November 26, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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In your ear: Wronged by rightwing radio 

How sweet it sounded: The Golden Hour of the Little Flower. But the 1930s radio show was anything but pleasingly tasteful.

            This was the hour of Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Toronto-born, Michigan-based Roman Catholic priest who whipped up hatred and fear with a blend of religious fanaticism, far-right anti-capitalism, and anti-Semitism. The recipe made him one of the most perversely successful radio personalities of all time. Popular historian Tom Lewis summed up the phenomenon in an Organization of American Historians journal: "When a Philadelphia station asked its listeners if they would like to hear Coughlin or the New York Philharmonic on Sunday afternoons, the vote ran Coughlin 187,000; Philharmonic 12,000."

            Coughlin's direct assaults on FDR and coded attacks on "international bankers" grew increasingly outrageous. In 1938, he actually published an edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the century's most destructive frauds. Such efforts drew plaudits from Nazi leaders. Coughlin's religious superior sidelined him in 1940.

            The errant priest was a one-man disaster. But today he might seem a gentleman and scholar compared to some "talent" heard on Rochester radio.

Take one stage name that works: Michael Savage.

            Savage, whose program runs on WHAM 1180 AM, has some of Coughlin's devotional power. For example, he recently charged that opponents of an Alabama judge who installed a religious monument in his courthouse are "moral terrorists" attacking "God, family, and values" and seeking to "destroy the 10 Commandments." Nor does Savage show much sensitivity for the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself: He founded the "Paul Revere Society," which demands an end to affirmative action, closure of US borders, the immediate deportation of "all illegal immigrants," the mandatory "health testing" of "all recent foreign-born immigrants," and more.

            But Savage reserves his strongest language for gays. This past July, MSNBC dumped him after he excoriated a caller. Fox News transcribed the remarks: "Oh, you're one of the sodomites," Savage told the caller. "You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it."

            Obviously, such views have not deterred WHAM from keeping Savage on board. And a recent scandal --- talk-show host Bob Lonsberry's racist on-air remarks and his subsequent firing by WHAM --- hasn't made the station alter its general course. Meanwhile, Lonsberry has declared he'll try to get his job back and also run for State Assembly. (Station Manager Jeff Howlett did not return our call for comment.)

            With or without Lonsberry, WHAM's schedule is dominated by hard-shell rightwing opinion. Rush Limbaugh is anchor of the afternoon schedule. Limbaugh has lately been consumed with health problems, prescription-drug dependency, and tangles with the law. But he still can rail against "pointy-headed intellectual leftists," and so forth. On his November 19 program, he condemned protests in the UK against George W. Bush's state visit, blaming "that wacko [London] mayor." Turning less derisive, he noted only "hundreds" had taken to the streets against Bush that day. Limbaugh may not have realized the major anti-Bush demo (which ended up drawing more than 100,000) was scheduled for the next day, November 20.

            WHAM also carries pop psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger --- her doctorate is in physiology --- in the mornings. Schlessinger is a serial gay-basher; this apparently doesn't devalue her stock at WHAM.

            But Schlessinger isn't the only right-wing Laura in local radioland.

            WROC-AM 950 features Laura Ingraham, a Dartmouth grad and former law clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Ingraham has a reputation for being more balanced than some competitors. Yet on one recent program, she assailed some groups which, she said, want to establish an "Islamic Republic of America" and a counterpart in the UK. She also praised the War on Terror's constitutional shortcuts, scoffing at "this idea that we should be self-flagellating because we've got people penned up..." People on the left, she charged, won't wake up until "their own homes are incinerated."

            By the way, WROC also has conservative hit-men Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on its schedule.

WHAM 1180 is a major player in Rochester for two reasons. First, it's a lower-case "clear channel" station, that is, one with 50,000 watts of broadcasting power and a frequency all to itself over an immense geographical area. Second, it's a (capital-C) Clear Channel Communications holding. Clear Channel Rochester owns seven radio stations and WOKR-TV Channel 13. The parent corporation owns 1,225 radio stations and 37 TV stations in the US, says a company webpage.

            But WHAM hasn't monopolized the radio market for conservative opinion.

            Many Rochesterians have been tuning into a pair of Penfield-based stations owned by Dallas, Texas-based Crawford Broadcasting. (Crawford owns 31 radio stations nationwide; the name comes not from George Bush's Texas hideaway, but from the company's founding family.) WLGZ 990 AM has an "adult standards" format; WDCZ 102.7 FM, billed as "The Light," specializes in "Christian talk, programs, and music."

            Operations Manager Scott Ensign says part of WDCZ's programming comes from Focus on the Family, a conservative group founded by Dr. James Dobson. "As a station, we do not take a political stand," Ensign says. But he adds that some Crawford stations, including WDCZ and WLGZ, run commentaries produced at corporate headquarters under the collective title "The Stand."

Archived in print form on the corporate website (, the commentaries are steeped in far-right political and religious belief. They were first issued in 1992, "when liberal voices were becoming loud and shrill," says the website. In their written form, the commentaries are each hundreds of words long. But in general, says Ensign, they're broadcast in shortened form, a minute to 90 seconds. In any case, Crawford Broadcasting exploits the link between radio and the Internet; the company also solicits short responses from listeners.

            As archived, a "Stand" from this past May takes on "The President and Saddam Hussein's Iraq." "Bush was willing to pay the price to do the right thing," says the commentary, complaining about "the fanatic liberal critique of George Bush as being an empire-crazed leader, a warmonger, a militarist without human compassion..." Yet this commentary also retrieves a vital fact from the memory hole: the continuity between former President Bill Clinton's Iraq policies and those of the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

            But "The Stand" can take more rightward tacks than this. For example, an archived commentary on Israel, while expressing a vague hope for peace, charges that "Arab countries and the vast majority of Arabs in the Middle East" wish to "utterly possess the land of Israel, all of it" and "see every Jew buried at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea." This rests on an interpretation of God's promise that "HIS people will return, inherit, and prosper."

            Yet the commentaries can be balanced, if not entirely fair, when addressing controversial issues. One piece late last year on abortion and stem-cell research is clearly in favor of "the right of the unborn." But the piece sounds ambivalent about stem-cell research. "Whatever is right," says the piece, "the point is that there simply is no dialogue in America. There is no rational, sensible, sane, and calm discussion of the issues... The war of words turns into the war of deeds... What a sad state of affairs."

The sad state gives progressive media observers plenty to chew on, too.

            New York City-based Jim Naureckas --- editor of Extra!, a bimonthly magazine from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), and author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error --- surveys the national scene daily.

            Some popular hate-radio jockeys, says Naureckas, "are trying to be as offensive as they can get away with," testing "what the market will bear." In particular, "there's an awful lot of gay-bashing on what we thought of as mainstream stations," he says.

            "Savage," says Naureckas, "is about as hate-filled as you can get." But Limbaugh, he says, has softened a little: "He used to be more racist and homophobic, openly so; he once told a black caller to 'take that bone out of your nose and call me back.'" (This incident is sometimes reported as apocryphal. For a discussion, see, an "urban legends" investigative website that concludes Limbaugh is guilty as charged.)

            Groups like FAIR have assembled volumes of quotes and related data and published many a critique. But exactly what can be done about the excesses of rightwing radio? "You don't have to have censorship," Naureckas says. "You have to have people recording what's said" and following up on it. "If what you're hearing on the radio really offends you, get a tape recorder and a computer and type up a transcript." Too many hate-jocks, he says, get away with stuff because people have a hard time believing they actually said it.

            On a related topic: Can progressives get their own act together --- get their own airtime to counter the right? Naureckas says there are mixed signals. He notes that philanthropists Sheldon and Anita Drobny recently tried to create a network with solidly-liberal commentators like comedian Al Franken. But the effort foundered, says Naureckas, when a new owner wanted to go "centrist with a hint of liberalism."

            "Corporations and the left don't go well together," unless it's "a left with no fangs," says Naureckas. He recalls what happened to gadfly Jim Hightower. Ben & Jerry's sponsored the folksy, anti-big-money Texan, he says. But that wasn't enough to allow Hightower to take on the rich, ubiquitous likes of Limbaugh.

            What about the new technologies, like webcasting and streaming? Can progressives use these technologies to make end-runs around the well-heeled right and center?

            It may be too soon to know, but there certainly are experiments all over the map.

            Some Rochester activists, for example, have been developing a web-based alternative source of news and views through the international "Indymedia" network ( Andy Dillon, a 19th Ward resident who volunteers for the project, says the local group may add streaming audio to its site, which already has considerable "movement" news. But the group, he says, now is concentrating on video production, in alliance with Metro Justice's TV Dinner public-access cable show.

            Jim Naureckas says advances in broadcasting technology may open new avenues. For example, he says, digital tuners can lock in four to six times more stations in the same frequency band than analog tuners can. More extensive use of these tuners could make it possible to multiply the number of local stations --- and it could also make it cheaper to acquire a broadcast frequency.

            "Low-power FM" is an option, too. LPFM outlets have a maximum of 100 watts of power and a three-to-four-mile broadcast radius; the equipment is relatively cheap, so even small community groups can afford to start an outlet. The FCC opened the door to legal LPFM almost four years ago. But things have been delayed after Congress --- beset by the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, and other stakeholders worried about signal interference --- imposed some restrictions.

            LPFM is sure to grow. And this fits with Naureckas' emphasis on seizing the mainstream. "The most convenient way to communicate speech is the AM and FM radio bands," he says. "Every home has a radio, every car has a radio. Unfortunately, there's a [tendency] to let more and more frequencies fall into fewer and fewer hands."

So how do you take back the mainstream?

            "You don't try to attract a liberal audience to WHAM, you set up a parallel to it," says Jason Crane, Green Party activist and station manager of Greece-based jazz station WGMC 90.1 FM. "There are achievable, winnable steps that can be taken," says Crane. He suggests that some local station should pick up Amy Goodman's Democracy Now, which is broadcast on Pacifica and some NPR stations. (The show can heard on the radio in many parts of New YorkState, but Rochesterians must stream it via

            Then there are some tools that might be put back to work --- like the "Fairness Doctrine."

            This doctrine, a key component of the New Deal regulatory framework, was tossed out by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. Congressional action has so far failed to undo the damage. This past summer, though, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) said he and other members of Congress were backing legislation to restore the doctrine. Hinchey said it's also necessary to "revise the media ownership rules" that allow vast corporations like Clear Channel to tie up markets.

            The Fairness Doctrine has, or had, two important parts. First, it required stations to give "equal time" to opposing political candidates and viewpoints. The theory was that unlike print media, broadcast frequencies are finite public resources that must be used for the common good; today progressives argue that even the expansion of cable, unforeseen in the Great Depression, has not rendered that theory obsolete.

            Moreover, the Fairness Doctrine gave citizens a handle on local media affairs. "People forget," says local commentator Mitch Kaidy, "that the doctrine included 'public ascertainment.'" Kaidy examined the process in a City Newspaper op-ed this past July 13. "'Local ascertainment,'" he wrote, "meant that radio, and later radio and television stations, were directed to offer opportunity for public views to be aired on major local issues as well as to insure that those issues were ventilated on local stations by the activists involved with them." He described how some Rochesterians used this process in the 1970s to get reforms at (you guessed it) WHAM. But in regulatory terms, that was long ago and far away.

            The old rules had another facet that could give traction to efforts against Limbaugh and company. This is the "personal attack rule." As the FCC once described it, the rule "provides generally that when, during a program on a controversial issue of public importance, an attack is made on someone's [or some group's] integrity, the licensee must inform the subject of the attack and provide an opportunity to respond on-the-air."

            Tragically, that FCC description now reads like an obituary for fairness and balance.

            Big money is now ruling the airwaves. But new technologies and attitudes may carry the day. Regulatory regimes, like radio jockeys, have their ups as well as downs. And nobody can see where the career of democratic media control is headed.

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