The mouths that roared

The Republicans take control of Congress today, swept to power by a wav e of conservative radio talk show hosts who are setting the political agenda in America. Rupert Cornwell reports
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It's just before 9pm in the WLW-700 studios on St Gregory Street, Cincinnati. Bill Cunningham, hair tousled and wearing trainers and a Cincinnati Reds windcheater, settles down for his show.

"Well Rupert," he asks the foreign interloper sitting opposite, "what am I going to talk about?" But neither this night nor any other is there the slightest risk of the "Voice of the Common Man" being lost for words. A red light goes on. The loudest mouth in Cincinnati talk radio is off and running.

"We have a journalist from London, England, in the studio. He asked me if talk shows affected the election on November eighth, and I say, yes, we played a central part." Then the daily harangue against Bill and Hillary Clinton, liberals and other enemiesof America is under way. Tonight's hot issues are orphanages, obesity and media persecution of Newt Gingrich, the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives. But it could be anything. It doesn't matter.

In Cincinnati and across the USA, this is the sweetest hour of the talk radio hosts. At their urging, the Clinton Democrats have been routed at the polls. They are loved, hated, but never ignored. Rush Limbaugh, their undisputed monarch, whose show is carried by 650 stations across the US, is one of America's most famous, and many would say most powerful, men. Even the New York Times, emblem of the liberal establishment he mocks every day, features Limbaugh alongside Henry Kissinger no less, in its latest promotional campaign. And as he surveys his smaller domain in middle America, Bill Cunningham is loving it, too.

If radio talk shows are the new combustible of American politics, Cincinnati is the perfect place to study them: a metropolis situated where three states - Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky - meet at the border of North and South, wealthy and conservative - butperhaps not as conservative as it thinks. It is a hardworking city of Irish and German stock, notably anti-gay and haunted by the Ku Klux Klan. It is fief of Proctor and Gamble ("Profit and God" to locals), whose squat Teutonic headquarters stands in the heart of downtown. Yet on the very day in 1993 that Cincinnati voters repealed the city's homosexual-rights law, they also elected Roxanne Qualls, an outspoken liberal and alleged lesbian, as mayor. Cunningham questioned her directly about her sex lifewhen he had her on the show shortly afterwards. She refused to answer, and has not been back in his studio since. Perhaps wisely.

Like talk show hosts across the land, Bill Cunningham has a chemistry with his city. The "Conscience of a Free America" is a self-made Cincinnati Kid - one of the Midwest's biggest radio personalities to be sure; but also a fundraiser for local charities, a 46-year-old lawyer and businessman with an $8m chain of restaurants.

The night I was with him, the fourth had just opened. "Give me a full report," he barked down the phone to his managers during the commercials, breaking off to explain how "nothing keeps you in touch with reality like signing the cheques when you employ 300 people".

Then it's back to the show, now open to callers whose function is to offer platforms from which Cunningham can expound on the issues of the day. His diatribes are raucous, prejudiced, misleading and not infrequently lecherous. Recent non-political happenings have included women talking about dildos and vibrators. The next Friday a couple of strippers were due to bare all. "We are," says Yancy Deering, a WLW producer, "a very testosterone-driven outfit."

And how does this square with Republican "family values" and Cunningham's urgings that America recapture lost pioneer virtues? No problem. "This is my job. It's entertainment first and foremost, all about ratings. At midnight, I'm out of here and back tomy wife." She, incidentally, is a divorce lawyer.

Such apparent double standards only further enrage his liberal opponents. None the less, Cunningham's career mirrors the political transformation of America - a transformation that may mean decades of Republican dominance. His background is Irish Catholic. "Fifteen years ago I was a Democrat. My parents had always voted Democrat, for Roosevelt, Truman and JFK. These presidents were role models. But is Bill Clinton a role model? At these last elections, normal Americans took Congress back." Such is Cunningham's message, from 9 to 12, five nights a week, 52 weeks a year.

Radio in America was not always like this. Once upon a time, when stations in the US had much more powerful signals, Cincinnati's WLW was known as "The Nation's Station". Classical music was the main fare, but in the Second World War the signal was so strong that the station could send messages to American soldiers in Europe. Even now, WLW reaches seven or eight states by day and 37, the entire country east of the Rockies, at night.

Only in the late 1970s did talk shows in the modern sense emerge, initially confined to safe topics like cooking and gardening. Cunningham himself started out on WLW giving legal advice. But by the late 1980s, "shock jocks" such as Howard Stern - the outrageously outspoken New York radio host - had arrived, and then talk radio turned political.

In 1992 it was already enough of a force for George Bush to invite Rush Limbaugh to spend a night at the White House. But the main thrust was still generically "anti-Washington", and Bush, Clinton and Ross Perot all had their talk show sympathisers. No longer.

At least three quarters of the 1,000 talk shows that ricochet around the US airwaves are conservative, offering free publicity and fund-raising time for Republican candidates and causes. Maybe the Bill Cunninghams of this world preach only to the converted. But if, like he, they entertain, then they can attract others into their orbit. And whatever its motives, this following is politically active. One poll found that of those who listen regularly to talk radio, 65 per cent turned out in November, nearly double the national figure of 37 per cent. Rush Limbaugh alone has 20 million listeners; add in Cunningham and hundreds of other regional talk barons, and for Bill Clinton - indeed, any Democrat - the implications are terrifying.

Nor is the process entirely unhealthy, when fewer and fewer people read newspapers and mindless, negative television ads have otherwise taken over election campaigns. "We have become like old-time soapboxes, where individual voices can be heard," says C

unningham.

Was he a factor in the Republican Steve Chabot's upset victory over the Democratic incumbent in Cincinnati's 1st Congressional District? "Absolutely. I had a real influence when I supported Chabot; after 11 years, people trust me. And I genuinely think that a national candidate cannot win either if we radio hosts join forces against him."

Of course, he adds instantly, no such collusion exists - though the conservative hosts do sing in perfect harmony. When Cunningham began to describe Hillary Clinton as the "Marie Antoinette of American politics", almost simultaneously Rush Limbaugh - in the smug, lip-smacking voice that makes him repulsive yet irresistible - exulted that she had "done more than any First Lady to destroy her husband's presidency".

If Hillary is the talk show hosts' anti-Christ, then Newt Gingrich, who will be sworn in today as House Speaker, is part of the godhead. For Limbaugh and Cunningham alike, he faces martyrdom at liberal hands: indeed, the White House chief of staff recently called Gingrich "an out of control talk radio host". For the hosts, praise comes no higher. "Noot" stands alongside Ronald Reagan in the conservative pantheon. "They're trying to crucify him," Limbaugh warns the faithful. "As liberalism falls apart, you're going to see real hysteria, just like Michelangelo if they'd started stripping the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He'd go nuts, and they're going nuts." Out in heartland USA, the Italian Renaissance - and foreigners in general - cut precious littleice.

Gingrich, in turn, recognises the power of Limbaugh and his cohorts and has announced that he intends to hold monthly meetings with radio hosts.

Such is the kingdom of the talk shows, inhabited above all by that disgruntled but still dominant species, the conservative white male. True, liberal shows exist, some even run by women, but these days they resemble collective trauma therapy. On the air

, Limbaugh claims that the Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos is secretly trying to recruit sympathetic hosts.

It is no secret is that both Clintons are paranoid about talk radio, constantly griping that they are "not given a fair shake". Coming as it does from a president who, during the 1992 campaign, milked the medium for all it was worth, the complaint is a bit rich. But there is no arguing with the talk shows' bias, nor with their power.

So, what next? A few claim success is breeding a new moderation. Almost statesmanlike at times, Limbaugh does seem to have toned down his abuse of Hillary since the epic November vote. Cunningham, too, insists he is "less incendiary". He warns that the Republicans could yet self-destruct. "After all there's a job to finish; we've still got two years of hard work before we can send Bill Clinton back to Arkansas." But he continues to refer to liberals as "loathsome dogs to be exterminated." Sho

w biz is showbiz.

Thus the evening rolls on at WLW-700, amid paeans to orphanages, bawdy exchanges with a sports announcer and calls from as far away as Mississippi. But there is one faint reason for foreboding. Rick from Cincinnati is on the line, in fact he's been on h

o ld for 50 minutes. "Bill, you're flogging this political stuff to death, you're getting boring, you're losing listeners." Nonsense, Cunningham retorts, "I don't pick the subjects, politics is what people want to talk about."

But the seed of doubt has been sown. Outrageous, provocative, obscene - fine. But boring? That is the unforgivable sin of talk radio. Sooner or later, the golden age will end. But not in time, one may wager, to save Bill Clinton.

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