Limbaugh: WBAL's unfortunate 'business decision'

January 12, 1994|By Kenneth A. Willaman

BALTIMORE'S talk-radio fans now have to do some irksome changing of listening habits and time schedules. Their loyalties are being tested as both AM talk stations, WBAL and WCBM, take on new talkmeisters and revamp their lineups.

For many years, for example, WBAL's afternoon host, Ron Smith, and morning man, Allan Prell, provided a comfortable symmetry. This duo satisfied the ideological needs of most area listeners, conservatives choosing Mr. Smith, liberals listening to Mr. Prell, and many of each opting for both. In the evening, Dan Rodricks, who is unabashedly "in love with Baltimore," warmly embraced the city, warts and all.

Mr. Smith's fans were stunned when they learned he would be moving to evenings, replaced in the daytime by Rush Limbaugh, the nation's second most popular radio personality behind Paul Harvey.

By the dozens, they called Mr. Smith and the station to protest and lament. Mr. Smith's explanation: a "business decision" by WBAL executives.

His cheerful acceptance of the move did not, however, ring true. Mr. Smith claimed he will have more time for golf and that not much has changed, since his fans will be able to catch him in the evening. But because evening talk radio never had the following of daytime programming, WBAL has not moved Mr. Smith horizontally; he's been kicked downstairs, and Mr. Rodricks, relegated to Saturday mornings and filling in for vacations, is all but out the back door.

Why would the station so diminish one of its most popular personalities? The answer is ratings. WBAL is one of several leading stations in major markets that have switched to this loud-mouth, and Mr. Limbaugh is the first to brag about it. The loser is Mr. Smith, who had been opposite Mr. Limbaugh when the latter was on WCBM and who had been able to hold his own against a popular national personality.

This was an accomplishment unmatched in other cities where local talk-show hosts were squashed when placed in head-to-head competition with the darling of ditto-heads.

WBAL has built an admirable reputation over the years as a station with a view to quality and community commitment and identification. The "business decision" does harm to that reputation. But beyond the subjective judgment of Mr. Limbaugh's skills as a pundit, his being added to WBAL's stable of hosts does nothing to strengthen the station's local relevance. The chances of hearing a Baltimore caller on Mr. Limbaugh's show are close to those of winning today's lotto. And there will be no participation by Mr. Limbaugh in WBAL's "Kids Campaign" or "Coats for Kids."

WBAL executives have caved in to the unstoppable national trend to homogenize the provinces. Grumpy Rush Limbaugh sits in his New York studio, broadcasting his narrow message to every town and hamlet, while voices which may have helped define local character for local listeners are silenced.

Aggressive national marketing at the expense of local entrepreneurship is not new. Perhaps it started in the '50s, when Howard Johnson's, with its bright orange roof, began taking business away from local diners. These rigidly standardized restaurants filled a need of those who found comfort in strict uniformity. (Even the fried clams seemed to be all the same shape.) Soon after came McDonald's, look-alike shopping malls and all the rest.

The same can be said of local TV news broadcasting. Across the country, all stations have the requisite combination of personalities at the anchor desk -- an attractive woman, a blow-dried man, one African-American (but only if it's a city with many blacks).

This evolution is market-driven, understandable and perhaps even desirable in a dynamic, expanding economy based on an ever-expanding GNP. The imperative for economic evolution is a concept not lost on WBAL executives when they made their "business decision." But the change was not without cost.

For three hours a day, the station is unplugged from the community -- no calls from Hampden or Pikesville or West Baltimore. Talk radio at its best gives us a sense of place. It is the last best (media) place for a sense that we are unique, living in a town that is unlike any other.

Ron Smith will be missed in the afternoons and Dan Rodricks at night not just for their skill at what they do, which is considerable, but also for providing that window through which callers define themselves and their community by expressing and hearing opinions. WBAL had the dollars to lure Mr. Limbaugh away from WCBM, but in that "business decision" Baltimore's sense of place was the loser.

Kenneth A. Willaman is a cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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