On the air with Arnie Arnesen

If it seems that talk radio host Arnie Arnesen is once again becoming one of the state’s dominant political voices, it’s because she is.

From her base at radio station WKXL in Concord, Arnesen, who unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for governor in 1992 and Congress in 1996, has overseen the growth of “The Arnie Arnesen Show” (weekdays, noon to 3 p.m.) from one station in New London to seven in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont — and with ambitions to grow even more across the country.

Sometimes outrageous — her Web site motto is “keeping the pot stirred so the scum doesn’t rise to the top” — sometimes caustic, but always thought-provoking, Arnesen is a female liberal gadfly in a field dominated by such conservative male voices as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage.

When she’s not talking on the radio, Arnesen can be seen often on television. Since 2001 she has hosted “Capital Ideas” on WNDS-TV and is a regular on New England Cable News and “Hardball,” hosted by Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Q: Is this a good era to be a talk radio host?

A: Being in New Hampshire is always good because of the presidential primaries and the fact as soon as one election cycle ends another begins. New Hampshire is also such a political state because everything is so politicized, and it gives us plenty to talk about.

Everything about the current political situation, with Bush leading the way, is so perverse, so bizarre, I don’t have to give an opinion. I just let the facts out, whether it’s about the economy, or the war in Iraq. People ask me what’s the main difference between what I do and what the Rush Limbaughs do — the answer is simple, and I think it’s why my show is striking a chord. I, and a lot of liberals I know, don’t pretend we have cornered the market on virtue, nor do we pretend to have all the answers, because we can be wrong sometimes.

Q: How does this compare to being on the inside in politics?

A: Running for governor was very special, but this is an honor. You see, I’m not running for anything, but I feel I’m really taking part in making our country better, making our democracy work. This forum excites me and terrifies me, but the support I get from listeners of all stripes is amazing.

Q: Who is your audience?

A: It’s evolved a lot. Every day I read through my e-mail from listeners, and I get a lot. I hear from accountants and retired people, nurses and farmers — everyday people whose voices aren’t being heard. I hear from conspiracy nuts and people quite conservative.

A few years ago when I replaced Rush Limbaugh in New London, one of his diehard fans up there told me, “You’re everything I don’t want to hear.” It was an incredible war to get people like him to listen. But now he’s one of my biggest fans and admits he’s become disillusioned with a lot he thought was the truth. It’s not my intention to convert anybody, but it is my goal to get people to think and debate things they mostly take for granted.

Q: What kind of topics do you focus on?

A: I’m interested in talking about relevant stuff, interviewing people who know what they are talking about and hearing what my listeners have to say.

A few days ago we did a show on Liberia, and you would think that would be a topic as remote from New Hampshire as you could get. But we had a historian on who talked about Liberia’s history, and you know what? People were compelled to listen and people were calling.

Not every day is like that, it’s not always a frenzy, but it’s always thoughtful. Some days the phone hardly rings and other days we can’t keep up with the calls. This tells me that people are hungry for knowledge, to learn and think for themselves, and less interested in having political opinions jammed down their throat.

Q: So much of talk radio today seems the same.

A: What we need is a diversity of voices. A few months ago, I was a last-minute addition to speak at the Kennedy School of Government when, this is what I heard, alumni complained that too many damn conservative media types like Bill O’Reilly were dominating the speaking roles at this conference. When I finished my talk, one of the alumni asked, “Why aren’t you running for president of the United States?” What does that tell you? It tells me people are desperate for a different voice, and with me people get someone who is tough, political, but fair. I know when someone is full of sh–, and I don’t hesitate to point that out. People know I have right-wing friends, but I listen to them, though I think they are wrong on most issues I care about.

Q: Are you the great national voice liberals are seeking?

A: My old boss (in New London) said as soon as we started the show there I should go national because people are terrified about what’s happening in the country and the world.

I think one of the reasons listeners respond so well is they know I’m a liberal, but they also know I’m not a knee-jerk partisan. In this state the Democrats are more afraid of me than the Republicans because I don’t hesitate to criticize them. I also criticize national Democrats for their unbelievable hypocrisy when it comes to campaign financing or their caving in to Bush every chance they get.

I probably am the right voice for this time because I’m not going to be anyone’s shill and what I do is not about Beltway chit-chat.

Q: What have you learned about the joys of syndication?

A: It’s hard work. What Limbaugh and O’Reilly do is cheap to produce and easy to sell. We talk to all sorts of people — we get a weekly Canadian update and a weekly White House report from a wild but delightful right-winger that offers a great chance for debate. Plus, I’m a female host who doesn’t talk about relationships and most of the big ones like (Dr. Laura) Schlessinger are. But I do give a large piece of myself on every show and people get to know my vulnerabilities, my sense of humor and my opinions.

Q: How do you go about getting syndicated?

A: What I do is go on job interview sessions and try to convince station managers and owners that the time is right for what I’m doing. The feedback I’m getting and the suggestions I hear about syndication possibilities are encouraging. I’ve even heard I should have my own national television show, but radio is the way to go. It’s more intimate and you can think more, talk more. Give me a year and we’ll see.

Q: Who hasn’t been on your show that you’d really like to book?

A: Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman. I read their entire columns (in The New York Times) on air all the time. But it’s tough to get them. I’d also like to have George Will on, but he’s also difficult to book.

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