On Election Day 1992, Steve West--the only African-American daily talk host at KVI-AM in Seattle and the station's only host supporting Bill Clinton--was fired. Although Program Director Brian Jennings offered other explanations for ending West's six-month show, he acknowledged politics indirectly played a role. "You don't generally put a different political philosophy on right after Rush (Limbaugh) to be successful."
There are many reasons why minorities have not made it, in significant numbers, in mainstream talk radio--not the least of which is probably old-fashioned prejudice--either prejudice in hiring or a fear of prejudice on the part of listeners. But now there is an added edge. In that very small pool, some are being squeezed out by the conservative trend in radio talk.
On June 24, Joe Madison, with 15 years in talk, lost a 9 a.m.-to-noon slot at WWRC-AM outside Washington in a two-way switch to make room for Pat Buchanan. Madison, a former political director of the NAACP who subsequently took a position in the newsroom, says that the daily talk lineup at the station, with the exception of Larry King, is now mostly conservative white male. "There's no question I had two things going against me," said Madison bitterly. "I am black and I have a moderate-to-liberal perspective."
Program Director Peter Laufer insists Madison will be even more "high profile" as a newsman. Asserting that he wants "a smorgasbord of ideas" and that the local host taking Madison's slot is "almost hideously middle of the road," Laufer maintains that the Buchanan show will provide balance because it is "point-counterpoint" with a rotating list of liberal co-hosts.
"(Buchanan) has marquee value and this is show business," said Laufer, whose station is the flagship for "Pat Buchanan & Company" (noon to 3 p.m.) He also cited the competition from Limbaugh (noon to 3 p.m. on WMAL-AM), whose widely syndicated program has made him a conservative icon, and from Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy (on WJFK-FM 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.), whose newer talk gig is blossoming.
Come October, Bob Ray Sanders at KLIF-AM in Dallas, native Texan and African-American who says that he is "anti-death penalty, anti-guns, all those things Texans hold dear" will lose his 8-10 p.m. talk show. The Minnesota North Stars hockey team is moving to Dallas, and with a slew of night games, Sanders would have essentially been gone anyway. Asked whether his liberalism was the reason the station didn't find another berth for him, Sanders replied: "They say not. I'm sure the thing had more to do with ratings even though we have the phones"--callers, being the lifeblood of talk.
"For whatever reason," he added, "the nature of the beast we call talk radio has emerged as a Right voice."
The Times was able to identify only 12 full-time weekday hosts who are members of minority groups among the 1,000 or so general-market talk stations. Three of them are on public radio, which tends to be more liberal. All the minority hosts are black with the exception of Ray Suarez of Puerto Rican lineage, who since April has been host of "Talk of the Nation" on National Public Radio. (In November, 1991, Radio & Records, the industry paper, counted 14 full-time minority hosts among 73 commercial stations in the top 100 markets; 62 others had part-time or fill-in slots.)
Meanwhile, Mexican-born Raoul Lowery Contreras, newspaper columnist based in Oceanside and a former member of the California Republican State Committee, is expected to become the first syndicated minority on mainstream radio next month. He's conservative--"100% against abortion, for capital punishment," and, says the ex-Marine, "for a strong pro-American foreign policy." On immigration, however, Contreras favors "open borders." American Entertainment Network has lined up about 20 stations thus far to carry the program, the largest in El Paso, Tex.
On Los Angeles radio, the only minority with a full-time talk slot is conservative Errol Smith on KIEV-AM (870) in Glendale, which also airs longtime white conservative George Putnam. In New York, with no daily minority hosts on general market stations, the hot new Sunday night team at WABC-AM is James Golden, who is black, a Limbaugh screener (known on the show as Bo Snerdley) who shares some of the host's views, and Joel Santisteban, Cuban-American and more to the center.
At KNUS-AM in Denver, morning host Ken Hamblin, a Denver Post columnist, is conservative. At WGST-AM in Atlanta, nighttime talker "Ralph From Ben Hill" is conservative on hot-button social issues--anti-abortion, anti-gay. His show is also defined by sheer outrageousness--sometimes serious, sometimes comic and sometimes you can't tell the difference.
Nevertheless, a certain reluctance to hire minorities in prominent on-air positions probably has existed as long as talk radio itself.