May 8 - 15, 1 9 9 7
[Talk Radio]

The death of talk radio

Part 2

by Dan Kennedy

Talk radio's slide began months after Gingrich was sworn in as Speaker of the House, an event that marked the apotheosis of Limbaugh and hundreds of local analogues.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton and liberal commentators, to smear the entire medium, made deft use of incendiary comments by talk host Gordon Liddy about the best way to shoot federal agents. It was, for the most part, an unfair attack. "Mainstream media had grossly exaggerated the amount of hate on talk radio," says the Annenberg School's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies talk radio. But it worked. Talk radio was still popular, but it was no longer the Next Big Thing. "Civility" became an important new catchword. Liddy's still around, but his paranoid ravings now seem more comic than menacing.

Limbaugh continues to dominate with his 21 million weekly listeners, but the buzz is long gone, and a few stations have even dropped him. The one-time revolutionary with a sense of humor now offers little more than a stream of dreary insider observations. His main shtick now is sucking up to the man he obsequiously refers to as "Mr. Newt." And look who else is hot. The number-two talk-show host, according to the trade magazine Talkers, is Dr. Laura, with 14 million weekly listeners, followed by shock jock Howard Stern (number three, with 12 million listeners), funny guy Don Imus (number six, with eight million), and financial expert Bruce Williams (number seven, with seven million).

Just a few years ago Boston's only all-talk station, WRKO (AM 680), broadcast nothing but local, politically oriented talk shows from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and beyond. Now the line-up is dominated by nationally syndicated programs (Schlessinger and Limbaugh), locally produced entertainment shows (Two Chicks Dishing), and local hosts with political smarts who nevertheless favor lighter fare over hard-nosed politics (Marjorie Clapprood and her departing co-host, Pat Whitley, as well as Howie Carr and Jeff Katz).

"It's business," says Carr. "I don't think people are as interested in politics as they used to be. There aren't the great cartoon-type figures of yesteryear -- [former House Speaker George] Keverian and [former State Senate president Bill] Bulger, the people they'd see on TV and get pissed off at."

Indeed, the only talk-radio outlets remaining for serious discussion of local issues are The Connection, on public station WBUR (90.9 FM), and The David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ (AM 1030). But The Connection's eclectic host, Christopher Lydon, is trying to take his show national, and he's as likely to talk about poetry or world history as local politics. And Brudnoy, whose signal reaches most of the eastern half of the United States, frequently focuses on national topics or on one of his various other interests: movies, the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of "Bubba" Clinton, and his loathing for affirmative action.

"It's a cyclical thing," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers. "Much of it has to do with a cynicism that has settled over grassroots America, that there are no answers. Advocacy is only good when there's a vacuum for it. Otherwise it becomes a contrivance. You come across as a drum-beating crank."

Adds Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, author of Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time (Times Books, 1996): "I think there's a diminution of politics, period, which has cooled off talk radio since the days when the Republicans were storming the gates of Capitol Hill."

Now, instead of political outrage, we have the Two Chicks begging men to call in and tell them which male celebrities they consider attractive ("We won't think you're a homo! Not that there's anything wrong with that."), Howie Carr lampooning a government regulation extending the Americans with Disabilities Act to the mentally ill ("Can I call them nuts? They're not retards. I'll call them nuts."), and Marjorie Clapprood (one of the few genuine liberals on talk radio) and Pat Whitley telling drivers to beep their horns if they're having sex.

Granted, some of this can be pretty entertaining. But it's offered up with a streak of cruelty and a deep undercurrent of cynicism that is antithetical to the empowerment theme that once vaulted Jerry Williams and Gene Burns to the top of the ratings.

"Boston was at one time the best talk market in America," says the cerebral Burns, who hosted WRKO's 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. slot until the early '90s, and who's now a talk-show host at KGO Radio, in San Francisco. "I think what's happened in Boston is a tragedy."

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]