HBO // 2005 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 6th, 2006
The rise, fall and resurrection of America's first liberal talk radio network.
Chronicling the trials and tribulations of the fledgling left-wing radio network Air America Radio, Left of the Dial takes us behind the scenes during the first few months of inception, capturing the elation and triumph of its cast and crew as they manage to make it on the air, but also the shame and defeat following a series of catastrophic allegations regarding financial impropriety and mismanagement.
The notion of a leftist talk radio network was an idea that had been floating around for many years, finally brought into reality by a few investors willing to take a chance and change the nature of political discourse on the airwaves. Alarmed by the unopposed dominance of right-wing talk radio in America, Air America Radio would be spearheaded by comedic talents like Janeane Garofalo (Dogma) and Al Franken (Stuart Smalley Saves His Family) and experienced radio personalities like Randi Rhodes.
Air America Radio went on the air, albeit with some technical glitches, on March 31, 2004, providing programming catering exclusively to a liberal, left-wing progressive point of view. Right-wing media outlets like Fox News dismissed the network as a foolish financial venture, but the station managed to expand into various markets around the country with strong ratings.
Unfortunately, after only a few months on the air, financial difficulties soon emerged. The reported $30 million dollars in venture capital raised by Air America Radio investors turned out only to be $6 million, a discrepancy that only came to the attention of Air America Radio management when their checks started bouncing like rubber balls. The liberal network soon lost its syndication deals in Chicago and Los Angeles, and started defaulting on payment for employees...
Ever wanted to start up your own radio station? Yeah, me either. Therein lays the biggest problem with Left of the Dial: it's a 90-minute documentary about the pitfalls and tribulations of starting up a radio station. Worse, it's a 90-minute documentary about starting up a radio station that glosses over salient facts like a Mr. Clean commercial. We get endless shots of technicians running around laying cable and configuring equipment, countless shots of excited staff and crew inanely chattering things like, "I have no idea what I'm doing!" and "I hope this doesn't happen when we're on the air!," and even more shots of people looking worn out, frustrated, and dejected as the finances start to crumble and fall apart. Then for lack of anything else to do, this formula repeats for the next 80 minutes or so.
The documentary starts to pick up a bit of steam towards the end when the bottom starts falling out on the financial venture, but Left of the Dial just doesn't seem to have enough factual information to make it a legitimate documentary about radio network ownership. Perhaps this is a good thing, because that would be an extremely boring documentary, but irritatingly, neither is it funny enough to be a showcase for the talents of Air America Radio. I mean, you've got Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Marc Maron all in the same room at the same time and all we get are a few camera shots of them walking to and from the sound booth. Talk about a gross mismanagement of comedic assets. We should be seeing more of these people at work, but what little we do see merely whets the appetite for more, rather than satisfying that appetite. Instead, we get Janeane Garofalo arguing politics with her father. Yawn.
So exactly what is the point of Left of the Dial then? If not a legitimate factual business documentary or a humorous lampooning, what was the motivation behind this film? A hint: it starts with the letter "p."
Politics is the name of the game here. Rather than being informative or amusing, Left of the Dial tries to be a rallying cry for liberal aspirations, especially in regards to the 2004 Presidential Election. The filmmakers take the vantage point that the Air America Radio founders and cast are not only visionaries, but crusaders for the common good against the Evil administration; a shining beacon of democracy in a world full of Fox News-dominated right-winged propaganda, leading the fight against George W. Bush's re-election. To call it "heavy-handed" would be putting it lightly, as the self-promotion borders on the masturbatory. I mean, it's a radio network. Yes, I am glad that somebody finally got the gumption to make left-wing talk radio to balance out the airwaves...but it's just a radio network. I hardly think the battle for the nation's future will play out on AM radio.
Being Canadian, I haven't had much opportunity to listen to Air America Radio, but I found myself enjoying the programming, being the liberal-minded kind of guy that I am. Listening to Randi Rhodes, for example, is kind of like listening to a female Rush Limbaugh, but with the words "Democrats" and "Republicans" reversed. Not everyone's cup of tea -- especially those who normally enjoy the conservative talk radio spectrum -- but I dug it. I wish we had more time with the cast of the radio programs, rather than seeing endless one-on-one interviews with upper management, griping about money. It got boring.
Still, there are highlights, like Randi Rhodes furiously arguing with Ralph Nader on the first day of Air America broadcasting, who irks the presidential candidate so badly he hangs up in a fit of maturity. Or Al Franken's tongue-in-cheek explanation to his audience that Air America Radio is about truth, justice, and rescuing the country from destruction...you know, not to be grandiose. The film simply needed more of these elements. With all these talented and hilarious people around, they should have been the focus of the documentary, not the financial state of affairs behind a venture capital arrangement.
Thankfully, HBO did a great job on the DVD. The video transfer is clean, sharp and detailed, despite clearly being shot on digital video. Grain is at a minimum and black levels are reasonable given the media. We get English and Spanish audio tracks, both stereo, which have decent bass response, clear dialogue and perform admirably. The only downside is hearing on-the-air segments, which preserve that nasty AM radio hissing. I could have done without that.
Probably the best aspect of this DVD is the commentary tracks -- not one, but two -- with show hosts Randi Rhodes and Marc Maron, and a second with filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan. The heavily sarcastic and satirical track with Rhodes and Maron is fantastic, providing the much-needed humor injection that Left of the Dial desperately needs. Plus, experienced radio hosts really, really know how to give great audio commentary tracks. The filmmakers' commentary track perfectly counterbalances the stand-up comedic styling of the previous track, offering wry Irish-accented observation about the production and behind-the-scenes realities of the Air America launch, filling in all the absent factual details missing from the documentary itself.
In addition, we get 20 minutes of Q&A with the filmmakers and crew, recorded live in an auditorium, as well as nine deleted scenes that definitely should have been left in the film, including some standup comedy by Marc Maron, a guest appearance on Majority Report by Tim Robbins, and interviews with Janeane Garofalo and rapper Chuck D., whose presence was conspicuously absent from this documentary for reasons unknown.
Though I did not think much of the documentary itself, the supplementary material on this DVD provide the much-needed humor and factual information required to properly appreciate the film. Here we find one of those rare situations where the supplementary material supporting a documentary turns out to be more interesting than the documentary itself. After going through the extra material, I am inclined to be kinder towards this DVD as a whole.
Of course, this does not excuse the fact that these elements are missing from the film itself; it simply helps to ease the discomfort. It may be an unbalanced documentary, but Left of the Dial makes up for its shortcomings by being an excellent DVD experience. Credit where credit is due.
Fans of Air America Radio may get something more out of this documentary, but for the average documentary consumer, the subject simply fails to generate enough interest to keep a 90-minute documentary afloat. Still, the film has its triumphant moments and the nice offering of supplementary material helps soften the mediocrity into something genuinely worthwhile.
I admit that after watching Left of the Dial, I found myself tuning into the station for the first time, listening to some of the broadcasts streaming over the Internet and enjoying myself quite thoroughly. Perhaps then, the documentary did exactly what it set out to do...hmm...
I was all ready to dole out some probation and community service on this one, but the excellent offering of supplements save this DVD from any legal retribution. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Randi Rhodes, Marc Maron, and Filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan
* Deleted Scenes
* Stand-up Performance by Marc Maron
* Interview with Randi Rhodes and Janeane Garofalo
* Air America Radio