All eight phone lines are flashing with callers as Bill Cunningham opens his popular afternoon radio talk show on WLW-AM.
He's about to make the most important decision of his day: which caller to put on the air first. Today's topic, a proposed law to let Ohio residents carry concealed weapons, is likely to generate some heat.
Seated at the Mount Adams studio console, Mr. Cunningham studies a computer screen. That's where Tricia Mays, the producer who screens incoming calls, lists each waiting caller by name, city and a brief description of the comment. Mr. Cunningham, often accused of being inflammatory, chooses the most outrageous one, Katrina from Dearborn County, who has a permit to carry a .38-caliber pistol she calls “Mabel” in her purse.
“What I try to get at the beginning of a show,” he explains, “is one good caller, and that sets up the whole show.”
The whole show, as far as talk radio is concerned, is to entertain listeners through the best mix of sharp points of view. But year after year, talk radio has been accused of fomenting divisiveness, promoting stereotypes and being a destructive voice in the community. In response, talk radio says it's just a business that gives the audience what it wants.
“(Talk radio) can also inform, but my No. 1 job every day is to make the show entertaining,” says Mike McConnell, WLW's morning talk host.
The managers of WLW, and the nation's other 1,133 talk stations, might say the No. 1 job of every talk host is to light up the phone lines and keep listeners tuned in, which translate into ratings and advertising revenues.
In the past two decades, talk radio has shifted from subdued discussion of public affairs to a raucous exchange of opinions and feelings. Critics would say far worse, that talk radio has become an irresponsible barrage of exaggeration, veiled threats and half-truths shrewdly manipulated by hosts.
After angry protesters clashed with Cincinnati police in downtown and Over-the-Rhine last month, Mayor Charlie Luken criticized the city's talk hosts, telling WLW's Jim Scott: “Some of the people on your station, and other stations, engage in rhetoric that incites people.”
People in the business, and those who are regular listeners and callers, say the medium liberals love to hate is just another form of amusement competing for an audience with video games, music-intensive radio stations, TV shows or scary movies.
Lighten up, talk radio fans say. It's just entertainment.
Talk radio as entertainment comes in various forms — from Mr. McConnell's good-natured banter with callers, to Mr. Cunningham's World Wrestling Federation-style verbal theatrics, to J.R. Gach calling Japanese “yellow monkeys” (which cost him his WLW job in February).
Talk radio's critics, however, worry about its corrosive effect. They say talk radio's extreme emotions and cavalier attitude toward facts can present a distorted view of public opinion and promote divisiveness.
The National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) became so concerned about the impact of Cincinnati talk radio that it funded two research studies and monitored local shows the past four years.
Excusing talk radio as “just entertainment” is “a disingenuous and dishonest rationalization,” says Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Jones is a National Conference board member and an outspoken critic of talk radio.
Mr. Jones, 73, is a former NAACP lawyer who says his many years of civil rights struggles makes him particularly sensitive to the misinformation and slurs he says are the fabric of many talk radio shows. “There are people who believe what they hear,” he says, “and they form judgments and make decisions based upon what they hear.”
Three months ago, at a Greater Cincinnati YWCA breakfast, Mr. Jones called Mr. Cunningham's show “trash and filth and profanity.” Mr. Cunningham responds by noting that most elected city, county and state officials have appeared on his show.
“If the judge's charges were accurate, none of these officeholders would come on with me,” he says. “But they come on because it's fun radio.”
:Mobile male audience
Like any radio format, Cincinnati talk radio is targeted to a specific demographic audience.
What is heard here on talk radio is a reflection of that audience - a very racially segregated audience. Only 6% of WLW-AM's (700) audience is African-American, while the WDBZ-AM (1230) audience is 11 percent white, according to the rating service Arbitron.
WLW listeners are mostly male, between the ages of 25 and 54, who like to be in the know, often while on the go. But it wasn't always that way.
When Mr. McConnell started his WLW Midday show in 1985, the audience was primarily housewives who wanted to talk about health, medical and lifestyle issues.
Soon things changed:
As more men tuned in, women tuned out because they don't enjoy conflict as much, says Lincoln Ware, 51, talk host and program director at WDBZ, one of the nation's few African-American talk stations.
By national standards, industry experts say, Cincinnati's talk radio market is not as coarse or combative as other markets.
“There are talk show hosts all over the country who are the equal, or worse, than Willie (Mr. Cunningham),” says Stephen Bennett, 59, a retired University of Cincinnati political science professor who is writing a book, The American Ignoramus, about the impact of political talk radio. Talk hosts in other cities “are much more shrill ... and far more rude to callers than Cunningham,” he says.
When you compare different segments of the radio dial — such as hard rock, soft rock, oldies or country music — talk radio captures the biggest percentage of radio listeners here and nationally. The combined 15.8 percent audience share for talk here (including sports talk shows) is slightly less than Arbitron's 16.9 percent national average. The biggest is WLW, Cincinnati's top-rated station, with an 8.7 percent share of the audience.
While leading in audience share, talk radio likes to point out to its critics that such a percentage is by no means a majority of the community.
“We like to be braggadocios and say "WLW is The Big One, We're No. 1.' But about 90 percent of the people don't listen to us,” says Darryl Parks, Clear Channel's director of AM operations here.
But the nature of the audience makes talk radio more influential than a 15 percent slice of the listening pie.
Talk radio listeners are very active “socially, politically and economically. These are the movers and shakers in terms of public opinion,” says Michael Harrison, editor and founder of Talkers Magazine, a monthly magazine that covers talk radio.
“The folks who tend to participate in talk radio are ... "opinion leaders,' people who are always blasting their view, talking and listening about (issues),” says Jon Krosnick, an Ohio State University professor of psychology and political science who studies the news media's impact on people's political judgments.
Cincinnati City Council staffers and other politicians monitor weekday talk shows “to hear what people are saying,” says Jene Galvin, an aide for Cincinnati city council member Alicia Reece.
“Talk radio has a direct impact on people who shape the policy, or control the shaping of policy,” says Jennifer O'Donnell, 40, a Cincinnati clinical psychologist who researched talk radio for the National Conference.
Cincinnati Bengals President Mike Brown, whose stadium deal and losing football team have made the Bengals a constant radio topic for years, says people should “not underestimate the impact of talk radio.”
“I know people that I think are otherwise intelligent people who listen,” he says with a laugh.
“They get people that range from judges to top business people. They literally have access to the most influential people in the city. ... I do not underestimate their ability to reach out and grab listeners. They obviously must be entertaining people by what they do.”
Voice of the people
Don Lewis keeps a small portable radio tuned to talk next to his easy chair in his Bond Hill home. He also has a radio in the bathroom, kitchen and every other room in his house.
“I love listening to the conversations,” says Mr. Lewis, 56, a Queen City Metro bus driver and habitual talk show caller. He was dubbed “Sensible Don” by a WLW-AM producer because of his politically conservative views. He also isn't afraid to criticize fellow African-Americans.
“It's fun to hear what other people are thinking,” says Mr. Lewis, a regular caller to Mr. McConnell and periodic studio guest on Gary Jeff Walker's Saturday morning WLW talk show. “If you have an opinion, just throw it out. But you have to take it (talk radio) with a grain of salt.”
For Mr. Lewis, and thousands of others, talk radio provides entertaining companionship in an increasingly alienated society. It has become “the new backyard fence” for people, says Mr. Harrison, Talkers Magazine editor.
Talk radio also offers a chance to be heard beyond one's back yard. “It's the one opportunity ordinary people have to express their voices to (many people) in a very simple way - by making one phone call,” says Mr. Krosnick, the OSU researcher.
Some listeners of WDBZ-AM, the African-American station, use call-in shows as a forum for political and social change, says Jonathan “Jay” Love, 30, assistant program director and afternoon talk host. But entertainment is still a priority, he says.
Listeners also tune in for their favorite host. The most important ingredient for a successful talk show, says WLW's Mr. Parks, is a compelling, entertaining host.
In February, Mr. Cunningham was named one of the 100 “most important” U.S. talk show hosts by Talkers magazine. Also on the list: WDBZ's Mr. Ware and Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Don Imus, Jim Rome and Howard Stern.
Mr. Cunningham says successful hosts must be entertaining. “People get information from so many other sources — the newspaper, and magazines and the Internet. The hardest thing in radio is to do something in a way so people just enjoy it.”
Although talk radio has been around since the 1930s, academic researchers didn't take an interest in it until the past decade, when nationally syndicated shows began to influence policy debates and presidential campaigns.
Ms. O'Donnell's 1998 study for the National Conference, entitled “Do Talk Radio Listeners Believe What They Hear?,” concluded that “more often than not, listeners believe the information they receive from their favorite talk show host, and typically find the information useful, educational and fact-filled.”
Her 1999 follow-up study, called “The Values of Talk Radio Listeners,” found that “the power of persuasion resides in the listener believing the talk show host is a credible source because the (host) supports values similar to those of the listener.”
Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Ware, as well as many other talk show hosts, admit they use verbal theatrics, hyperbole and blunt talk to provoke callers. Mr. Cunningham, a talk host since 1983, says he has been forced to ratchet up the rhetoric since Democrat Bill Clinton left office.
“We live in boring times,” Mr. Cunningham said in an interview before the April street violence. “Taft is governor; Luken is mayor; and Bush is president. These are all boring people ... So we've got to make things up.”
When riots broke out April 10, Mr. Parks told Mr. Cunningham and fellow WLW talk hosts to tone down the rhetoric. But that did not stop Mr. Cunningham from criticizing African-American leaders, particularly Cincinnati council members Minette Cooper and Ms. Reece, during the first night of violence.
“Where is the black leadership when there is racial violence against white America?” he said on an April 10 broadcast punctuated with callers' reports of Over-the-Rhine violence. At another point he said: “If there was a white mob beating up on black people because of the color of their skin, I'd be just as tough on them.”
All Tristate radio personalities interviewed for this story acknowledge that some listeners don't realize talk hosts say outrageous or untrue things to incite the audience.
“Some people don't get it. They believe all this stuff, and that's really scary,” says Pat Barry, 3-6 p.m. weekday host on WKRC-AM (550). “The vast majority of people who don't call in know it's entertainment.”
Talk radio critic Mr. Bennett says radio hosts should realize that “a sizeable portion of the American public can't think its way out of a paper bag” when it comes to government issues. Talk hosts “can say they're entertainers, but that's not how their audiences see them.”
Listeners must be skeptical of any talk host, says Ms. O'Donnell, the National Conference researcher. “We don't know what their motives are. Is it for ratings and income? Or is it their political beliefs?”
Interest sets topics
Talk radio hosts can manipulate many elements of their shows, except one — the topic. The audience is the most powerful force in setting talk radio's agenda.
“We don't lead. We follow,” says WLW-AM's Mr. McConnell. “I can lay out a topic, something that I feel is a problem with this city or region, and if the phone doesn't ring, the topic will be dead in five minutes.
“The audience dictates what's going to be on radio. If they don't care to get involved, it simply means it's not important. It's a great barometer.”
For the past two weeks, WLW-AM personalities have attempted steering conversations away from the riots. “It's been hard, because that's what people want to talk about,” Mr. Cunningham says.
Talk hosts who try to change people's minds always fail, Mr. Parks says, because “people don't like to be preached to.”
Once hosts know which topics push people's buttons, they exploit them, says the Bengals' Mike Brown, who has been slammed up and down the dial. Such recurring themes “aren't necessarily accurate or true, and they beat on them. That's how we became "cheap,'” Mr. Brown says.
“A lot of the things said about the Riverfront development are off target,” he says. “But they have found an acceptance in the public mind, and much of that was generated by talk radio.”
Talk hosts say most of their daily discussions are drawn from the headlines, usually this newspaper.
“You put (the Enquirer) on the doorsteps of 300,000 people every morning,” Mr. Cunningham says, “and that's the basis of TV news and talk radio, because that's the message everyone gets. And then we talk about it.”
But who gets to talk is constantly manipulated by hosts, who prioritize calls every commercial break.
Mr. Cunningham, who calls himself “the uncommon voice of the common man,” has kept white male callers on hold for more than 90 minutes and quickly put on women or African-Americans, because relatively few call his show. WKRC-AM has screened out callers over 55 to make the station sound young, Mr. Barry says.
Mr. Parks, also a Saturday morning talk host, says he tries to present a balance of callers on his shows by race, gender, geography and opinions. But that's not always possible.
Talk radio often doesn't provide a true sampling of public opinion, because a majority of people don't listen to the format. Arbitron says only 333,600 people — about 21 percent of the 1.6 million residents in the 13-county Cincinnati radio market — listened to WLW in the winter quarter for a least five minutes in a week. Those five minutes could be during any part of WLW's programming, including news, traffic, weather or sports.
So talk radio reflects the views of those who call, not necessarily the community at large. And polarizing, hostile or aggressive callers are more likely to get on the air than more reasonable voices.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, in his 1996 book, Hot Talk: All Talk All The Time, says talk radio has no interest in reason or moderation. “Outlandish opinion-mongers on the left and right tend to drown out everyone else. Extremism in the pursuit of ratings is no vice.”
As Mr. Barry puts it: “If someone is just nuts, I put them on right away. A crazy caller is very entertaining.”
Talk radio presents “a distorted picture of public opinion — people who have strong views who state them strongly,” says OSU's Mr. Krosnick. “It provides divisiveness, not patient cooperation.”
Ms. O'Donnell, the National Conference researcher, points out that talk radio is imprecise communication because many listeners only hear small snatches of a three-hour talk show while in and out of their cars, or doing other tasks. The audience may not always be listening intently, or might not understand information. And sometimes the callers — or hosts — are inaccurate.
The spontaneity of live radio also makes it difficult for talk show subjects to respond during shows, says Mr. Brown, who has had a rocky relationship with WLW.
Talk radio “sets itself up as a court of public opinion. But it has its own rules, and sometimes you don't even get notified that there's a hearing, so it's impossible to defend yourself,” Mr. Brown says.
Arguably, says Mr. Brown, “somebody who has a sounding board — a disproportionate public voice — ought to have the responsibility to be fair-minded, even-handed and accurate. But that really isn't talk radio, is it?”
Mr. Parks says WLW is a responsible broadcaster serving the Tristate in many ways.
“700 WLW is outrageous at times. At times we touch people's emotions. At times we inform. At times listeners can cheer on the Reds,” Mr. Parks says.
“A listener should think of us as a friend that may make them smile or laugh, or cry or get mad at. It's all entertainment in one way or another — and their expectations should be based on their understanding of that.”
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