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Posted on Sun, Sep. 05, 2004

Mistress of flip

Randi Rhodes makes a living out of leaning to the left.

One per show. One Republican voter flipping Democratic before the November election.

When Randi Rhodes joined the Air America Radio Network, that was her goal.

This day, Bob in West Palm Beach delivers.

''I'm a disabled Vietnam veteran, member of the Order of the Purple Heart, and a Republican against Bush,'' he says.

He's also a first-time caller.

''Ooo, a virgin, eh?'' purrs Rhodes, la Mae West, punching up a sound effect familiar to any listener from Rhodes' more than a decade on South Florida radio: a moist, suggestive popping noise.

''Thank you for being my convert of the day,'' she coos. ``You're a real man.''

In September 1992, Randi Rhodes -- one-time U.S. Air Force jet mechanic, waitress, truck driver and rock jock -- grabbed a mike in the studios of Miami's WIOD 610 AM and started gabbing.

Now she's one of the strongest voices in liberal/progressive talk radio, a broadcast medium that was barely a whisper less than a year ago.

Then came Air America, which debuted on March 31 and now has 26 affiliates in 16 states and is carried on XM and Sirius satellite radio.

In South Florida, Rhodes airs from 9 a.m.-noon weekdays on WINZ 940 AM, then again from 6 p.m.-7 p.m.

Last week, Rhodes was on ''radio row'' at the Republican National Convention, surrounded by the conservative/right pundits and pols she loves to loathe.

''Oh, I see so much diversity down there,'' she said on Day One, her voice oozing sarcasm: ``Fat people! Thin people! White people with blond hair! White people with dirty blond hair!''

The stage, she joked, ``was made of endangered rainforest teak wood and covered with fur.''

By Day Three, she wasn't in such a good mood.

''It's like a mass Moonie wedding,'' she groaned. ``It's disgusting, and I'm miserable. It's all I can do to make it from break to break.''

In the beginning, Rhodes was strictly entertainment. She yakked about her sex life -- or lack thereof -- her mother, her fiancé, female body parts and her dogs, about Broward County, where she lived, and Brooklyn and Queens, where she grew up.

She was loud, nasal and outrageous, ''the raunchy Randi,'' recalls Clear Channel Communications regional vice president David Ross.

She loved bantering with callers and goofing on herself. She developed what she calls a ''fast, gut-shot, just-can't-stop'' style, and a cult following that revered her as ``The Goddess.''

She was earning in the low $40,000s, which seemed like a fortune, but these days would barely cover the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan's fashionable Murray Hill: a Baroque-Rocco-Victorian fantasy of reproduction antiques that she shares with Simon, a 10-pound silky terrier.

In 1994, she joined WJNO in West Palm. Her salary shot into six figures. She bought a 4,000-square-foot house in Lake Worth and married Jim Robertson. They raised Rhodes' niece after her mother, Rhodes' sister, died of cancer.

''The contract was $100,000 a year for three years with with bonuses, all based on if I beat Rush [Limbaugh]. I made it my business to beat him, and I made big money. It had to be. I had to raise Jessica,'' now 18, and a freshman at Florida Atlantic University.

Limbaugh didn't return an e-mail request for comment.

Rhodes, 46, and Robertson, an independent television producer, divorced in April but remain close.

She transitioned to politics via the O.J. Simpson trial, then devoted the late '90s to defending Bill Clinton.

''My Bill,'' she sighs. ``I love my Bill.''

She was determined to become ``the go-to person for politics. . . . With Paula Jones and one thing and another, you were never at a loss to be the great defender.''

She yearned for syndication and was actively pursuing it last year with the help of Norman Wayne, a Palm Beach snowbird who once owned a string of stations including Miami's Y-100.

He heard her and thought: ``This is a major talent . . . a brash, in-your-face performer with great humor and insight. . . . She should have an audience twice the size of Rush Limbaugh.''

Wayne, 76, put up the cash to start Randi Rhodes Productions, then tried to sell the show station by station.

``It was a long, long haul. A lot of stations are slow to change. It was unproven in other markets. And there was no rush to put liberals on the air.

``All of a sudden, while we're trying to work this out, along comes Air America.''

Rhodes' gift, says Wayne -- now an Air America investor -- is that ``she's hilarious every day. . . . She's a tough Brooklyn broad with a wealth of knowledge.''

The independent trade publication Talkers Magazine lists Rhodes among the country's 100 most important talk-show hosts. Its publisher, Michael Harrison, says she represents a minority: ``a woman who does very well getting ratings as a liberal. She could have considered herself successful had she never left JNO.''

Last fall, Democrats decided to combat conservative talk on its own turf. A group of party heavyweights went looking for like-minded on-air personalities, bringing 30 to Washington for a closer look.

``We spent a whole day going to every last committee so they could teach these people how government works.''

This was heaven for Rhodes, ``cause I'm a dork. I watch C-SPAN. That's reality TV for me.''

She challenged Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden: ```If you don't start calling the Republicans liars, which they are, and do something about talk radio, you'll be a minority party for 10 years.'

'He said, `Why do you have to pick the hardest thing there is to do?' I said, 'With all due respect, Senator, they've been calling my president [Clinton] a liar for eight years; why is that hard for you?' ''

The group was winnowed down to Rhodes and North Dakota's Ed Schultz.

But Rhodes backed out when she realized the party's big donors would ``control the message. . . . I don't want to do your talking points every day.''

At the same time, comic Janeane Garofalo and writer/satirist Al Franken were putting together Air America, which ''got off to a rather rugged start,'' recalls Ross.

Financing evaporated. Managers and board members came and went. At one point, the network couldn't make payroll. But, says Rhodes, ''We were going forward. We're here. We're ready. We're doing it. . . . But it was a nightmare for a really long time,'' until new investors bailed them out.

On her first show, Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader hung up on her.

'I told him, `Look, Ralph, I'm not saying you're not fabulous, OK? But I went to Prada the other day, and there's a pair of shoes there that are just fabulous, but I can't afford them. All I'm saying is, I can't afford you.' He got so mad. I knew he's in there just to be a spoiler.''

Air America's early success attracting listeners and advertisers on a Clear Channel station in Portland, Ore., helped convince the industry's largest chain to transform WINZ's sports-talk format to ''South Florida's Progressive Talk Radio,'' as a foil for conservatives Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Todd Schnitt on WIOD, according to Ross.

``The crossfire combo was very intriguing. It's financially already a success. Conflict is always great entertainment.''

Clear Channel's confidence has as little to do with ideology as its controversial decision to boot Howard Stern last spring.

''It wasn't politics motivating Clear Channel; they had to protect their stockholders,'' Harrison said. ``Clear Channel has only one agenda: ratings and revenue, and they're clearly seeing legs under liberal radio.''

Rhodes starts the day in her home office, watching news shows, reading newspapers and blogs online. Then she walks the few blocks to Air America's temporary quarters, sucking down Parliaments.

There, she slides on reading glasses, whips out a highlighter and starts to sift through articles and notes from her producers.

One day recently, she studied material on the group challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's war record. She calls them ``the swift boat veterans for perjury.''

She is outraged about this, having served in the Air Force.

''I don't care if John Kerry was in the back of a van peeling potatoes in the DMZ!'' she shrieks. ``He served...! The question is: Why are we talking about a war from 30 years ago instead of the war in Iraq today? Because to do that, people would have to admit their president is a liar.''

She enlisted because ``there was no other choice for a girl like me -- no college money, no jobs, and without a college education in the late '70s, there was no way to get out of Queens. . . . I wanted to see the world, and the only way to do it was join the military.''

Promised the world, she got as far as New Jersey. And that, she says, was her introduction to government hypocrisy, a theme she hit over and over during the RNC. But if Bush prevails in November, Rhodes says she'll be ready.

''We'll have a lot of work to do,'' she admits, taking a long pull on a cigarette.

'Look, I applaud [some Republicans'] independent spirit. I have it too, and the only way to demonstrate that is to show how I came from nothing and nowhere. . . . The only way to disabuse them of the notion that only the well-connected should have a shot is to do talk therapy. You have to keep talking.''

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