Congressional shift makes their day

Democrats' coming to power may provide more grist for conservative talk show hosts' mills

November 09, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,sun reporter

For conservative radio talk-show hosts, the power shift in Congress is not necessarily a cause for gloom.

In fact, some of the hosts say, the new Democratic majority presents them with a golden opportunity.

"It probably gives talk radio another two years of things to talk about," said Frank Luber, co-host of The Sean and Frank Show in the mornings on Baltimore's WCBM. The station broadcasts shows by several conservative commentators, including Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who was widely criticized recently for his mimicry of Michael J. Fox's ads in support of Democratic candidates' backing stem-cell research.

"If you can believe what the Democrats say, there's going to be some changes, so there'll be a field of opportunity to challenge the things that they propose to change," Luber said.

Luber, who considers himself conservative but remains a registered Democrat despite his disenchantment with the party, said conservatives will be "pecking away at the Democrats, looking over their shoulders."

By their own admission, most conservative talk-show hosts enjoyed a surge in popularity and ratings during the Clinton administration, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other travails provided fodder for criticism and disparagement. In recent years, as the Bush administration cemented its hold on power and prosecuted its war in Iraq, many conservative commentators had less to attack, and their ratings declined.

Now, with the midterm elections giving Democrats one, if not two, houses of Congress, some conservative commentators appear to be shaken by the results, at least initially, but eager to go after the new power structure. Liberals, meanwhile, seemed pleased to observe a humbling of their ideological adversaries.

"They will be clucking about the sky falling, which I will enjoy watching," Rachel Maddow, a liberal talk-show host on Air America, said from New York.

"Their whole reason for being is to tear down the opposition, so now they have a bigger target. They've been going after [California Rep.] Nancy Pelosi with both barrels for months. Now that she's going to be speaker, some of the criticism might finally land."

But Tom Marr, another conservative host at WCBM, relishes the thought of a full-throated battle.

"It'll be heyday again," said Marr, who has been in the Baltimore market almost continuously since 1967.

"It'll be very interesting keeping an eye on Nancy Pelosi -- she has a record. She's got an ultra-liberal record. And there are numerous chairmen-to-be that are far to the left of the American mainstream. Talk radio is going to have a field day."

Marr acknowledged that he had been hoping for better news on Tuesday night.

"Every conservative talk-radio host was beating the drum for the Republican Party," he said. "Yesterday was an unmitigated disaster."

Al Franken, Air America's most well-known host, said conservative commentators would be "licking their wounds for a few days," after having tried hard during the campaign to get Republicans elected and failing.

"They would literally only tell their listeners about the most optimistic polls, and ignore the rest," Franken said. "It was really funny. They were just doing their propaganda thing, and it didn't work. It didn't matter if it was true or not."

For its part, Air America, which recently sought Chapter 11 protection from creditors, plans to "start doing new stuff," Franken said, including putting new committee chairs on the air.

At Baltimore's WBAL, where outgoing Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had his own show, Stateline, on alternate Saturdays -- and made regular appearances on talk shows like Chip Franklin's -- news director Mark Miller said yesterday that he would offer Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, a program of his own after he becomes governor.

Miller said a similar offer will be made to Sheila Dixon, who stands to become Baltimore's mayor.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday that his office had not yet received an invitation from the AM station.

"There's plenty of time for us to discuss this and figure it out," he said.

"At this point, we have no plans to do a WBAL Radio show. We haven't been on WBAL in a while. I'm not sure that they were a real factor in this election."

Ehrlich was such a presence on WBAL that local wags dubbed the station WBOB, a play on the governor's first name.

"Nothing has made me chuckle more these last few months than hearing some accuse WBAL of becoming `WBOB,'" Miller wrote last week in an article that he submitted to The Sun for consideration on its Op-Ed page.

"Clearly, Governor Ehrlich feels comfortable speaking with the talk radio audience and to WBAL's listeners specifically.

"It's his home turf, dating back to his first days in the state legislature."

But, he said, the perception "that the station is WBOB is as much the result of Mayor O'Malley's reluctance to appear as it is the governor's willingness to appear."

Miller wrote that O'Malley had appeared on the station's airwaves early in his tenure as mayor but by late 2002 "was regularly missing his own program." Finally, he stopped appearing at all, Miller said.

"With every appearance of Governor Ehrlich on the station since July, the mayor has received an invitation to appear from station management," Miller wrote. "They have all gone unanswered."

Abbruzzese differed: "They have sent us one or two letters inviting us on the station; to that, we've said they were more than welcome to cover our events and news conferences during the campaign. We just determined that it was more effective to communicate with the citizens in other ways."

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