Voice of longevity lost with Marr's departure

February 29, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of talk radio in Baltimore preparing to lower its voice. Tom Marr is departing the local airwaves. He says he'll break the news to his WCBM listeners this afternoon, and then he's heading for Philadelphia.

"I understand you and I won't have each other to kick around any more," I tell him over the telephone the other day. It has come to my attention, over the years, that Marr and other radio righties -- Ron Smith, Les Kinsolving ... Lord, it's good to have these guys working the opposite side of the social agenda! -- have taken their little cannon shots at me in public.

"Oh, boy," Marr says now, with a hint of dread in his voice. "I was wondering if The Sunpapers was gonna kick my [lower posterior] as I walked out the door."

Nah, that'd be too easy, blasting a guy after he's left the premises. Most of my gripes with Marr have been stated over the years, not often, but enough to clear the air. We disagree on a range of political issues, and we disagree on the role radio should play in a community. But Marr, 53, has been here 29 years now, puffing up and venting, stating his case and sometimes overstating, and sometimes bullying, but also showing some heart behind the bombast and some feel for the idiosyncratic nature of the people who live here.

"What makes a good radio talk guy?" he was saying the other day. "I don't know. You try to have a feel for the listeners. It's tough. Day after day after day, it's hard to stay up with the issues. Certain years are hot. Clinton's bad for the country but good for talk radio. Right now, the Republican Party's destroying itself. They're gonna see to it that Clinton gets re-elected."

What has always hung in the air -- with Marr, with Smith and Kinsolving, both on the air and off -- is the sound of their certainty. Even in their most dubious declarations, in moments that call for some sliver of subtlety, they seem rock solid in their assuredness. One longs for such clarity of vision, such intellectual self-confidence.

When Marr says, "Clinton's bad for the country," it sounds like an official pronouncement, like something ready to be chiseled into stone. Are the great issues of the day really that clear-cut?

In the world of talk radio, sometimes they are. There's a kind of pugnacious shorthand in the air, fed partly by the speed of modern life and partly by the talk personalities who take such partisan, doctrinaire stands that they wind up preaching to the already converted, while everybody else ducks for cover. After a while, the conversation seems to be coming from a revolving door.

"Preaching to the choir, yeah," Marr says. "You'd like to engage in intellectual disagreement, but often it's disagreeable people who disagree with you; uninformed people who disagree with you."

What makes these people "disagreeable" or "uninformed," one suspects, is that they simply have different "information" than the talk show hosts, and that, on the basis of that information, they disagree.

Healthy dialogue -- healthy for the community, and maybe even healthy for the radio station -- involves lots of people having a say, and not just the talk show host issuing pronouncements and then shouting down those trying to offer differing opinions.

Over the years, Marr's strength has been his longevity in Baltimore. He knows what it's like to live here, his family is part of the community, he knows who to call to find information, and he has a feel for certain underdogs.

Talk show listeners must wonder, how do these experts know so much? How can they talk for three hours at a clip, this day on Bosnia or Baltimore County zoning ordinances, the next day on Vince Foster or Vinny Testaverde, always with the sound of One Who Knows All.

In Marr's case, he was most authoritative talking about local issues. You knew he had access to sources; you knew he'd been here for a long time. There are talk show hosts -- and they range across the political spectrum -- who haven't ventured out of their studios to cover an actual story but who manage to confer expertise on themselves anyway (and to simultaneously shoot down those who have actually covered the story up close.)

Marr won't exactly be a stranger in his new job. He's taking his microphone to a Philadelphia station, where he's been working weekends for the past decade

"I'll miss this region," he said. "There's a small-town atmosphere here."

He was part of it for a long time, a member of the extended family. And, like family, you get to feel love or hate, or something in between, depending on the issue and the hour of the day. Like the rest of us, the guy worried about the Orioles, the backups on the Jones Falls Expressway, the latest outrage from the city's housing department. Unlike a Rush Limbaugh, who wouldn't know Baltimore if they plopped him down in Oriole Park.

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