none of the comedians, musicians and actors I've seen on my voyage to the centre of the so-called elitist liberal enclave support the Democratic party wholeheartedly. After all, in recent years, it's mounted the weakest opposition this side of Vichy-but look at the alternative.
Critics can say what they will about the futility of celebrity involvement in politics (Reagan and Schwarzenegger clearly went nowhere), but the absurd proliferation of Stewart/Colbert '08 and Colbert/Obama shirts indicates that there's something terribly wrong with the U.S. government's traditional checks and balances (among them real news), and that the music and comedy of dissent are inspiring people.
According to the Report's warm-up guy, there's always a token Republican in the studio audience, usually one who's lost faith in Bush. As Colbert likes to say, they "get it," and now that the GOP is losing ground fast, the joke is only getting funnier.