There's no politician in the state as deft in handling the media as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Yesterday, O'Malley settled into his new role as rookie radio talk show host.
He got a polite earful.
On one line, Robert from Canton was complaining about a water leak. On another, Dorie from Northeast Baltimore described troubles with late property tax bills, while Fran from Phoenix vented because she couldn't get drug-dealing tenants evicted at a property she owns in the city.
"Have you been a good landlord, or a bad landlord?" O'Malley puckishly asked Fran, while taking notes. "I would urge you to call the local [police] district. If you don't get satisfaction, then call Commissioner Norris."
The biweekly show on WBAL radio (1090 AM), which made its debut yesterday, gives listeners the chance to call in and register their complaints with the city's top official. O'Malley compares it to a town hall on the air. "It keeps him in touch, addressing citizens who have problems," said Clinton R. Coleman, who tended to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's image as his chief spokesman.
But O'Malley receives a great gift in exchange for the modest investment of two hours a month: the sense that he's responsive to average citizens' concerns. "You're always looking for new ways to be accessible," O'Malley said. "As important as being accessible, is being perceived as being accessible."
In politics, perception is at least as important as substance - and no one does image-crafting better than O'Malley. Think of his televised victory speech on primary night in 1999, when his lyrical call for unity helped show many Marylanders why he had won. Several months later, when he was impatient with the pace of court reform, and eager to display that impatience publicly, O'Malley drew stick figures to illustrate his plans. Television understands that kind of imagery.
"He conveys almost a palpable sense of passion," said Stephen Kaiser, who was a spokesman for the city's office of manpower resources under then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. "It has a tendency to immediately inspire people to agree with him, to buy into his passion, to buy into his vision."
The new radio program, which airs at 11 a.m. on alternate Tuesdays, provides one way to accentuate whatever message the mayor wants to get across. Yesterday, O'Malley stressed what he said were untrumpeted successes during his two years in office: reductions in violent crime and drug-related emergency-room visits. In addition, in a practice mastered by White House aides, he introduced a sliver of news by promoting a new all-purpose hotline for citizen complaints.
"He's talking directly to the public, unfiltered," said Jonathan Shorr, chairman of the University of Baltimore's School of Communications Design. "He doesn't have to get his views out through The Sun's editorial page, or through the City Hall reporters. They're obviously going to filter."
O'Malley said he had waited for two years after WBAL approached him about the radio show, until he could hold town hall meetings throughout the city. He wanted his constituents to know that he would first seek their thoughts in person.
Others, including Shorr, suggest an additional rationale for the timing: this year's race to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening. WBAL-AM has a 50,000-watt transmitter and is heard throughout the mid-Atlantic, the Eastern Shore and much of Western Maryland.
One caller, a self-described "white angry male," said he'd support O'Malley for governor against "Kennedy" - presumably Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
The mayor deftly turned that into a quick broadside against the Glendening administration's handling of the state budget.
The forum is not new - Schaefer and Schmoke had similar programs on WBAL, and big-city mayors across the country also appear regularly on the air. To target listeners who are more likely to live in the city, Schmoke also took questions regularly on WJHU-FM (now WYPR) and several Radio One stations in town.
Yet O'Malley seemed taken aback by questions posed by WBAL's moderator, Bill Vanko, including those on the selection of the new fire chief. Vanko noted that with the choice of William Goodwin, neither the Fire Department nor the Police Department is headed by an African-American in a city where the majority of the residents are black.
"There's a considerable amount of angst when any change happens," O'Malley responded. "I don't think the City Council is going to evaluate Goodwin on the color of his skin. ... I can't change the color of my skin - and I don't say that to be dismissive of the hurt of 400 years of slavery."
Afterward, O'Malley assessed his maiden performance as "a little stiff" and said he would have preferred to handle more calls directly from constituents than he did yesterday.
"This is a short-handed way of getting face-to-face with people," O'Malley said. "My whole day is carved into various boxes. One of those boxes is accessibility. Now we have a little track record; we can take advantage of the airwaves."
Questions? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 410-332-6923.