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Jerry Brown Gets a Rush Out of Radio : Media: The veteran politician is thriving on 'We the People,' his new talk show, which is off to a modest start.

March 02, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

A tape of children reciting the preamble to the Constitution fades to silence and then former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. starts to vent.

"You throw a candy wrapper out of your car window and you get a $500 fine because every state in the union has an anti-litter law," he says on "We the People," his new radio call-in show. "But a chemical company can get an official permit to poison your neighborhood. . . . Industry lobbyists say everything's OK, a little cancer is the price of progress, you have to take your risks in life. I don't think so. I don't think the government's doing enough to protect us. Not when a kid's lungs are being irreparably damaged, when breast and prostate cancers are increasing and when the sperm count is down, when the forests are dying, when frogs and birds are disappearing all over the world."

Plenty of heat to open a recent edition of his two-hour weekday radio show. And little cooling as his outrage turns to acid rain, "reduction of growth capacity . . . cancers, allergies, respiratory diseases. . . . It goes on with government permission and government knowledge."

Brown entered the crowded talk-radio arena Jan. 31 from a studio in Oakland. In a start-up reminiscent of his spartan 1992 campaign for President, his show has been picked up by about 30 or so stations, the biggest of which is 50,000-watt WSSH in Boston. His syndicator, Talk America Radio Network, based in Marboro, Mass., counts columnist Jack Anderson as its only other brand-name personality.

However, modest beginnings or not, Brown sounds no less fervent than he did when network news teams and leading pundits crowded his trail after he defeated Bill Clinton in the 1992 Connecticut primary. He denounces "Pentagon spenders and prison builders" and "the corruption of the political class" as if he were on the stump once more.

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Reminded in an interview that he used talk radio effectively in 1992, speaking with every backwater station and big-city powerhouse, including the raunchy Howard Stern, who endorsed him, Brown said that those on-air skills hardly prepared him to host his own show.

"I just feel it's a lot of work, to have a lot of knowledge, to keep talking," he said. "But I appreciate the value of the talk-show format. Ideas are complicated. The quickie newscasts distort and simplify the issues, but a talk show allows you a few hours to really explore the issues. There's a narrative in the talk-show format whereas the mainstream media is like acupuncture of entertainment and isolation. Your brain is agitated, but your mind is not engaged."

If Brown's swipe at the "mainstream media" echoes that giant of the format, Rush Limbaugh, who routinely criticizes the "mainstream media culture," it's because the liberal Jerry and the conservative Rush both position their shows as alternative forums. As Brown orients himself to his new role, he has been struck by Limbaugh's tenacity on issues that the conservative holds important.

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"When Limbaugh has a project, he does it justice and it's not glossed over," Brown said. "He's been harping on Clinton and Whitewater for about three months now. He certainly pounds home an idea. It's pretty incredible. . . . I basically define him as a tall-storyteller of rightist perspective."

Fine. But Limbaugh attracts more than 5 million listeners per quarter-hour by enlivening his show with song parodies and other mischief. It is respectfully pointed out to Brown that no one will ever accuse him of being a song-and-dance man.

"I do have a dry sense of humor," he replied.

He also has passionate callers. One of them knew all about the emissions from her local incinerator and the political connections of those who own the facility. Another told Brown how "government-regulated hemp technologies," or the harvesting of natural fibers, could conserve trees. Brown lingered with each, cutting in and out of conversations with "bumpers" of country-rock music.

Brown, whose gubernatorial experience and progressive ideas certainly have earned him a place at the roundtable of talk-media meisters, may serve as a welcome counterbalance on stations dominated by Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and other bullhorns of the right.

But it's questionable whether he will line up affiliates in many of the top markets. A random survey of leading radio executives revealed that they wanted to hear Brown's show, even though they were all but certain that it would be too arid for their needs.

At New York's WABC, program director John Mainelli will have the option in May of adding ABC Radio's new weekend show featuring Texas populist Jim Hightower. Mainelli also noted that he would have tried to hire Mario Cuomo if the New York governor had not decided to seek a fourth term this year. Brown may have to look elsewhere in New York.

Is he doing the show to prepare for a rematch with Clinton in 1996? Brown credits the President with having a "modest impact. He can't stem the drift toward greater inequality and environmental deterioration." Then he dodged the question of whether he will run again, saying that he is committed to the new venture.

"I wanted to get into the media because I think the mainstream media is part of the problem," he said. "I just want to make the show work and shake up the system."

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