THE RECALL ELECTION is over except for the shouting, finger-pointing and lawsuits, but regardless of the outcome, there was one clear winner: talk radio.
The push to oust Gov. Gray Davis was birthed and nurtured via conservative talk. AM stations like KFI (640) and KABC (790) in Los Angeles have pounded out a frenzied drumbeat against Davis, the political pinata, while simultaneously rallying around Arnold Schwarzenegger — down to issuing preemptive warnings about an inevitable last-minute smear campaign.
Unburdened by the pretense of objectivity, radio is the perfect blustery blend for the infotainment age — offering the immediacy and rumor-mongering of the Internet in a strident yet entertaining package. Busy commuters can feel like they’re absorbing a smattering of news (as filtered through red, white and blue-colored glasses) while feasting on a zesty stew peppered with verbal combat — “Tastes great, and more grilling.”
Buoyed by this unbridled advocacy, radio now wields more influence over California politics than newspapers, which face declining circulation; or television, where local stations largely abdicated power by shuttering capital bureaus and treating Sacramento as if it were Sao Paolo. It took a circus sideshow combined with celebrity candidates to rouse L.A.’s TV outlets, and even then the coverage isn’t easily distinguished from “The E! True Hollywood Story.”
BY CONTRAST, TALK RADIO spearheaded the recall petition drive, leaving puny newspaper op-ed pages and liberal editorial boards to return fire as best they could. Shackled by quaint standards of civility, they’re oratorically outgunned. Take KFI’s afternoon-drive team John & Ken, who dubbed Davis “Gumby,” dismissed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as “Busta-MEChA” and regularly deride the “media idiots” who dare disagree with them.
Raise the issue of balance, and talk hosts proclaim themselves a counterpoint to liberal media bias — paranoia the Los Angeles Times helped validate with the timing of its Schwarzenegger expose — that frees stations to march in virtual lockstep on the right’s behalf. KABC, for example, featured a clock on its Web site counting down till “California’s ‘Gray Days’ come to an end” along with such on-air slogans as “Smashing the myth of the left coast” and “Where America comes first” – as if everyone not in complete agreement has pledged their loyalty to Syria.
KABC’s right turn in pursuit of KFI is also a reminder that media congloms’ principal bias tilts toward the bottom line. After all, the station is owned by the Walt Disney Co. – an outfit that conservative ideologues and Southern Baptists will assure you leans to the left. What’s conveniently overlooked, of course, is that the same company that signs Peter Jennings’ paycheck and allows gays to convene at Disney World carries Sean Hannity’s radio show and recently gave us Rush Limbaugh’s abruptly aborted career as an ESPN football analyst.
Erik Braverman, KABC’s program director, makes no bones about the fact the station plays to its conservative base (some would say panders, but let’s not split hairs), leaving opposing viewpoints to overmatched callers and those ninnies at NPR.
“You have to deliver what the audience will embrace,” Braverman said. “We’re trying to preach to the choir, and we know who are core listeners are.”
It’s certainly a long way from there back to the soothing tones of Michael Jackson — the onetime KABC morning host, not the weird one with the glove.
“When 11% of Americans admit they get their news from Jay Leno, we’re in trouble,” said Jackson, who contends that conservative talk’s unrelenting vitriol has pushed the country toward despising its politicians and had “more of an impact in turning people off then turning them on.”
WHETHER TALK TUNE-IN benefited will become clearer this week, when the latest Arbitron radio rankings reveal what the recall hath wrought. (Say that three times fast.)
Still, anecdotal evidence suggests the election has been a windfall for talk radio, which, like the Hulk, exists in a state of constant rage. KFI even bumped an hour of “Dr. Laura” to carry a daily “Total Recall” update, leaving thousands of needy dopes with no one to berate them.
“People are angry. They’re angry to the bone,” KFI’s perpetually irate John Kobylt told listeners last week.
Well, sure, a few genuinely are, but dismal voter turnout in recent years indicates most people are apathetic, requiring the equivalent of the “Terminator 3-D” stage show to draw them to the polls.
Stoking anger, however, plays to talk radio’s strength, transforming outrage into income by turning political discourse into an endless food fight. Surveying today’s media scrum, talk’s ringmasters pump up the volume on their small choirs until they sound like the Mormon Tabernacle, assuming the loudest voice generally wins. To quote one of KABC’s unctuous on-air blurbs, “The recall, Kobe and weapons of mass destruction…. Times like this were made for us.”
Actually, a more disconcerting thought is that times like this are being made by them, but why quibble when there’s so much to rant about? Because they’re angry, do you hear? Angry! — with the most frequent traffic reports, and the best damn laser eye surgery anywhere.