What's Left Of Right Radio
Post-Limbaugh pundits struggle for identity

An enormous American flag billows from the rafters. Pot-bellied veterans with Jerry Reed sideburns and blue-haired old betties glance around anxiously as a phalanx of poorly-dressed security guards in cheap sunglasses take up strategic positions around a small stage. Suddenly, an annoyingly loud burst of rock music blares through the speakers, startling the assembled.

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from July 29, 1999

A diminutive Jewish guy dressed in black and wearing a floor-length leather duster bounds onstage and seizes the microphone. "Savage Nation rules!" he shouts to wild applause. He goosesteps around the stage and pumps his fist in the air.

"How many of you are on welfare?" he asks, to knowing laughter. "The Savage Nation stands for three things: borders, language, and culture!" Huge cheers. "The Clinton machine stands for three other things: no borders, the tower of Babel, and the culture of chaos!" The crowd erupts in a pandemonium of adulation. Turning serious, he cautions, "An alternative viewpoint is the only thing standing between you and absolute tyranny, and that is why I love KSFO radio!"

I'm at the third annual Common Sense Convention at the Herbst Pavillion in San Francisco, a city which the speaker, Mike Weiner, a.k.a. Mike Savage, a.k.a. "The General," has described as "the heart of the Maoist monster." The event is sponsored by San Francisco's right-wing talk radio station, KSFO, and Savage, host of the station's daily afternoon drive-time show, "Savage Nation," is their golden boy. Fringe weirdo magnet Art Bell has cancelled, but nobody seems to mind. This crowd has come for Savage.

Savaged Nation

The speech ends, and the guards -- the only people of color in the building -- lead Savage to the bulletproof glass-encased table that will protect him from potential assassins while he mingles with the faithful. Swivel-headed and vigilant, the guards appear ready to leap across the table and knock grandma out of her wheelchair for wielding a suspicious pencil. Exhibiting all the signs of delusional paranoia, Savage has the guards hand out pre-signed autographs and judiciously avoids actually shaking hands with anyone. No discord is evident as one pie-eyed fan after another gushes praise at his unique worldview. Savage appears disinterested, but keeps a suspicious eye peeled.

To my horror, I'm spotted taking notes. "Are you a reporter?" Without waiting for me to reply he shouts, "Look, ladies and gentlemen, a member of the Albanian media!" Heads turn in my direction.

I retreat outdoors to cadge a smoke, where I meet Walter Matthau look-a-like Nina Collier.

"I'm a smoker with an attitude," she rasps, handing me a cigarette. "Tobacco is a free enterprise. People should be able to smoke if they want to." Fellow smokers, sitting around in chairs, nod in agreement. As soon as I take out my notebook, she falls into instant-suspicion mode, grilling me on Christianity and Abortion. It's my first encounter of the day with Republican ass-sniffing. Apparently, I smell fine, and she shows me her collection of bumper stickers that read "God Bless John Wayne" and "Ted Kennedy's car killed more people than my gun." "It's getting to the point where you say that the Bible is against homosexuality, you're accused of a hate crime," she warns. I finish my smoke and edge away.

Nearby, William Hern, a Vietnam vet with an Arthur Carlson comb-over, is resting his beer gut on a rail overlooking the bay. Taking the toothpick out of his mouth, he offers his assessment of the coming world war. "Communism is still a threat," he says, adding conspiratorially, "Who are the best chess players? Believe me, don't underestimate the Russians."

I wander back inside. Savage is being whisked away under heavy guard and the crowd thins considerably. The guy manning the Y2K Online booth, peddling survival gear and packaged goods, is looking especially bored -- a bad sign -- but there's at least one minor disturbance underway. Haranguing a bewildered Geoff Metcalf is a perspiring Santa Clara Pat Buchanan supporter called Robert Drobot. He's wearing a homemade sign denouncing KSFO's owners, Disney.

"KSFO has very little talk. They are only concerned with advertising," he complains, arguing that the "diverse" programming is not conservative enough. "There's no hot talk when you're talking about dogs. Programming should be conservative all day long! The only place to find real conservatives these days is on the Internet." He has a point. Right-wing talk radio has seen better days.

After Rush, The Come Down

It wasn't so very long ago that talk radio was the soothing night-light for a nation of morose insomniacs, dispensing genteel advice to the lovesick and financially forlorn. Ironically, it wasn't until 1984, when white supremacists assassinated the controversial Denver talk show host Alan Berg, that the right noticed this medium's potential for spreading anger and making profit. Enormous media concerns took advantage of Reagan-era deregulation to gobble up small stations and become sprawling networks. Chains like Market Radio and Capital Cities began to syndicate a new breed of radio superstar, turning hosts like conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh into millionaires.

Limbaughmania peaked as the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, with Rush receiving a lion's share of the credit (or blame). Capital Cities, now Disney/Cap City, decided to cash in on the phenomenon, abandoning an eclectic, hip programming experiment in favor of an all-conservative format at the end of 1994. Sadly for them, the general public started to tune out after Clinton blamed the Oklahoma City Federal bombing on hate radio. Clinton's subsequent re-election, and his victory over Kenneth Starr's right-wing impeachment juggernaut, has pushed the rabid right further to the edges of mainstream political debate.

Not that this crowd has noticed. I sit down to have a sausage at the Right-Wing Conspiracy Café as the crowd starts to head for the exits. It's sad, really. Even though the event has all the trappings of a good old-time revival, the actors and the audience represent just another demographic blip on Disney's multi-billion-dollar entertainment radar -- hardly the stuff of revolutions. Perhaps Mr. Drobot's complaints are articulating a growing concern that conservatives no longer matter. Perhaps he's showing his contempt for the spreading gray mush of corporate-sponsored centrist politics.

Most likely, though, he's representative of the cranky old listeners of KSFO and other right-wing radio stations who will never be satisfied unless they're on top, and hate the fact that no one listens to them anymore.

See also: What's Wrong With Left Radio

Patrick Hughes is a San Francisco-based writer and know-it-all.