Rush and the Wandering Mind

January 06, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--A lot of people in the Baltimore vicinity tuned in this week to hear Rush Limbaugh expound on his favorite subject, Rush Limbaugh. A good number of them were talking about him as a result.

That's success, I guess. If you're in the entertainment business, you want to be talked about as much as possible, by as many people as possible. It doesn't matter what they say as long as when they talk, you're what they talk about. Talk means celebrity which means ratings which mean money.

So Rush Limbaugh has reason to be pleased with our region. His talk-radio program arrived this week in the afternoon slot on WBAL, and as a result his name seemed to be on the air and in print more than Jack Kent Cooke's. The big AM station bought the show in order to help its ratings, which were already pretty good. If that turns out to have been a wise business decision, it will make both the station and Mr. Limbaugh incrementally richer.

But if Mr. Limbaugh's ratings pick up in Baltimore, he'll only know about it second-hand. He broadcasts his highly successful program from a studio in New York, and it goes out to 600 or more radio stations. He's got eleventy million listeners, or whatever the number is, and if Baltimore's even a blip on his personal screen it must be a mighty small blip indeed.

Before this week I had never listened to Mr. Limbaugh, but I was favorably disposed to him. He seems to terrify segments of our society that can only benefit from a little therapeutic terrification, and he has the ability to turn a phrase. Around here, even high-school kids have started using ''Feminazis'' as a label for the ubiquitous gender police.

The Clinton administration in particular has gone out of its way to demonize Mr. Limbaugh, and as presidential opprobrium has been a badge of honor ever since the Nixon enemies' list, I took this as further evidence that the show had redeeming social value. Thus it was with some anticipation that I switched it on this week and waited to hear the famous voice that makes the grass roots tingle.

What a let-down it turned out to be. My mind just wouldn't cooperate. In the office, it drifted away from the radio to the morning's mail. In the barn, it wandered out the door, and I went along with it. In the car, it focused resolutely on the highway. I had the sense that Mr. Limbaugh was saying things I probably agreed with, but with my mind behaving that way they never really registered. In the end I turned off the radio.

The problem here isn't with Mr. Limbaugh. His program does identify, encourage and amplify some widespread American opinions that in years past have tended not to get a fair hearing in the mainstream media. And as eleventy million listeners can't be wrong, the problem is clearly with me -- and with my wandering mind.

If the Limbaugh philosophy that underlies the hoo-ha and showmanship is generally in tune with my own, why couldn't we connect? Why wasn't I reaching for the phone to tell old Rush how much I agreed with him? Apparently I'll never be a ditto-head, as I gather faithful listeners are called.

All humanity falls into one of two groups, a slightly inebriated Maryland legislator told me years ago in a conversation I often recall. The world is divided between A-Section people and B-Section people, he hiccuped. One group reads the foreign and national news first, the other the local news.

There's a nostalgic glow to this boozy assertion, made in a time when it could be assumed that just about everyone read the papers. Today, as all the surveys show, the percentage of people who read the papers at all is declining. But in that dwindling group the A-Section/B-Section distinction still holds.

Once I was an A-Section person, who turned eagerly each morning to news of Congress, the White House and overseas turmoil. I still read those stories with interest, but now my preference is for news that's closer to home. I've become a B-Section person, and B-Section people aren't going to spend a lot of time listening to Rush Limbaugh.

Ron Smith, the WBAL talk-show host whom Mr. Limbaugh has replaced in the afternoons, had A-Section appeal. His understanding of national issues was at least as sound as Mr. Limbaugh's, and his commentary as acerbic, if less bombastic. But B-Section listeners could tune in knowing that he'd also be talking about local sports, local weather and local politics -- and that people would be calling in from Dundalk or Taneytown to add their nickel's worth, too.

Mr. Smith's show is now on WBAL in the evening, and this B-Section listener, who's seldom in the car or otherwise disposed to listen to the radio at those hours, will miss him. As for the station, if abandoning the local focus that has made it such a success over the years pays off with better ratings, management will look pretty shrewd. Otherwise, no doubt there will be further reprogramming.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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