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'Call' to Turn On, Tune In and Speak Up : Television: Steve Barr says he aspires to be 'the progressive, urban version of Rush Limbaugh' with his activist program.

August 27, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It sounds like a dopey Hollywood pitch designed to capitalize on someone else's success--"Die Hard on a Bus," "Rain Man Meets Zelig"--or a quip calculated to get laughs at a cocktail party. But Steve Barr isn't joking when he says he aspires to be "the progressive, urban version of Rush Limbaugh."

"Look how good the right is at this," said Barr, 35, who co-founded "Rock the Vote" and has worked on several campaigns for Democratic politicians, including Jerry Brown and President Clinton. Besides Limbaugh's popular radio and television programs, he notes, there is Pat Robertson's "700 Club"--"a political town meeting where viewers can interact and participate in the political process via telephone. They call up and donate money and they become activists."

"If they can do it," Barr asks, "why isn't there anyone on the left offering answers and getting people involved?"

So he's trying to fill the gap. It's not that "Call to Action With Steve Barr" will look anything like Limbaugh's show, or that it will always contradict the conservative viewpoint. Barr's goal is to mobilize viewers, fed up with politics as it is practiced today, to become activists on behalf of a variety of proposals--many of them to the left of the current political debate.

"It's not a 'Wrestlemania' with Limbaugh, but an alternative to him and everything else that is on TV about politics, which is skewed toward old white guys who own homes," Barr said.

He hopes to represent the viewpoints of those he believes are rarely heard--including minorities, the poor, immigrants, young people and anyone else who feels unserved by the current political system. Information will be provided on how to register to vote, how to contact government officials and how to join community organizations.

Barr, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the chairmanship of California's Democratic Party, believes that special-interest money has corrupted both parties, and he favors sweeping political reform to eliminate the influence of lobbyists. "I want a well-organized, angry mob of people who have gotten screwed out of a good education or health care to stand up and do something about it," he proclaimed.

Whether he will get the chance to do so is still uncertain. After viewing the pilot he shot this summer, Disney-owned KCAL-TV Channel 9 picked up Barr's option and will produce six more episodes before deciding whether to air the series, with an eye toward eventual national syndication.

Michael Binkow, KCAL's vice president of program development, said that Barr's series probably will get on sometime this fall, but he is not going to rush it.

"This is such a unique program," Binkow said. "I just want to be sure that we hone the concept until it's dead on."

Binkow frowns on comparisons to Limbaugh or anything overtly partisan. "Call to Action" might have a progressive slant, he said, but the primary aim of the show is to incite viewers of all political tastes to effect change on issues that affect everyone.

"Sure, Barr is partisan and he has his issues that he is passionate about, but those are the issues that we are all passionate about," Binkow said. "It's not a left or right thing. Getting more police is not really a left or right issue. Stopping the pollution of the Santa Monica Bay so we can take our children there for a swim is not about ideology. This is more about, 'Here's the issue, here's the problem, and here's what you can do to help change it.' "

Nonetheless, Barr's views enter in when it comes to the solutions that are proposed, and to the organizations that are recommended as contact points for viewers looking to get involved.

In the pilot program, for example, Barr asks the question: "How can I feel safer walking from my house in Venice to the store?" First he suggests buying a gun, but after hanging out with police and gang members, he concludes that a gun will make him even less safe. So he explores the political rhetoric of the "three strikes and you're out" debate and concludes that the law won't make anyone feel safer walking down a dark street and that the money spent implementing it could be better used on another solution.

"If you ask people, the one thing they all say that will make them feel safer is more police cruising around," Barr says. He interviews Vice President Al Gore and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who tells Barr that if the City Council would pass his budget, several hundred more police officers could be hired.

But in addition to supporting the quest for more police, the program endorses community policing techniques and advocates government-funded crime prevention programs that Republicans have been criticizing in the recent Washington debate over the crime bill.

"People will watch if we get things done and there's tension to it," Barr said. "And the tension is simple: I'm the everyday guy going into the halls of power and asking questions. I was interviewing a city councilman for the pilot and he made this snide remark (about Barr's casual attire): 'You must be a real crack reporter--you dress really well.' And I said, 'I dress like everyone who votes for you.'

"And all those people that these politicians are so out of touch with can make them change their fat-cat attitude. I mean, you can watch the news and get punched in the face for 22 minutes and your only recourse is to buy a gun, move farther away or call a home security service. With this show, you can feel good at the end about actually doing something, changing something. You've stood up, you've lit a fire under a politician, you got involved in some community organization. Man, that's a lot better than calling Westec."

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