Talk radio is a town hall for conservatives . . .

Ken Willaman

February 05, 1993|By Ken Willaman

ANOTHER player has entered the stage -- talk radio.

This relatively new phenomenon has added a dimension to our understanding of current events. Its popularity has grown rapidly (in peak hours there may be 30,000 Baltimore-area listeners) since it began with topics like how to housebreak a puppy.

It was always a welcome antidote to Beltway gridlock, but now the car phone may be responsible for talk radio's increased popularity -- at least WBAL's afternoon host Ron Smith thinks so. Upscale car phone owners joining the process have raised the stakes and challenged a broader segment of society.

Mainstream broadcasters now use talk radio to sample attitudinal changes across the nation. PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour allotted a segment to Atlanta talk-show host Neal Bontz, taping his assessment, based on callers' input, of race relations in the country, and network television has frequently focused on a regional problem by spotlighting a talk-show host orally wrestling with outraged callers.

And in recent years talk radio has moved from news observer to news maker. In 1988 talk show callers were so incensed about a proposed congressional pay raise that their unorganized but widespread protest halted the raise, albeit temporarily. The current issue is gays in the military.

There's no doubt that the nation's talk-show hosts, most of them conservative, have raised the volume of that discussion to a new level, one that could never be reached by newspaper editorialists.

Use of the talk-show forum during the presidential campaign was unprecedented. Larry King started the wild ride when Ross Perot declared his candidacy on the King show. The die having been cast, every other candidate competed for time on the talk shows. In Baltimore, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley is the darling of WCBM, while Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a regular listener and caller to both WCBM and WBAL.

The week before the election, a grand finale occurred when Mr. King interviewed wives, pollsters, spin-doctors, friends and foes of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Mr. Perot. This continued for five days, three hours a day, at which point voters were either much more informed or drowned in minutia (or both).

Most national talk show hosts are right-wingers, perhaps because conservative philosophy fits so cozily into a two-minute phone call. The gray areas liberals favor don't have the entertainment value of a quick punch to the gut. Americans like quick answers to complex questions -- the kind host Rush Limbaugh, the current giant of the genre, can supply by the pound. With repetitive bromides, he insists our government should be about the size of Lichtenstein's, that it should get out of our lives (but not our bedrooms) and that minorities should just shut up about all this civil rights nonsense. His rantings not only don't shed light; they darken corners.

But Marylanders can get a fairly lengthy ideological menu. Liberals may choose Diane Rehm from WAMU-FM in Washington, who presides over the graduate school of talk radio. Her two-hour program stays focused on a single topic such as agricultural loan guarantees to Iraq. African-American colleague Derick Maginty covers topics vital to the black community with greater acuity than the Morgan State University station, WEAA. Fred Fisk, also at WAMU, is heard on Saturday morning with prominent guests from government, business and academia.

In Baltimore, WCBM continues to be the conservatives' comfort zone. In addition to Rush Limbaugh, the station's snorting steeds include Tom Marr and Les Kinsolving.

But conservatives are best served in the afternoon on WBAL by Mr. Smith. Like William F. Buckley, he's a liberal's nightmare -- intellectual, reasoned and able to entrap with charm. Never guilty of excessive humility, Mr. Smith has crowned himself "the voice of reason," but he is fair with callers even as he sometimes lapses into a sarcastic chortle.

Baltimore's favorite liberal is Allan Prell (WBAL). Witty and impish, he's an entrenched humanist who still believes the human race is worth saving and all of us are able to give better than we get. Mr. Prell keeps morning listeners laughing. Sometimes addressed as "boobs," "boobettes" and "divinoids," his callers nevertheless hang on the wire for their dose of abuse. "Uncle Ally" or "Ally Blabs," as he calls himself, is acerbic, enlightened and color-blind, capable of dispatching a black bigot with the same force as he would a white one.

The hosts are the catalysts, but it's the callers who deliver the messages. Dissonance in society is revealed in these live reactions with an intensity that evades other media. The calls are like oral letters-to-the editor. We can hear in the callers' tone and inflection their rage, worry, elation or frustration. Those reluctant to write can be curiously poignant as they struggle to verbalize their passion over the air. And passionate they are!

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