A radio bridge over troubled waters

THIS JUST IN ...

January 19, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

Before we move on to other business, I'd like to propose something that might give the Larry Young episode some socially redeeming value - so that it doesn't go on the books as another racially divisive controversy, a squall of news and debate that just left everyone feeling bad. We might even learn something from the LY episode. (Wouldn't that be something?) It might even make us better people. (That's a grandiose thought, but I think even cynics are allowed them on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.)

The idea comes out of radio flipping. I've been, more than usual, flipping between talk radio stations over the past few weeks, hearing what hosts and callers have to say about the Young drama on WBAL-AM, WEAA-FM, WOLB-AM, WCBM-AM and, at times, WJHU-FM. The flipping went into overdrive during the rainy ride back from Annapolis Friday afternoon, after Young's peers in the Maryland Senate gave him what they felt he deserved for his ethical transgressions.

The contrast in rhetoric on WBAL and WOLB was at its most stark - like two rivers flowing parallel and never meeting. Two rivers right through Baltimore.

To pander to their mostly urban African-American listeners and to satisfy political allegiances - is there a Baltimore Mitchell who doesn't get air time on WOLB? - the hosts at 1010 AM continued the defense of LY and in the bitterest terms. Their callers, too, felt LY's expulsion from the Senate was too harsh, the result of a mainstream, white media political crusade. If a caller who disagreed managed to get on the air and condemn Young, I didn't hear it.

Over at WBAL, eight clicks up the AM dial, the mostly white suburban callers expressed approval of the Senate's vote to expel Young, and some seemed to gloat about it. Most said they were angry that race had been injected into this matter right from the moment in December when Young first responded to The Sun stories about the mingling of his private and public business. I didn't hear every minute of the discussions - as I said, I was flipping - but no one seemed interested in exploring why those who rallied to the support of Larry Young did so in racial terms.

And granted, that was a hard thing for whites to understand in this case - why many African-Americans saw racism where the rest of us only saw a politician trying to get over. We shake our heads and sigh - it does get exhausting, doesn't it? - but how many of us ever take the next step and ask the question: Why?

I'll make a hunch: Not many.

Either we're not interested, or think we know the answers, or find the whole thing awkward. We're comfortable with our assumptions and resist ideas that make us uncomfortable.

But, as an African-American caller to Ron Smith's show on WBAL pointed out late Friday afternoon, if we don't do something about race relations in this nation, we're headed for full Balkanization, if we aren't there already. No way around it - race is the most divisive issue in our culture.

So I had this idea that people on WBAL should listen and talk to callers on WOLB, and callers to WOLB should listen and talk to callers on WBAL. And the hosts of those respective stations xTC should listen and talk to each other, too. The two rivers should have a confluence, a linkup and simulcast on both stations over several hours.

Of course, I know there are problems with such a concept.

First of all, Smith isn't going to like this because it probably sounds to him like Bill Clinton's call for a dialogue on race. (Honest, Ron, BC wasn't the inspiration for this; LY was.) Some will say that commercial talk radio is not the place for such a thing because each station has its own marketing-programming agenda, and there's no way to get around that. When Cathy Hughes went on her rants last week, she was just doing it for better ratings; she's not going to entertain the white perspective on anything. Others will say that Ron Smith's listeners don't want to hear the black perspective on things; that's why they listen to Ron Smith each weekday. (Smith's morning colleague, Allan Prell, attracts and accommodates a lot more black callers.) And then there's the C. Miles problem at WOLB; he's a man with a loose cannon for a tongue. (Maybe WOLB's even-tempered morning host, Bernie McCain, is the man for this job.)

But, we can come up with some rules - no name-calling, no shouting, for starters. If the hosts don't want to take part, maybe someone like Kweisi Mfume would agree to be host for the simulcasts, taking calls through each station's switchboard, linking people from White Hall to Mosher Street.

I think the gulf between WOLB and WBAL is the place to build this electronic bridge. The biggest audience and the most important audience would get to hear this discussion. Produced smartly and executed with some class, it could become a popular program - blacks and whites talking to each other, listening to each other, maybe even understanding each other. It would be a great public service by both stations.

Grandiose thoughts, I know. But hey, it's a holiday.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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