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The mouth that roars
Talk radio in Rhode Island features a healthy dose of politics, but can it help Carcieri build his support in the General Assembly?
BY IAN DONNIS

EVEN BEFORE winning office, Governor Donald L. Carcieri seized upon talk radio as one way to spread his message. And in the weeks before vetoing a legislative budget that he rapped as shortsighted and overly generous, Carcieri frequently took his case to the airwaves, outlining his stance and encouraging listeners to call their representatives and senators.

As part of his energetic use of the bully pulpit, the governor makes hour-long monthly appearances with John DePetro on WHJJ-AM (920) and Steve Kass on WPRO-AM (630). And when WPRO’s Dan Yorke hosted Carcieri during a live broadcast from the State House in late June, the angry reaction from legislators — troubled that the governor was going on a media offensive — was sure and fast.

After the ugly clash between state troopers and members of the Narragansett tribe in Charlestown on Monday, July 14, the governor was back on the air early the next morning, seeking to articulate his view and contain the damage of the nationally broadcast videotape of the imbroglio. But if talk radio nation is any barometer, the governor’s momentum and enviable approval rating — built largely with his adept handling of the Station nightclub disaster — have already taken a hit.

In national media circles, the talk radio tale of the moment is how MSNBC unceremoniously dropped Michael Savage, the former nutrition guru who achieved considerable success by reinventing himself as a reactionary blowhard, after he wished AIDS on a caller to his show. Indeed, for those who view talk radio as the realm of angry white men, Savage offers ample justification. But a different situation in Rhode Island — the steady amount of local political conversation on the airwaves — highlights the civic upside of the medium.

The stock placed in talk radio in the fight for public opinion can be seen in how Carcieri and Colonel Steven Pare of the state police — as well as Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas of the Narragansetts — made the rounds of local shows on the day after the Charlestown showdown. In the previous weeks, the simmering war of words between the governor and legislative leaders continued to escalate, foreshadowing what could be an unusually interesting legislative election season in 2004. For some observers, the governor’s veto of the General Assembly’s budget marked the opening salvo in the campaign. But for now at least, Carcieri’s march forward has been supplanted by the yet-to-be-determined political fallout of the confrontation between the state police and the Indians.

ALTHOUGH HIS Republican predecessors have talked a good game about building the party, Carcieri seems more intent on making some inroads against the Democrats’ unchallenged sway over the legislature. At a minimum, the governor tells the Phoenix, he wants, by the end of his term in 2006, to build a sufficient GOP minority in the General Assembly to sustain a gubernatorial veto. And although the Rhode Island Republican Party faces any number of challenges, it’s clear that Carcieri will continue to make broad use of talk radio. By way of contrast, Lincoln Almond didn’t appear on DePetro’s talk show once.

Talk radio offers any number of advantages as Carcieri seeks to build the GOP legislative ranks, particularly free airtime and the general propensity of the four predominant local hosts to be very skeptical, if not overtly hostile, toward the General Assembly. Nevertheless, the question remains, can it make a difference when it comes to the political future of the state?

Kass, who has been broadcasting locally for almost 25 years, is openly doubtful. Recalling the ’80s as a golden era in which citizen outrage over a legislative tax raise was strong enough to generate 10,000 letters with his prodding, he notes that only about 30 people turned out for Yorke’s recent broadcast with the governor from the State House. "I don’t think anybody could do much more than," Kass says. "People, today, have just tuned it [politics] out. They have completely said, ‘There’s nothing we can do, we can’t fight City Hall — goodbye.’ " And even though the level of voter discontent yielded some significant changes in Rhode Island’s political landscape last year, Kass has a point in noting the meager amount of turnover in the legislature.

Talk radio’s power as a percolator can be seen, however, in the way that a story which was dug out last year by DePetro — unproven accusations of sexual harassment by legislative worker Wendy Collins against House Speaker John B. Harwood — was ultimately the straw that broke the back of Harwood’s 10-year reign as overlord of the legislature. "The medium has never been poised to be stronger," says DePetro, citing the fragmentation of the media, the sense that the Providence Journal is less comprehensive in the past, and the rise of conservative news outlets like the Fox Network. "People can’t deny that people that listen vote."

Carcieri himself is unconvinced about the political impact of the medium, even though he says his campaign radio advertising proved especially effective. "You’ve got to make the assumption that the person listening to talk radio then gets all kind of excited about it — he’s going to pick up the phone and call that rep or senator. The reality is, not a lot of people do that," the governor says. "That’s why what happens up here [at the State House] needs four walls in terms of the intensity of the lobbying, because these are people who stay here and don’t leave. They don’t leave until the lights are out, and that’s what they do. No matter what you do, in terms of trying to get people to call, it’s very difficult to compensate for the physical presence of people who are camped out here."

It’s going to take a lot more, obviously, than the exhortations of talk radio hosts to stimulate a heightened level of participation in American democracy. But regardless of the impact, it’s worth noting that Rhode Island’s two talk radio stations place a particular emphasis on politics. At a time when many of the most popular national talk shows traffic in bombast and drivel, the focus on civic issues of the four predominant local talk show hosts sends a message that this stuff is important.

ALTHOUGH HIS STAR may have lost a little luster since the apex of his popularity, Rush Limbaugh remains the undisputed giant of talk radio. In most markets, his show is a reliable ratings winner. In Providence, though, it’s a measure of the strength of the leading local talk show hosts — DePetro, Kass, Yorke, and Arlene Violet — that Limbaugh’s current noon to 3 p.m. slot on WPRO poses something of a problem for the station.

By juggling its lineup after 9/11, WHJJ instituted a seamless weekday segue-way from DePetro’s show, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to Violet’s 2 to 6 p.m. program. By contrast, Limbaugh is sandwiched between Kass and Yorke – a strength, perhaps, during a war or national election, but a decided Achilles’ heel when an extended major local story, like the Plunder Dome trial of former mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., is unfolding. Things could get even more interesting if WPRO dropped Limbaugh’s show since Clear Channel, the radio behemoth that owns WHJJ, also owns Premier Radio Networks, the distributor of Limbaugh’s program. (WPRO program director David Bernstein didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

To critics like Steve Rendall, a senior analyst with the liberal group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), talk radio functions mostly as an echo chamber for conservative rhetoric in which conflict, rather than the exchange of ideas, is the coin of the realm. Rendall, who has been following the medium for about 25 years, says it became a moneymaking format in the early ’60s. "Political talk radio, it has always leaned right — a bunch of white guys railing against progressive movements and progressive causes," he says. "People are more attracted to a train wreck than a negotiated intersection. I think that more intellectual talk radio would feature fewer fireworks, and most people are drawn to the fireworks."

As far as the political impact, Rendall points to the way in which Limbaugh has functioned as a unabashed cheerleader for the Republican Party — a point acknowledged by many US representatives after the Gingrich-led GOP reclaimed Congress in 1994. And such partisan warfare, he says, hasn’t come without a cost. When Pat Schroeder was spat upon in the early ’90s, after more than two decades in public life, the former Colorado congresswoman attributed the blame to talk radio. Says Rendall, "I think that’s true. I think talk radio, on the whole, subtracts from the level of civility. There’s so much name-calling and vitriol, I think it really contributes to the sort of decline in civility and civic discourse."

Although intensely partisan political attacks pre-date the electronic age, one only has to look at the invective put forth by the very successful Michael Savage to have some appreciation for Rendall’s point. But when it comes to more civil dialogue, the popularity of National Public Radio – and such excellent programs as WBUR-AM’s On Point, carried locally on WRNI-AM (1290) — seems to argue in favor of public demand.

That said, there remains a deliberate gulf between NPR’s offerings and the kind of conversations found on WHJJ and WPRO. To be certain, some of the less favorable hallmarks of talk radio — most notably, a lack of context and a plethora of one-sided discussions – turn up in Rhode Island. But to a large degree, the talk show hosts stimulate discussion on significant topics, sometimes advance stories in a journalistic vein, and, in varying degrees, maintain a strong emphasis on politics. Sure, most of the hosts lean Republican. But at a time when many local talk show markets are saturated by entertainment and cynicism, Violet, Kass, Yorke, and DePetro convey the message that citizens can make a difference in their government.

"I hear some very thoughtful and serious discussions," says H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. When it comes to something like separation of powers, the somewhat esoteric fight to balance the three branches of state government, "I think they all recognize it doesn’t have much of a shelf life. In spite of that, all four have reminded people that this is an important issue that bears attention and deserves their support."

 

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Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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