The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

15 December 2005

Blogs Hold Talk Hosts Accountable


Intersection Of Activism And Talk Radio

Is talk radio really just an entertainment medium, or do listeners expect bona fide activism from air personalities?

In the past, I'd always believed it was about appealing to a segment of the radio audience and primarily reflecting that group's political viewpoints.

It's now clear, however, that faced with an increasing number of new media choices, talk radio listeners want quite a lot more.

Simply being entertaining, timely and compelling isn't enough: led by the blogosphere, there's a sense that if the Internet can hold Dan Rather accountable, why can't talk radio? Blogs have raised the bar and hosts are forced to pay attention.

In my recent interview with industry trade publication All Access, I pointed to KFI's John & Ken in Los Angeles and KSFO/San Francisco's Lee & Melanie morning show as seamlessly blending entertainment with real activism.

Both know to sniff out the next hot story ahead of time, taking ownership and following it through. If a rally, recall election, road trip or initiative campaign is necessary, that's fine, but you don't see them stooping to two-bit rock-jock stunts.

Listeners have a reason to come back each day, feeling a sense of involvement in the latest campaign. For John & Ken, it was most recently a noisy public awareness campaign ahead of the Tookie Williams execution.

Taking activism a step further, KSFO's Melanie Morgan teamed up with legendary California Republican strategist Sal Russo to form Move America Forward, the focus of several previous pieces seen here.

An in-depth profile of Morgan and Russo has been published at the Sacramento News & Review, surprisingly balanced given the paper's ultraliberal reputation, other than some cheap shots at Russo's campaign track record:

These days, Russo is the political mind behind the rapidly growing nonprofit Move America Forward. Unless you listen to conservative talk radio, you may never have heard of it.

But chances are you know its work.

Remember the “You Don’t Speak For Me, Cindy” Tour this past summer, which sent pro-troops activists to Crawford, Texas, to go toe to toe with anti-war military mom Cindy Sheehan? That was Move America Forward. And the group that tried to quiet the theatrical opening to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11? That was them, too. They’ve also encouraged the United States to withdraw from the United Nations, run television commercials showing American troops handing goods to Afghani children and curated a pro-America art exhibit on Sacramento’s Capitol building steps.

More recently, there was orchestrated outrage by Move America Forward supporters in reaction to the Sacramento City Council’s bring-the-troops-home symbolic resolution.

Since the group formed fewer than two years ago, it has become the dominant voice countering the apparent American groundswell against the war in Iraq. Despite a relatively small base of supporters, reportedly little income and an almost complete lack of support from the Republican Party, Move America Forward has made waves and newspaper headlines across the country.

That may be because the group has struck a nerve with a group of vocal Americans. It also may be simply because Russo and others who run Move America Forward have found a formula to bamboozle the media into paying attention to its ultraconservative viewpoint.

And a section on Morgan, here:

Thank Gray Davis for the movement that is now Move America Forward.

The whole thing began January 22, 2003, during the morning drive time, on a San Francisco radio station. Shawn Steele, then the head of the California Republican Party, was a guest on the morning show that Melanie Morgan co-hosts on KSFO 560 AM. He and Morgan were chatting in typical incendiary talk-radio fashion, when Steele crowed, off the cuff, that someone should recall Davis from the governor’s office. Morgan remembers a light bulb being lit.

“I knew this was an idea whose time had come. ... I said, 'I can do this. I know I can do this,’” Morgan recounted. “It was like watching a video. I saw it in my brain.”

Fast-forward through a circus special election in which Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Though Morgan and her co-conspirators supported Tom McClintock throughout the election, they considered the recall a success.

In an interview on a recent Wednesday morning in her studio, following The Lee Rodgers & Melanie Morgan Program--the Bay Area’s No. 1-rated morning drive-time talk program--one of the first things out of Morgan’s mouth was: “I used to be a liberal Democrat.”

Morgan, a petite woman, who even in jeans appears well-dressed, also says she used to be a “straight-down-the-line journalist.” The daughter of a former Missouri state legislator, Morgan said she’d always been politically aware. But it took Lee Rodgers, her morning-show co-host, to cause her political rebirth, she says.

“I feel like I’ve gone to school for the last 11 years for the conservative ideology” sitting beside him, Morgan said.

In that same time, Morgan discovered that radio, more than other media, has a town-square-like power--a lesson amplified in liberal-minded San Francisco, where she says the radio station became something of an island of refuge for conservatives.

“Talk-show hosts really are the ward healers of modern-day politics,” Morgan said.

On the flip side, Air America Radio host Rachel Maddow's All Access interview by Perry Simon also appears this week. Given her background, Maddow surprisingly takes the opposite view on the activism question.

By the way, the reference to me is for real and I thought it was pretty funny:

All Access: What are you passionate about?

Maddow: I'm passionately patriotic, which surprises some people -- the Constitution has a more-than-secular hold on me. I'm passionate about my family -- my partner Susan Mikula. I'm passionate about ethics (though I make no claim to being a particularly ethical person), about music, about great booze, about Amtrak, about, about privacy, about cannoli.

Air America Radio's been through quite a rollercoaster since it launched, as have you, moving from one of three hosts on one show to your own early morning show and now to the 7-9 am slot. What would you say have been the low and high points of your Air America tenure so far?

Low point -- telling my mother my show, "Unfiltered," was being replaced by Jerry Springer, on my birthday, while she was on the other line with her sister the nun in Canada. High point -- it sounds cheesy, but there's no single moment more important to me than the moment of realization I have every day that this is my freaking job.

Some talk hosts think of themselves as political power brokers, some as pure entertainers, some as educators. How do you see your role- are you primarily a political communicator, an educator, an entertainer?

I think of myself primarily as an entertainer -- in commercial radio, really, we're all just there to deliver listeners to the mattress ads. But I'm apparently at my most entertaining when I'm explaining stuff and talking politics.

You're liberal and you're openly gay, which are both rarities in syndicated talk radio. What else makes you special- what else would you say differentiates you not only from the rest of talk radio in general but from the rest of the Air America lineup? What do listeners get from Rachel Maddow that they can't get from anyone else?

Because I spent a long time as a full-time activist before I ever started doing radio, I don't confuse the two. I don't see talk radio as activism and I don't try to wring an activist's sense of mission out of my job. That, I think, is probably why I take a newsier, more information-driven approach to my show than most other folks in the business. I'm not organizing a campaign, I'm not whipping people into a frenzy for or against a candidate -- The Rachel Maddow Show doesn't have much of a Hallelujah Chorus.

My goal instead is to deliver a lot of news -- useful information, including opinion, in an entertaining digestible way that people can take away from the show and put to whatever use they want. The show moves fast and covers a lot of ground.

What about you would surprise the hell out of people?

My secret alter ego is Brian Maloney.

Of what are you most proud?

Two things: (1) my family, and (2) convincing the Mississippi Department of Corrections to change its policy on segregating prisoners with HIV.

What do you do for fun?

I stole Tucker Carlson's Treo a year ago and ever since have been systematically paintballing every address in his phonebook. Oh, and there's the whole War on Christmas thing. Fun, but exhausting. Christmas apparently won again this year -- next year I'm upping it to a jihad.

I knew there was a reason I'd been picking on Tucker so much recently! Keeps me out of his Treo. And luckily, it's too cold here for paintball.

Why not get Christmas and other shopping done now and support the Radio Equalizer at the same time? Your Amazon orders that originate with clicks here, regardless of your final selections, help to support this work. Shipping deals are still available for immediate purchases.

Thanks again for your vital assistance!

Images: Sacramento News and Review, All Access


  • Talk host Jerry Williams (WRKO among other stations) was a bit of an activist. He led campaigns to abolish a seat belt law, stop a Congressional pay increase, and halt construction of a prison in New Braintree, MA.

    He was seen years ago as a liberal but later defined himself as a "populist".
    He fought against tax increases and
    "statists" (maybe a bit of a Libertarian streak?), etc. Often he'd play that clip of Howard Beale
    from Network: I'm As Mad As Hell
    And I'm Not Going To Take This Anymore!

    Often people like Ralph Nader would call in and talk about "stopping the Congressional pay grab". And Jerry
    would frequently give out phone
    numbers (this was before Internet)
    of legislators for listens to
    pressure their elected representatives.

    By Blogger raccoonradio, at 15 December, 2005 15:55  

  • Geez you are Maddow's alter ego??! Wow--AAR is certainly not ignoring you as the MSM are. Wonder why? Cause AAR knows that what Brian is reporting is the truth. I love it.

    By the way, Sam Sedar, are you there?

    By Blogger FYIFYI, at 15 December, 2005 21:57  

  • You attention whore. She was talking about the musician, not you.

    By Blogger Dick Tuck, at 16 December, 2005 11:09  

  • Wow. Proof the lefties have zero sense of humor.

    By Blogger SCSIwuzzy, at 19 December, 2005 20:45  

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