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The Tyranny Of Talk

The enthronement of Newt Gingrich last week represented another milestone in the convergence of politics and showbiz. With Newt’s ascension, packs of talkradio hosts from around the country invaded the Capitol basement, chanting slogans about “the revolution” and declaring themselves a pivotal new constituency.

Indeed, Newt is arguably the first politician to achieve national stature whose style and thought processes embody talkradio rather than the cadences of the Beltway. He parrots the tidy homilies of talkradio, honed down to 10-second soundbites. Like the new stars of talkradio, he exhibits a pathological need to draw attention to himself and a compulsion to give everything an ideological spin. Newt is already famous for his megabuck book deal, his ideological flip-flops, his obsessive quest for celebrityhood. Little wonder the fervid freaks of Limbaugh-land feel so empowered by his rise.

When talkradio was born precisely 35 years ago, no one would have guessed that it would come to this. It was in 1960 that Ben Hoberman, then head of KABC in Los Angeles, decided to gamble with an all-talk format. He assembled a mixed bag of harmless chatmeisters like Pamela Mason and Wendell Noble. “It was pure pabulum,” recalls Michael Jackson, who joined the talkradio format two years later. “Race, religion and politics were taboo as topics.”

The format was far from an instant hit. “The ad agencies thought the idea was totally off the wall,” recalls Hoberman, who is now retired. “They wanted to know why we didn’t play any records.”

Before long, however, more and more listeners began to interrupt the hosts’ monologues, calling in with comments, and suddenly the audience was growing and the demos improving. Advertisers began to pay attention.

“We were all very mindful of the fairness doctrine back then,” says Hoberman. “Balance was our hallmark.”

To the bizarre cast of characters who rule talkradio today, “balance” represents a weird anachronism. Try explaining “balance” to the likes of Bob Mohan in Phoenix, who suggested on his show that Mrs. Jim Brady, the wife of Reagan’s former press secretary, be “put down” by a veterinarian for espousing gun control. Or to Robert Namer in New Orleans, who expressed exhilaration recently because “people realize you don’t have to placate black people any more.”

Or most of all to the lubricious Limbaugh, who now harangues his listeners on some 650 stations. It is Limbaugh who has set the tone for modern talkradio, inventing a new demonology that reduces public figures to slogans (Joycelyn Elders became “the condom queen”) and ideas to epithets.

Thanks to Limbaugh, the talkshow universe now envelops some 1,168 stations, compared with a mere 360 five years ago. Thanks also to Limbaugh, the political leanings of the so-called hosts teeter to the right of Jesse Helms.

Who are these self-anointed leaders who interview public figures and hold forth on issues?

They are, most of all, showmen – often fatuous, occasionally entertaining, but uniformly lacking in journalistic credentials. Don Imus is their reigning intellectual, by virtue of the fact that he will at least wedge in Anna Quindlen or Tim Russert between comedy sketches.

And they have clout, albeit not as much as Limbaugh would have us believe. The titans of talkradio together have created a sort of Thunder on the Right that intimidates some lawmakers and impresses the hell out of radio station managers. It is the sort of movement, however, that by dint of its sheer noise level will ultimately create its own countervailing force.

“Limbaugh and his clones think they’ve won the war,” says Jackson, the savvy liberal veteran of the radio wars. “They’re wrong. But I’ll give Limbaugh this much: He’s helped draw me out of my shell, helped me defy the constraints of the past. Now I say exactly what I think. As such, this is the most exciting time of my career.”

Jackson, needless to say, is sitting home in Los Angeles, not burrowing into a basement at the Capitol.

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