Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) HEADLINE: HBO'S 'LEFT' RIGHT ON TARGET BYLINE: Dusty Saunders, Rocky Mountain News
It really doesn't matter if you worship Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity or stand up and cheer loudly for Al Franken and Randi Rhodes. Cast vitriolic politics aside and view HBO's Left of the Dial, a pulsating, fascinating documentary about the birth - and almost quick death - of Air America Radio, which today celebrates its first anniversary as a liberal network. On March 31, 2004, author-comedian Al Franken told his small Air America Radio audience: "Today is both an ending and a beginning." "It's an end to the right-wing dominance of talk radio and the beginning of truth." Actually, an end almost occurred quickly - but not the sort that Franken had in mind. Following an energetic if disorganized opening in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Air America three weeks later teetered on financial ruin because checks were bouncing in Los Angeles and Chicago, much to the glee of the conservative media. After weeks of uncertainty, the network found some financial aid and in December was the beneficiary of new investors who seemingly have provided long-range financial security. Today Air America has 48 affiliates, including KKZN-AM (760) in the Denver-Boulder area. And executives claim the growth continues. Left of the Dial is not one of television's typical rags-to-maybe-riches documentaries. It's an insider's up-close-and-personal view of a potential disaster, showing how a broadcasting organization struggles to find a national voice amid creative chaos and initial terrible management. And the documentary never answers the question: Will a liberal radio network ever become a major force in this country? HBO filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan had extraordinary access to the network, joining the Air America team in New York 12 days before the launch and then following the personalities, producers and executives through the launch period and beyond. The result is a you-are-there study showing the initial enthusiasm, the disappointment and then revival of broadcasting hope during a roller-coaster year. Left of the Dial is also a people story. And one person dominates - the strong-willed, occasionally foul- mouthed Randi Rhodes who loves to lacerate President Bush and his Republican cohorts with her sharp, always wagging tongue. And there are times when Rhodes is not exactly a cheerleader for the disorganized Air America team. You'll watch her during numerous on-air diatribes, including her inaugural show when she got into a shouting match with Ralph Nader, who hung up on her. Left of the Dial scores because of its always-intriguing fast-paced cinema verite style. Conservatives may complain HBO is playing a subtle public relations game by giving Air America a needed promotional push. But if ditto-heads do watch, they'll admit that Left of the Dial is a superbly produced, compelling bit of "propaganda."
The Onion Left Of The Dial DVD Review
The subjects of the riveting Air America documentary Left Of The Dial approach the Herculean task ahead of them with a sense of evangelical zeal befitting a network with such outsized goals. In a field dominated by the right wing, the decidedly left radio network Air America sprang to life in 2004 as a plucky slingshot-toting David intent on taking down some of the nation's most fearsome Goliaths, most notably a wartime President up for re- election and his staunch allies in the right-wing echo chamber. Following closely in the highly caffeinated footsteps of such voyeuristic, zeitgeist-friendly vérité-styled docs as Control Room and Startup.com, Left Of The Dial chronicles the network's rocky birth as it stumbles through one potentially fatal crisis after another, emerging from its travails battered and bruised, but somehow still intact.
Left Of The Dial captures the infectious electricity of a bold new venture, as well as the bleak gallows humor that ensued once the money ran out and the network and its staffers were forced to scramble just to stay afloat. Though Al Franken looms large as the network's marquee name, the ferociously neurotic Marc Maron and brassy populist Randi Rhodes steal the documentaryand then the DVD, with an audio commentary that's funny, mean, and brutally candid. In spite of Air America's rocky birth, Left Of The Dial leaves audiences with an emotion progressives haven't had much reason to experience lately: hope.