Look Who's Talking The Best And Worst Of Call-in Radio

May 19, 1991|By ERIC SIEGEL

Good moorrrning and WELCOME to the Sun Magazine Show! Today we've got a VER-RY special program on talk radio in Baltimore. We'll tell you HOW and WHY talk radio is growing and changing. We'll tell you WHAT'S being talked about on the air -- and WHO'S listened to the most. We'll talk to advocates who think talk radio is the voice of everyman and critics who feel it's a sanctuary for scoundrels. And we'll talk to some of the talk show hosts themselves to find out what THEY think about what they do. We'll be taking your calls at BALT-SUN.

It will undoubtedly be just a matter of time before a call-in show somewhere gets around to addressing the subject of talk radio itself, if one hasn't already. And why not? Talk radio is, after all, a medium where anything that gets a listener to pick up the phone and offer an opinion goes -- from the offbeat to the outrageous.

Talk radio also has its own scent of scandal and controversy, which almost automatically qualifies it as a subject. Last year, former Baltimore talk show host Alan Christian, who had hopes of building a network of stations, pleaded guilty to violating state securities laws for misappropriating funds solicited from listeners. Earlier this year, talk show host Les Kinsolving filed a slander suit against a city councilman who responded to Mr. Kinsolving's criticisms by calling him "Lester the kid molester" on another talk show.

Already, the format has been the subject of a movie, Oliver Stone's 1988 film "Talk Radio," inspired by the 1984 murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg.

But above all, talk radio is very much a medium of the moment, where what's on is what's hot, from Kitty Kelley to the Kennedy compound, and the format has never been hotter. After serving as a catalyst for criticism of last year's congressional pay raise, and a catharsis for concerns about the Gulf War, talk is increasingly winning new listeners.

Nationally, there are 404 stations devoted to talk and news/talk, according to the New York-based Radio Information Bureau, which compiles data on radio stations. Although just a small fraction of the 8,900 commercial stations in the United States, the figure is up from 357 a year ago and more than double the 149 stations devoted to news and talk in 1985.

In Baltimore, there are two stations devoted solely to news and talk among the top 10 in the market: WBAL-AM (1090), which ranks second with a 8.6 share of listeners 12 and over, and WCBM-AM (680), which is ninth with a 3.6 share. Together, the stations have a cumulative audience of nearly 550,000 listeners who tune in sometime during the week to hear news broadcasts and the half-dozen hosts who dominate talk radio here.

The sound of talk can be increasingly heard on stations with broader formats, from public radio stations WEAA-FM (88.9) and WJHU-FM (88.1) to country station WCAO-AM (600) to gospel station WBGR-AM (860). Scan the radio dial for the stations offering talk full time or occasionally, and you can hear the comments and questions from such familiar names as school board member Meldon Hollis, high school principal Boyce Mosley, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, lawyer Stephen L. Miles and writer Mark Crispin Miller -- not as guests but as part-time hosts of their own shows.

"They're cropping up because they work," says Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager of WBAL, which went to an all-news-and-talk format six years ago. He sees the success, and proliferation, of talk radio as part of the electronic information explosion that includes cable television's C-Span and CNN. "Because people's time is so valuable, it's a way for them to stay informed and to get diverse viewpoints."

"Six to seven years ago, this market never would have been able to support two talk stations," says Mike Plumstead, general manager of WCBM, which will celebrate its third anniversary as a talk station in October. But he says the public's thirst for information is only part of the reason. "What has happened with music formats is that many stations sound exactly the same. The tempo of the stations are similar, the music is similar.

"Talk presents an alternative format."

It's a Monday, and on "The Ron Smith Show" on WBAL, th legacy of Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, who died three days before, looms large as a topic of discussion, as it has on talk shows all day long. Mike in Essex is on the line. "Lee Atwater damaged the American political system," he says. "I was glad to see he asked for forgiveness before he died. Genuine or not, we'll never know."

"Of course it was genuine," Mr. Smith shoots back. "Why would anyone doubt the genuineness of it? He could have done what most people do -- go his own way, unrepentant."

Then Jack calls from his car phone. Campaign tactics are the furthest thing from his mind.

"I'm a University of Tennessee alum, and I never saw a better played basketball game than the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] women's final Saturday," he says.

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