The most distinctive new voice on talk radio is in danger of being silenced.
Populist Jim Hightower has built a following on 150 stations nationwide during the last 16 months — while breaking most of the rules for talk radio hosts. Instead of shouting, he speaks with a soft Texas twang. He actually lets callers who oppose him be heard. And his barbs are not aimed at women, gays, minorities or the poor — but at the rich and powerful.
Other talk hosts fulminate about "welfare queens." Hightower dwells on the "welfare kings" — the Fortune 500.
Hightower has become talk radio's unabashed advocate for blue-collar workers, pensioners, family farmers and middle-class consumers. The real political spectrum, explains Hightower, is not right-to-left: "It's top-to-bottom, and the vast majority of people aren't even in shouting distance of the economic and political powers at the top."
Although he's been likened to Will Rogers, Hightower has met some men he didn't like — those who rip off workaday Americans. Hightower stands up to the powers-that-be on behalf of the powers-that-ought-to-be.
The bad news is that ABC Radio Networks has decided to end its syndication of Hightower's talk show in November. His removal from talk radio would be enough to wipe the smile off of even Will Rogers' face.
With a progressive populist message that bridges racial gaps (he dismisses California Gov. Pete Wilson, the crusader against affirmative action, as "George Wallace in a Brooks Brother suit"), Hightower has a rare ability to reach conservatives. During the Reagan era, he was elected twice to Texas statewide office as agriculture commissioner.
Originating from his hometown of Austin, Hightower's talk show offers thorough, well-documented analysis of bread-and-butter issues, such as: NAFTA, the Mexico bailout, the export of U.S. jobs to cheap-labor countries and the corporate safety net that undergirds Newt Gingrich's political career.
The country's first investigative talk show begins with Hightower's own newscast — featuring "Follow the Money" segments on campaign finance, the "Hog Report" on corporate/political greed, and sharp "Eye on Newt" pieces.
Hightower has a novel idea for the 1996 presidential campaign: "Like NASCAR race drivers or PGA golfers, why not require each of the candidates to cover their clothing, briefcases and staff with the logo patches of their corporate sponsors?"
Exposing a recent federal giveaway to a mining company that donated $120,000 to Congress members, Hightower commented: "Under Sen. [Larry] Craig's bill, Cyprus-Amax would pay only $1,000 for a piece of Colorado land that holds $3 billion worth of minerals. They paid 120 times more to buy Congress than they'll pay for the land!... That's why big corporations are so bullish on Congress."
Jim Hightower's show has gotten more raucous since Gingrich — "a guy who can strut sitting down" — ascended to the House speakership. "The higher up the ladder the monkey climbs," Hightower says, "the more you see of its ugly side."
After Bell South, a major financial backer of Gingrich, hired the speaker's daughter, Hightower commented: "Bell South is another corporation that knows that if you want to ring-up The Newt, you don't do it with a telephone — but with a cash register."
During almost every hour of his show, Hightower makes a "Connection" — providing the phone number of a social change organization that's working to address the problem discussed. "Don't just get agitated," exhorts Hightower, "get to agitating." The call-in number to his show is 1-800-AGITATE.
Although he deserves recognition for his wisdom about economic power, Hightower is far better known for his rollicking one-liners: "Ronald Reagan's idea of a good farm program was Hee Haw," quipped Hightower, who launched environmentally conscious programs in Texas for family farmers.
"George Bush was born on third base and decided that he'd hit a triple," Hightower declared during his riotous speech at the 1988 Democratic convention.
Hightower also mocks fence-straddling Democrats. "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."
When Bill Clinton assembled his team of economic advisers, Hightower dubbed it "the Wall Street firm of Bentsen, Rivlen, Altman and Rubin."
Hightower's main target is corporate America, including some of the same companies that are potential sponsors of national talk shows. He once said of price-gouging pharmaceutical firms: "They're making enough profit to air-condition hell."
While he's attracted uncommon sponsors like labor unions and Mother Jones magazine, his show has been hobbled by a lack of marketing from the ABC network and undermined by right-wing management at ABC mega-stations in New York and Los Angeles.
"Listeners like the Hightower show," says respected radio consultant Jon Sinton, who helped launch the program. "But it makes big companies nervous."
Now, efforts are underway to get Hightower's talk show picked up by another network or syndicate, perhaps Westwood One, CBS or Sony Worldwide. (Meanwhile, his two-minute radio commentaries are heard daily on 70 stations.)
The Hightower termination contradicts talk radio's claim of being America's "national town hall." Something's wrong with a medium that can find so much room for Rush Limbaugh and dozens of Limbaugh clones and wannabees — but no space for the one-of-a-kind Jim Hightower.
If you are a Hightower fan, the most important thing you can do is to contact your local station that carries Hightower and express your support. You can also contact the president of ABC Radio Networks, which is making the decision to end the Hightower talk show. Write to Robert Callahan, President, ABC Radio Networks
125 West End Ave. New York, NY 10023 fax: 212-456-5705 ph: 212-456-5100
You might also write letters to the editor and take other action to publicize this effort to mute one of the only progressive voices in mainstream radio.