Call-in hosts revel in the new-found popularity of radio as public forum

IT'S a mix of journalism, entertainment, and primal scream - and it just may be the best place to get a sense of where the 1992 presidential campaign is going.

The once-ignored radio talk show has emerged as a powerful player in deciding who might be the next president.

Just ask the smooth-voiced hosts of these call-in/interview programs. They spent much of their fourth annual conference here last week talking about how they are the most talked-about medium of the year.

"It's the mood of the country," says Mary Beal, former president of the Boston-based National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. "All of a sudden, we've become the vehicle for people whose messages have fallen on deaf ears."

Americans who feel shut out by the traditional press - newspapers, magazines, network news shows - are tuning into this new medium, where they can have immediate say, discuss real issues with real people, and even criticize the host if they don't like what he or she says.

Likewise, politicians knew they couldn't find a better place to make friends than the four-day conference at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.

Vice President Dan Quayle made an appearance, as well as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (via satellite). The talk-show hosts eagerly lined up to lob questions at two of their frequent on-air targets.

But government bashing wasn't on most of the otherwise exploitative minds last weekend.

When the vice president criticized rap star Ice-T, whose song "Cop Killer" has led to calls for a boycott of his record company, he was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Pencils scribbled furiously when Governor Clinton, via television satellite from Little Rock, announced that he would like to appear on more radio talk shows and gave out the phone number of his campaign headquarters.

All that was missing was Ross Perot, who many conference-goers credited as the man responsible for making 1992 the Year of the Talk Shows.

"Not long ago, we were treated something like Rodney Dangerfield ... we didn't get no respect," says Jerry Williams, legendary talk-show host at WRKO in Boston and founder of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. "Ross Perot has changed that."

The popularity of Perot, who planted the seed of a presidential bid on Larry King's CNN call-in show, has proved that talk shows are the best route to reaching "real people," explains Mr. Williams.

Appropriately, "Perot-mania" now heads the list of the top 10 talk topics, according to Talkers, the monthly newspaper for talk- show hosts. The presidential election, civil rights, government criticism, and the environment aren't far behind as hot issues.

But Perot cannot take all the credit for increases in ratings and numbers of listeners.

Carlotta Bradley, who hosts a talk show on WILM in Wilmington, Del., says a combination of the Gulf war, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the Los Angeles riots, and the political campaign contributed to the increase in her audience numbers this year.

"I see levels of every adjective on my show.... I see frustration, knowledge, intelligence, and [sometimes] ignorance. My job is to bridge the gap," says Ms. Bradley, who is one of only about 40 females who belong to the radio talk-show group.

The interactive nature of talk shows often allows them to become bridges between conflicting groups. In May, for instance, Michael Jackson of KABC radio in Los Angeles brought his show to local schools to discuss the riots. A Los Angeles police officer called in to respond to a student's criticism, leading to a give-and-take discussion rarely seen in the traditional media.

The conference failed to draw radio talk-show superstars like Jackson, Tom Snyder, or Rush Limbaugh, but the 250 attendees, made up largely of middle-aged men who came from the United States, Canada, and Australia, didn't seem to mind. Between guest speakers and panels, business cards were exchanged, opinions vented, and backs patted heartily for the year's successes.

Regardless of market size, many radio talk-show hosts have proved to be personalities in their own right.

Throughout his 40-year radio career, Jerry Williams has mobilized his Boston listeners to action against various government initiatives, at one point encouraging them to protest the congressional pay raise by sending tea bags to Congress.

After the House Bank story broke, Mary Beal of KNSS in Wichita, Kan., ordered a banner featuring a check made out to Congress for $1 with "Insufficient Funds" stamped across it. She got 2,000 angry listeners to sign it and within days delivered it personally to Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the biggest feat of the year occurred at WTIC in Hartford, Conn., where talk-show host Michael Harrison was credited by many as being partly responsible for Jerry Brown's upset victory in the Connecticut primary. Prior to the election, the Democratic candidate spent several free, unedited hours on Mr. Harrison's morning show.

It was gratifying but not surprising, says Harrison. "I reach a significant chunk of Connecticut voters," he says.

The number of talk-radio stations in the country has reached 600, triple the number of a decade ago, according to the talk- show host group. Its membership has gone from 25 in 1989 to almost 400.

And as the campaign progresses and people's moods plummet, the future of the radio talk show looks even brighter.

Guest speaker Christopher Matthews predicted that the 1992 presidential election promises to be the closest in modern times.

"It'll be a middle-class revolt like you've never seen in your lives," he told the group. "And you guys will be in heaven."

In a rare moment, no one in the crowd said a word - but there was a smile on every face in the room.

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