Nov 1 1994

Back-Talk Radio

Aiming to Empower

From Rush Limbaugh to G. Gordon Liddy, commercial radio has long been a megaphone for right-wing talk-show hosts. And even NPR mostly mirrors mainstream news (Extra!, 4-5/93). But now some left/populist static for Limbaugh and his ilk is as close as your AM dial.

We the People with Jerry Brown airs the renegade former California governor and three-time presidential candidate live from Oakland, Monday through Friday, 6-8 p.m. Pacific time. Syndicated by Talk America, it’s now heard on 26 stations nationwide following its January debut. Hightower Radio, hosted in Austin by feisty former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, premiered May 14 and can be heard on 120 ABC Radio Network affiliate stations on Saturdays and Sundays, 12-3 p.m. central time.

Not just progressive, their perspective is populist. Hightower and Brown take on the establishment — from unaccountable government officials to greedy big businesses. Brown, whose show opens with children reciting the preamble to the Constitution, calls low voter turnout an “apartheid of those who vote and those who don’t” — and advocates mass sharing of corporate wealth: “Workers oughta own, as well as get wages…. Shares of capital. Isn’t this capitalism?”

Hightower urges Americans to ignore the Dow Jones average and eyeball the”Doug Jones Average — a real life measure of how ya doin’ for the 80percent of Americans…less worried about the stock market than the grocery market.” Hightower’s tag line: The political spectrum isn’t right to left,but top to bottom.

Ultimately, both hosts hope to use the airwaves for participatory democracy. “We must fuel the power and the passion of our nation’s workaday majority,” Hightower says. “We can no longer rely on influencing the media– we must find ways to become the media.” Or, as Brown told Extra!, “Democracy requires discussion.”

And they do discuss each week’s hot topics — health care reform, crime and domestic violence have been big lately — but also provide opinions and information from progressive experts and grassroots activists, sources usually lost in the right-wing din. Visiting Hightower’s premier show, for example, was Steffi Woolhandler of Physicians for a National Health Plan;the next day, the sponsor of the single-payer American Health Security Act,Rep. Jim McDermott, dropped by.

Aiming to Empower

Though the format for both shows is familiar — an often scathing commentary on current events, followed by a guest’s visit, then a raft of listener calls — they differ from Rush and the rest in more than their political ideology.

Not just a forum for griping and resentment, Brown and Hightower’s talk-shows aim to empower, urging listeners to find out more about issues (often supplying names, phone numbers and addresses), then do something aboutthem. Hightower exhorts his audience to “get radio-active,” regularly reminding them that “the agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets out the dirt!” Indeed, his call-in number is 1-800-AGITATE.

The style of both shows also contrasts with that of right-wing radio, which centers on the star’s “personality” (read: shtick) which callers react to,often getting a colorful insult for their trouble. (“Get off my show, you creep!” WABC‘s Bob Grant regularly explodes.) Brown and Hightower, while each an icon in his own way, act more as moderators of a dialogue, an educational forum in which they’re as likely to seek information as stand on a soapbox. “Can you fax me that?” is a frequent Jerry Brown refrain.

Zingers in a Texas Twang

While ideological soul-mates in some ways, the hosts of Hightower Radio and We the People have distinct styles reflecting different backgrounds.

Hightower, 51, segued from government to print journalism: The former editor of Texas Observer magazine, he has written two books. Moving to broadcasting in February 1993, he scripted and self-marketed two-minute commentaries bearing titles like “Ship Out American Executives, Not Jobs” and “NAFTA: I Told You So”. The five-times-a-week pieces are now syndicated on 74 stations — a success that prompted ABC Radio Network to snap up his talk-show.

Hightower’s hours are fast and funny, filled with zingers and aphorisms delivered in a Texas twang and with whimsical sound effects. “The Hog Report,” a brief segment on “pork” in both government and big business –CEO salaries are high on Hightower’s hit list — is read over grunting and squealing noises.

Noting that the media treat health care “like a debate between Clinton and Bob Dole,” Hightower broadens the discussion by advocating for the Canadian-style single-payer plan. When a listener from Georgia claimed that”you can die waiting” for care in Canada, Hightower took calls from people who had lived in that country and had first-hand experiences.

Later, he offered a trademark pithy summary of a Congressional report showing most HMOs are of mediocre quality: “Problem with corporatized medicine, y’see, is its first loyalty is not to the patient but to the company’s bottom line — and guess whose bottom gets pinched? Yeow!”

Hightower does needle some nabobs: “Phyllis Schlafly. She’s ba-a-a-ck,”says Hightower, accompanied by spooky music and screams. “Still got that pursed-up look, y’know, like she just ate a cinch bug.”

But more often, Hightower addresses the big picture rather than indulging in personal attacks. His producer, Mark Schubb, says audiences are interested in topics that other talk-show hosts would dismiss as “snoozers.”” People are smarter than talk radio thinks,” Schubb says. “We’ll do a show on federal interest rates or the Breyer nomination, and the next thing you know we have 20 articulate, well-informed people on the line.”

Schubb believes audiences are “hungry for the truth.” They’re not lefties,just “working-class people, at home washing the car with the radio on.”

Interest, Not Entertainment

Brown, 56, a lawyer who once studied for the priesthood, began thinking about a radio talk-show even before his presidential run. (The call-in number is the same one he used for campaign fundraising: 1-800-298-TALK.)Brown considers the program the voice of his We the People” organization, carrying on the momentum of his campaign.

Brown sounds a bit more like the earnest progressive, loquacious and cerebral. “We’ve been looking at a tale of two cities: the city of the affluent, the city of the 1 percent…and that of the working stiffs that get thrown off their jobs, that have their pension funds eaten up…and aso-called safety net with so many barbs and hooks and holes.”

Brown brags his callers are “skeptical about government,” and feels that being a former politician gives him more credibility, not less: “I know what I’m talking about.” He’s not just preaching to the converted, either:Molly from Sacramento rang up to tell him she’d renounced her life-long Republicanism and had convinced all 250 residents of her retirement home to tune him in.

At times, he’s almost hoarse from detailing facts, figures and examples that seem always at his fingertips. When Bob from Massachusetts maintains that “We built this country on free trade,” Brown, who believes that more trade globally means less power locally, gives a mini-history lesson on our long legacy of tariffs.

But Brown strives not to entertain, he says, but to be “interesting.” Good talk radio provides “drama, humor, intimacy, and candor. If you can put wisdom into it, you have it made.”

Talk-show hosts aren’t politicians, Brown says. “Politicians aim for a 51percent approval rating, to offend the least number of people. This is the antithesis of effective talk radio.” Listeners tune out “mealy-mouthed”hosts, he told EXTRA!. “Talk-shows are not about people-pleasing, but irritating. Then they’ll pick up the phone and call!”

Uncompromised Messages

Both shows have commercial sponsors: Hightower’s show is interrupted frequently with commercials for innocuous mainstream products like Gold Bond itch powder and “Hooked on Phonics” reading tapes; Brown has sponsors like Sun Source vitamins, and is wooing products “Made in USA.”

According to We the People marketing director Carol Renza, there’s been little resistance to Brown’s take or his topics. “Populism isn’t hard to sell,” she says.

But there is inherent tension between commercial advertising and progressive, often anti-corporate political discussion. Neither Hightowernor Brown is interested in compromising their message to please sponsors.

Neither show can be heard in New York City or Washington, D.C. Capturing these “major markets” — centers of population and power — could mean a huge jump in listener numbers, spelling the difference between a hopeful trend and a major force.

But Hightower’s show was suddenly dropped by WRC in the nation’s capital; a production staffer suspects it was pressure from the powerful, as the Texan “comes down on Clinton.” And WABC, the New York flagship of ABC‘s radio network, has refused to carry Hightower’s show; the station is run by an outspoken conservative, John Mainelli, who says he finds Hightower “neither entertaining nor effective.” (WNYC, 7/17/94)

The NYC/D.C. axis is “traditionally arrogant,” shrugs Schubb. It’s “used to setting the agenda, deciding what America’s talking about.”

Patience is a virtue, Brown concludes. “You have to build slowly, but build persistently, instead of coming into it with a bang then a plop…. Our time is coming.”

See “Hightower Gets the Mickey Mouse Treatment,” December 1995.