It's a myth, says the publisher of Talkers Magazine — a trade industry mag considered the bible of talk radio — that all talk radio is earnest, even shrill, right-wing and driven by politics.
Consider this: On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Lincoln Ware sat in his studio at WDBZ (1230 AM, "The Buzz") and talked at length with comedian-activist Dick Gregory, who talked about racism in American society and his views on Kobe Bryant, the JFK assassination, Al Sharpton's hair and health issues.
One caller asked Gregory for a remedy for mucous congestion. He recommended the juice of eight lemons, a gallon of spring water and a cup and a half of maple syrup. After Gregory left the Roselawn studio, the lines lit up. Never mind racism. Forget about Bryant and conspiracy theories. Let's talk about that remedy, callers wanted to know. What was it? Two tablespoons of distilled water?
A cup of honey? Do you juice or squeeze the lemons?
"C'mon folks, are we listening?" Ware asked.
A week earlier, Chris Comer and Rob Ervin thought they'd have some fun during their Chris & Rob Late Night Talk Show on WAIF (88.3 FM). In recent weeks they discussed politics with the Rev. Damon Lynch III and grassroots organizing with opponents of Norwood's plan to grab homes by eminent domain for private development. The talk show hosts called Chicago sports bars after the Cubs blew game six of the National League Championship series with the Marlins.
What happened, Chris and Rob asked a bartender at one Chicago watering hole.
"Prior threw the fucking game away," replied the bartender, his opinion delivered over the air unfettered by delay.
Every week, Ware — on the air at The Buzz since 2000 and on Cincinnati radio for 27 years — and Comer and Ervin, on WAIF since 1990, offer an alternative to the right-wing fare often associated with the largest and most influential talk radio programs here and around the country. Yet alternative does not necessarily mean liberal. Indeed, Ware will quickly tell you he's a moderate Republican, while Comer and Ervin prefer "libertarian" to the other "L word."
The perception is that the loudest, most vitriolic, meanest and most numerous voices on talk radio belong to the right — those who refuse to let go of the Clinton presidency and believe affirmative action is outdated, social mores have gone south and government needs to be more lean. The perception is not entirely true.
Research by Talkers Magazine, published in Massachusetts, shows about 58 percent of listeners consider themselves ultra-conservative to fiscal conservative/social liberals. Moderates make up 23 percent of listeners, while 11 percent consider themselves liberal/ultra-liberal. A whopping 79 percent are ages 35 and older, and 54 percent are ages 45 and older.
"The reason conservatives have made it in the past 15 years has been because there was a market for it," says Michael Harrison, Talkers Magazine publisher. "It wasn't being served elsewhere and they had some very talented people doing it. There are liberals on the radio doing rather well. There's just no superstars."
Indeed, most of the big talk-radio shows in the country are hosted by conservatives; Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage are most recognizable. But top programs also include financial advice, consumer advocacy, computers, the occult and personal advice.
"Most of the political talkers are conservative," Harrison says. "However, the irony here — and this is another myth of talk radio — is that people would believe that the only talk radio is political. Yet we have major players doing radio who are neither conservative nor liberal. It's more than just politics."
Ware, Comer and Ervin are more than just politics. Ware, an African American, is opposed to the civil rights boycott of Cincinnati yet would have voted for Lynch if he lived in the city; he didn't vote in the 2000 election, finding Bush too conservative and Gore too liberal.
All three have a playful side. Comer and Ervin like to get hold of celebrity phone numbers and call them during the show. They once reached Jack Nicholson. How long did you keep him on the phone?
"However long it took him to say, 'I gotta go,' " Ervin says.
Ware, chosen by Talkers as one of the country's 100 most important talk show hosts, loves to joust with listeners. He calls one of them — "Black Lion," an African-American militant — "El Sicko" but laughs as he says it. He often punctuates the more controversial comments from listeners' and guests' mouths with, "Oh, my goodness."
"You have to mix in the entertainment with the information," Ware says. "That's the key. Some talk show hosts think you have to be serious all the time."
Comer and Ervin sometimes catch their guests off-balance. After taking a call from a Findlay Market shopkeeper, Comer asked Lynch, "How will you as a council person encourage more consumption of horseradish?" He also asked a prospective Norwood City Council candidate, "If you're elected to Norwood Council, will you reinstate Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame?" That came right before Ervin accused Comer of hitting on the candidate: "What did you think of Chris trying to pick up Alliea Phipps?"
Talk radio has grown from about 75 stations in 1975 to more than 1,300 today, according to Talkers Magazine. The number of programs has grown to about 4,000, including everyone from the heavyweights to "some chiropractor in an unrated market," Harrison says.
While music and news are still prevalent and radio theater diminished, what gives radio its special tang is talk radio.
"The talk business is the most exciting and edgy and dynamic part of radio, for sure," Harrison says. "Talk radio is the only kind of radio that carries the banner of radio being an art form, a pop cultural icon."
Harrison says that three programs here have caught his attention — the conservative Bill Cunningham on WLW (700 AM), Ware and Chris & Rob.
"You have a couple of guys there that do an offbeat program," Harrison says of Chris & Rob. "They've caught my attention over the years. They're creative and hardworking. They're on my radar screen. Just the fact that I know about them says a lot. Cincinnati has the diversity of a Lincoln Ware, a Bill Cunningham and Chris and Rob. You have a very diverse and colorful radio scene."
Lew Moores worked 30 years as a reporter for The Cincinnati Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer.