Last night I saw a riveting movie. It was a Netflix offering, "Left of the Dial," a DVD about the founding of the Air America network, as documented, I believe, by HBO. Though I wouldn't expect the film to be riveting for many others, it was for me because in recent months I've been listening to Air America for 6 or 7 hours a day, and on weekends too. The several hosts on their two- and three-hour stints apiece have become familiar to me, and naturally I had been wishing I could get a better look at them and at Air America in general, and this film filled the bill though it was necessarily disappointing in a couple of respects.
The "necessarily" was caused by the severely restricted time frame and by the film's limited focus. The film covered events beginning with not long before the first broadcast and ending shortly after that and after the national elections in that same year, 2004. And though the film showed many broadcasting moments, the focus was on the network's early financial difficulties, after affiliates in two of the three main markets, Chicago and Los Angeles, quickly dropped the network, claiming that Air America's checks had bounced. So there was an element of suspense, though not much, because now, two years later, Air America is not only still very much here, and not only are the arguments of its hosts being heavily borne out these days, but also at last count Air America is being broadcast over at least 89 stations, and some of its stars are outrating various right wing top dogs.
At the time, Al Franken was the biggie in the Air America lineup, and his show was the first to air on the first day. And after him came Randi Rhodes and then Jeanine Garofolo along with Sam Seder, and finally, of those hosts that are still there and so are known to me, the two Marks, Riley and Maron, though their Morning Sedition show has since been split into two parts, and only Riley is holding forth at the same spot -- and no wonder, because Maron had some sort of chip on his shoulder at the beginning, and that must be why he was moved out later, though not permanently.
Meanwhile Randi Rhodes didn't relish her second billing, and ever true to herself, she didn't hide her pique. She argued that she had been doing radio for 20 years, while that historic day in 2004 was Franken's first turn at the mikes. But Randi must've been comforted when she saw how the film was edited in such a way that she had the lion's share of the best rants, and in so doing she outdid even much of her present work. In her natural "habitat," she wasn't nearly as glamorous as she appears on her web site or on Air America's home page, but then she isn't renowned in the same respects as Halle Berry and Mariah Carey. She is famous instead for the force of her intellect and her personality, and that came out strongly here.
The narrow time frame meant, however, that Air America's fiercest host, Mike Malloy, wasn't shown because he wasn't aboard yet. That was a disappointment. I wanted to see him hurling his favorite epithet, "those rat bastards!" at the Republicans. Rachel Maddow was shown but only doing secondary stuff and only in shots that showed her left profile -- the film makers didn't anticipate that she would rise to become one of Air's stop stars in her own right.
Michael Moore made a brief appearance in the film. I think he gave a guest interview on that first day or shortly afterward, but then something happened and he left in a huff -- and that may help explain why, despite his stature in the cause, he is seldom mentioned by any of the hosts.
It gave me a good feeling to see this film. It gave me something that I've rarely felt -- a strong sense of belonging to a community, though I have to confess, with difficulty, that I haven't sent Air any money yet.