Nicholas Fonseca
April 16, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Air America, the left-leaning radio network that debuted March 31, is round-the-clock pabulum for folks who digest The New York Times and before their morning coffee. And despite a choppy first few days, the net, available in five cities, including New York and Chicago, and online (, is off to an auspicious start — bolstered by a high-profile lineup that has helped establish a singular and sparky identity.

For starters, there’s rap pioneer Chuck D, who brings a much-appreciated African-American voice to national radio, one that — thank goodness — doesn’t resort to celeb gossip or in-studio pranks for attention. Janeane Garofalo’s nightly Majority Report suits the activist actress’ snarky leanings; within days of her debut, it became clear that the role of radio-show hostess (which she luminously cornered on screen in 1996’s The Truth About Cats & Dogs) is quite possibly her raison d’etre. Al Franken, the channel’s poster child, promised plenty of off-the-wall swagger when he named his daily news show The O’Franken Factor, but his inner wonk often overtakes the delicious brattiness that makes his best-selling polemics such a hoot.

There’s no denying that Air America’s most frequent targets (Bush, Limbaugh, Coulter, Gibson) are predictable, but the host I’m most partial to, spitfire Randi Rhodes, can still lob original barbs about the 2000 presidential election: ”Florida looks like a penis with no scrotum!” It’s bravado like Rhodes’ that needs to find a more consistent home here if Air America wants to overcome the dial’s aversion to soppy finger-pointing. Unfiltered bluster — long ago co-opted by the right — remains a more enticing listen, no matter your political leanings. B

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