She was once the irascible voice of Middle America, the sarcastic matriarch of a working-class family just trying to keep their jobs and raise their kids.
So what’s Roseanne Barr doing on a radio station known for world music, beat poetry and radical politics?
“I’m a little bit of a crusader. I want people to know what’s happening to them,” Barr said of her hourlong talk show that began earlier this month on KPFK-FM (90.7), the Los Angeles outlet of the left-leaning Pacifica Network.
But the new role shouldn’t seem a stretch to anyone paying attention to the themes Barr tackled on her eponymous sitcom, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1997 and consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most popular television programs. The character of Roseanne Conner often ran into issues of gay rights, worker rights and social justice.
“She staged a union walkout. After she won the lottery, she bought the factory where she was laid off,” Barr said. “I was always telling this same story. I was always saying this.”
One main difference between network TV and the listener-supported KPFK: “You don’t have to worry about pleasing a sponsor, and that’s really such great freedom,” she said.
Barr co-hosts the show -- the Wednesday edition of KPFK’s daily “Beneath the Surface” program, airing from 5 to 6 p.m. -- with her partner of six years, Johnny Argent, who is also her co-writer and musical arranger.
“He is a great partner for me,” she said. “He’s an intellectual, well-read, well-educated, who kind of fills in the facts for me. I’m kind of the passionate one who yells.”
And though radio is not what most people associate with Barr, she and Argent aren’t newcomers to the medium. For a week in February and again in April, they filled in on Air America, the liberal talk-radio network. And since 2007, they’ve hosted a similar talk show on the Inland Empire’s KCAA-AM (1050) that airs Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 5 p.m.
Barr said she’s long been a talk-radio listener and KPFK supporter. “It’s where you hear the voice of the people. It’s about your thoughts and ideas, rather than being about selling something.”
The KPFK opportunity came up last year when Barr met Christine Blosdale, a senior producer at the station, while talking to Green Party presidential candidate and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney at a party fundraiser.
“I didn’t know she was interested in doing radio” until that conversation, Blosdale said. “I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting? She likes to do radio, and I work at a radio station.’ We thought we’d give it a try.”
Barr and Argent went on the air on election day, a show during which they took calls and interviewed guests, including McKinney.
“Listeners responded very well. They were very excited,” Blosdale said, so the station asked Argent and Barr back for a regular gig. “I think compared to the corporate media, she’s pretty open and doesn’t pull any punches.”
That’s gotten Barr into trouble before, though -- something she freely acknowledges.
In April 2007, while talking on her KCAA program about gay marriage amendments, Barr said politically active gays and lesbians “don’t care about minimum wage, they don’t care about any other group.” After an uproar, she apologized several times on her blog ( www.roseanneworld.com), the outlet for most of her political and social views. She noted that she has two gay siblings and said, “Gays are under assault, and I meant to say we are all needing to band together against those who are at the top. It was my hope to unite people, and not divide people.”
Undaunted, she’s gone back before a live microphone.
“I want to be a force for peace and justice, and all those hippie ideals,” she said with a chuckle later in an interview. “I like when people show me I’m wrong. I like that they care enough for me to do that.”
For listeners who might know her only superficially or think of her strictly as the wisecracking stand-up, or the star of TV and tabloid pages, she opened her first KPFK show on Jan. 7 basically introducing herself -- a 56-year-old Jewish grandmother, born and raised in Salt Lake City among Holocaust survivors.
“I saw people in pain. It’s always been a part of my life,” she told her new audience.
Barr spent most of that program taking calls and decrying Israel’s attacks on Gaza -- the “domestic goddess” on foreign policy. “There is more than one kind of Jewish opinion,” she said. “This is wrong. Peace must prevail.”
At the end of the rollicking hour -- in spite of the sober subject matter -- Barr thanked listeners “for letting me rant.”
On the Jan. 14 installment, she and Argent -- who missed the first show due to strep throat -- spoke to Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored at Sonoma State University, about what Phillips considered the biggest under- or unreported stories of the past year, including the number of Iraqi civilian deaths in the war and an FBI program to work with private industry to gather information on citizens.
During the segment, Barr acidly commented that President Bush “busted the working people back to one step above slavery.” And Argent cracked that Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, will be “doing chin-ups on the bottom rung of the president ladder.”
On last week’s show, while critiquing the previous day’s inauguration of Barack Obama, Barr said she and Argent “want to be part of the vast left-wing conspiracy for him, to make sure he doesn’t try to inch his way right, like they all do.”
After her first show, Barr said, “a lot of people wrote into my blog, ‘I didn’t even know these issues.’ I want to give people the opportunity to hear the other side of things.
“A lot of people kind of followed me for a while. That was 20 years ago,” she said. “I’m just trying to talk about working Americans, not trying to be a star.”