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As political races progress, talk-radio hosts go from loud to louder

The political season is providing commentators on talk radio plenty of fodder. 'It's been a circus,' a KABC-AM program director says.

December 31, 2011|By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • BILL HANDEL of KFI can be irreverent about the race, but national politics are not a staple of station.
BILL HANDEL of KFI can be irreverent about the race, but national politics… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Just because there's no Clinton versus Obama as in the 2008 presidential primaries, only a race among Republican hopefuls, doesn't mean the mostly conservative commentators on talk radio are holding their tongues this political season.

"It's great for these stations, and the best part of it is, it's been a circus," said Jack Silver, program director at KABC-AM (790), local home of Sean Hannity and other talk stars.

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan and alleged sexual impropriety, Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgetting what federal departments he'd eliminate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trying to make a $10,000 bet with Perry over his healthcare position — not to mention more substantive issues such as the economy and national defense: The race has provided plenty of fodder for discussion.

"The primaries create great content for talk radio. It's fabulous material," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry. "No matter who, no matter what — the material is rich, it brings all the issues to the fore, it brings the personalities to the fore."

In addition, Harrison said, the primary season lets talk radio shelve the idea that it's nothing but a legion of right-wingers in lock step. You have "conservative hosts going after each other as if they were conservatives versus liberals."

In early December, conservative host Michael Savage — whose nearest affiliate is San Diego's KFMB-AM — criticized former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's chances of beating President Obama in a general election and offered him $1 million to drop out of the Republican primaries. In turn, rival conservative host Mark Levin — heard locally on KABC — offered Savage $100,000 to quit radio. Neither offer has been accepted thus far.

"You've got two conservative hosts bitterly fighting over which candidate they support. I think that's healthy," Harrison said.

But unlike in the 1990s, talk radio doesn't have a stranglehold on the subject matter, thanks to a proliferation of other outlets, mainly on the Internet and cable television, Harrison said.

A difference from 2008: Air America, the liberal talk-radio network, was still operating then, albeit limping toward bankruptcy. Though that brand-name company is gone, along with all its behind-the-scenes turmoil, progressive talk as a niche is even stronger, Harrison said, with refugees from the network and others never associated with it, such as Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz, heard on stations across the country, including locally on KTLK-AM (1150).

Whether they're talking to like-minded listeners or opponents sampling the other side, "hopefully the best talk-show hosts give you a different way of looking at the world," said Robin Bertolucci, program director at KFI-AM (640), the talk-radio powerhouse that was the top-rated station in Los Angeles and Orange County in October and November.

Though it is the area's outlet for Limbaugh, whose syndicated show is the biggest in all of talk radio, KFI prefers its homegrown hosts — such as Bill Handel, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, Bill Carroll and Tim Conway Jr. — to focus on the live and local.

"We talk about national politics here and there, but it's not our bread and butter," Bertolucci said, adding that they pluck from campaign news only the most interesting or bizarre tidbits.

So KFI listeners could hear Limbaugh defending Gingrich's rise in the polls and thundering against the media and "establishment Republicans" who he said are backing Romney. They could also hear Handel's less-serious take on some issues, such as his ridicule of Perry calling himself "the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," or when Handel referenced a Siberian Playboy cover model who won a seat in Russia's parliament, and joked that he might vote for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann if she wore the same swimsuit.

"We like to give everybody hell, from both parties," Bertolucci said. "I think it's going to be an interesting year, for sure."

KABC's Silver echoes that sentiment: "I'm just looking forward to when whoever goes up against Obama, and we really take the gloves off."

On satellite radio, SiriusXM is not only covering the race on its left- and right-leaning talk-radio channels, but also on its nonpartisan channel P.O.T.U.S. (short for Politics of the United States). In addition, political discussions are regular features on OutQ, its channel focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender interests; the Power, a talk channel aimed at African American listeners; and even the Foxxhole, comedian and actor Jamie Foxx's signature channel.

"What we're looking to do is offer as many different perspectives on the election as we possibly can," said Jeremy Coleman, senior vice president of talk and entertainment programming. "The more issues are truly talked about beyond the sound bite, the better it is for everyone."

P.O.T.U.S. offers political-ad analysis, interviews with members of the media, pollsters and other behind-the-scenes participants, and, C-SPAN style, full broadcasts of town halls, news conferences, speeches and replays of the dozen-odd debates.

"I'm not trying to say this is all about public service," said Tim Farley, program director and morning host on P.O.T.U.S. "But there is a part of that, trying to have an informed electorate. The assumption is people are smart enough to make up their own minds."

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