SACRAMENTO — The architects of the recall of Gov. Gray Davis had many disagreements over the course of their now successful campaign to get the matter on a special ballot. But they all agree on this: Without talk radio hosts stirring up the populace, they never would have gotten this far.
It all began before dawn on a day in early February when Ted Costa, who heads the anti-tax group People's Advocate, made a five-minute plea on the early morning radio program hosted by Eric Hogue on KTKZ-AM (1380) in Sacramento. Costa was ready to make the recall effort official and he needed 65 signatures to do it.
Hogue, a self-described "conservative Ohio Buckeye boy" who came to "the land of fruits and nuts" 3 1/2 years ago, had his doubts. Costa's office was hard to find. It was really early in the morning. But he figured there was nothing to lose in giving Costa air time.
Within hours, more than 300 people had shown up at Costa's office "behind the Krispy Kreme," ready and willing to sign.
"I knew then we were on to something," said Hogue, who in recent months has billed his show as the "Home of the Recall" and organized drive-up petition signings.
In recent years, talk radio hosts have played an increasingly powerful role in California politics, both local and statewide. Before Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) stepped in with more than $1.6 million of his fortune to back the recall, the largely radio-driven, grass-roots campaign had collected more than 120,000 signatures, enough to convince Issa and others that the recall could succeed.
Since recall efforts began in earnest, several hosts have dedicated time each day to the issue, often characterizing Davis along a narrow range that includes "jerk," "incompetent," "dishonest" and "corrupt." Hogue has warned replacement candidates to watch out for the "Davis slime machine," asking Issa if he had his "flak jacket" ready to take expected criticism. KFI's John and Ken refer to the governor only as Joe Davis, reverting to a given first name he never uses. And more than two dozen hosts statewide have received regular talking points via e-mail from organized recall backers.
Davis backers denigrate the role that talk radio has played.
"They're essentially preaching to the choir," said Roger Salazar, a Davis political advisor. "I don't think these guys had any impact except for the few hundred signatures they gathered at their drive-bys or whatever they call them. They beat the drum on this with little or no success. It wasn't until Darrell Issa bought and paid for the signature gatherers that this thing took off."
Salazar said it suits the purposes of recall backers to emphasize the role that talk radio played, giving the movement a populist cast that he says is false.
"They would rather you believe that this was somehow some uprising or citizen revolt, but they know the truth," he said. "They know without someone buying and paying for this thing, it would have never happened."
But Sal Russo, who ran Republican Bill Simon Jr.'s failed campaign for governor against Davis, calls radio hosts such as Hogue, San Diego's Roger Hedgecock of KOGO-AM (600), San Francisco's Melanie Morgan of KSFO-AM (560) and the Los Angeles duo of John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI-AM (640) modern-day "ward leaders."
"In many ways, talk radio today is replacing the old political organizations that used to exist," said Russo, who contends that radio appearances helped Simon defeat the less conservative Richard Riordan, then mayor of Los Angeles, in the Republican primary. Talk radio appearances allowed Simon to sidestep the mainstream media and go directly to core conservative voters, Russo said.
Already, a steady flow of candidates -- some declared, some still contemplating running -- has appeared on talk radio throughout the state. The strategy carries risk, however. During the campaign, Davis operatives listened in on Simon's appearances and used some of his statements against him.
Salazar said Davis' supporters will do the same during the recall. "Display your small-mindedness to the rest of the world, and we'll make sure they know about it as well," Salazar said. "For some reason, right-wing nuts like listening to talk radio; the rest of us listen to ballgames."
Radio hosts have shown themselves capable of mobilizing like-minded troops over the last decade. One well-known example: Former Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) lost a 1994 bid for reelection after taking a pounding on talk radio during Newt Gingrich's so-called Republican Revolution.
With the popularity of national hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, who got his start in Sacramento in the mid-1980s, conservative talk radio has become a mainstay of AM stations.
Since Limbaugh took his show nationwide in 1988, talk radio has gone from 125 stations to 1,117. That's more than 10% of all commercial radio stations in the nation, according to the industry trade journal Talkers.