They want to talk about the federal budget, genetic clues to homosexuality, SAT scores. They want to discuss blacks and Jews, the Soviet Union, William Donald Schaefer. Callers to Baltimore radio shows want to talk about lots of things -- except the primary election that's just over a week away.
If radio call-in shows are a barometer of public interest, "the election's in a tremendous amount of trouble," hooted Allan Prell, WBAL's morning call-in impresario.
"The race for mayor and comptroller could put a cup of coffee to sleep," said Tom Marr, whose daily talk show airs on WCBM.
"It's not a priority," said Joe Lee, program director at WEAA. "It's just not an interesting year."
By some peculiar chemistry, the 1991 campaigns for mayor, City Council president, comptroller and council seats have failed to intrigue the public, local radio hosts agree. In a city that's usually frenzied about mayoral races, callers this year just don't seem to care much.
And talk-show hosts, adept at building shows around provocative topics, say they wouldn't think of using this year's elections as the theme of a show.
"If I did that, all I'd get is dial tone," said Mr. Prell, who estimates
that he has received fewer than a half dozen calls on local politics all summer.
It's not that Baltimoreans don't care about politics.
Mr. Lee said that the congressional and statewide campaigns last year generated lots of good on-air talk. Mr. Marr said the proposed congressional redistricting map unveiled last week was "a very, very hot topic. The calls were wall-to-wall."
Roberta Gale, who hosts a WCBM morning show, said presidential campaigns are "wonderful fodder" for debate. Her listeners love discussing federal, state and local budgets.
And they all agree that just mentioning the governor's name makesthe switchboard light up.
"I get 100 times the phone calls regarding William Donald Schaefer than I get about city government total," Mr. Prell said.
So what's the problem this year? The radio hosts cite too many low-energy candidates, too many predictable outcomes, too few in-your-face challengers and no mayoral debates.
On top of it all, the incumbent mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, is a quiet candidate who is running what's becoming known as a stealth campaign -- virtually invisible to anyone not paying close attention.
"Even though there seems to be a lot of opposition to Kurt Schmoke being mayor again, everyone think she's going to win," Mr. Lee said. "There are no hot races."
"The apathy here you could cut with a knife," Mr. Prell said.
WBAL Radio's news director, Mark Miller, speculates that another problem this summer may be that the public has become more involved in -- and emotionally exhausted by -- world news. "Events have been so compelling they seem to have attracted a lot more interest than the old traditional pothole issues," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Marr said the level of interest in the city campaigns was "vastly different four years ago. That was a hot race then," as the incumbent, Clarence H. "Du" Burns," faced the challenge of Mr. Schmoke.
Mr. Burns' challenge this year, WCBM's Ms. Gale said, is not aggressive enough to hold the public's interest for long. "He sounds like some guy who's just sitting on a stoop. I just don't see anybody walking around with a really pointed attack. That leads to a lot of malaise."
"Look," Mr. Prell said. "People feel the social situation is out of control. People do not look to the mayor to clean up the city. They're too sophisticated for that. They know it's the community that's got to clean up the city."
"Face it," Mr. Marr said. "The city campaign hasn't set the world on fire."