Liberal talk radio? After twenty years of bleating bleeping conservatism, when I began my show on KNFO in Aspen on April 18, 2004, there was just barely such a thing. Air America had managed to make it onto the air—my brother Frank Conniff even worked there as a staff comedian—before imploding instanter for business reasons. At the time I had never even heard of another liberal talk show host other than Alan Colmes of “Hannity and Colmes” on Fox. Give or take the stray blowhard in a big city, liberal talk show hosts simply did not exist.
They had to be invented.
Given the most minimal commitment by my local station—one hour per week on Sunday mornings with no one listening—liberal talk radio became the tail that wagged the dog in my newbie life. Without a soupcon of planning “Con Games with Michael Conniff” morphed from that one hour at 9 AM Sunday mornings to one hour from 3 to 4 PM Monday afternoons; thence to that one hour in afternoon drive Monday through Friday; and now to two hours in the promised land of morning drive, sandwiched between “Imus in the Morning” and Rush Limbaugh.
Talk about your drive-by media. I had been doing the show for months before Torre, the Aspen City Councilor with but the one name, drove by on his motorbike and yelled: “Hey, Con Man!”
Thus was The Con Man born.
Even from the beginning I hit the red light in the studio with a dirt-simple premise for my audience: don’t let yourself get conned by anyone or anything—including yours truly.
Back in early 2004, I answered programming director Sam Scholl’s question at KNFO, the local talk radio station, by saying: “I’d really like to do a liberal talk show.” Keep in mind these were dark days for all but the harshly conservative in the United States, a godawful moment of pugnacious lap dog punditry and lapel-pin patriotism. This was not only after September 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; like a docile puppy dog my debut followed the first-year anniversary of the “shock and awe” that kicked off the war in Iraq in March 2003.
I started to talk that first Sunday morning and nobody called and presumably nobody cared. I was all by myself in the studio and had no idea what I was doing. I knew I had to talk and take breaks and click on commercials and do the things radio hosts do—but I did them all badly. My music and my intros were a mess, no more than a mish-mosh of Midnight Oil.
I made every mistake in the book but I learned the most basic commandment of talk radio: keep on talking, bro.
One Sunday Pat from Aspen called and then Jimmy from Woody Creek. Right away I realized something profoundly obvious and obviously profound: “Con Games with Michael Conniff” was not going to be about me—it was going to be about you. The audience. I knew from the get-go, from that very first call, that I was going to do things differently than the paranoid/paranormal conservative talk show hosts: I was going to listen—and if I were to listen then it became all but inevitable that I might learn stuff about things, large and small, from what I soon came to call “the best audience in talk radio.”
Before long I realized I had been given the greatest break of my life and that most precious of things: a license to learn—and a hall pass to ask questions of anyone who came within spitting (sic) distance.
What could possibly be better than that?