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Tales of Hope and Regret for Talk Radio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an odd pairing of sound and image at the talk-radio conclave in Century City this weekend.

Here was Mark Williams, vice president of the National Assn. of Radio Talk Show Hosts, in ponytail and earring, saying on Friday that “talk radio is becoming as diverse as music radio.” While he meant diversity of format--such as a talk show in Tampa, Fla., devoted exclusively to the subject of cigars--another sort of diversity appeared to present the same old picture.

There in the next quarter-hour, arrayed on the dais to discuss “new options and challenges” in programming a talk station, was a panel of nine white males--even including David Gleason, program director of KTNQ-AM (1020), a Spanish-language talk station.

Nevertheless, as panelists indicated, diverse English-speaking communities are having considerable influence of their own.

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Bob Shomper, program director of KOB-AM in Albuquerque, and Ken Kohl, program director of KSTE-AM in Sacramento, each told how to his dismay he had to fire a host for making on-air remarks after a deluge of listener complaints. In April, the KOB host, interviewing an immigration agent, asked for his phone number, then cracked that people should telephone “1 (800) WETBACK.” Shomper said he thought an initial suspension, apology and community service in the Latino community would be acceptable, but it wasn’t. “I never thought of myself as the poster child of racism,” Shomper said.

Last August, Kohl said, the KSTE host--doing a remote from the border--said he had the solution to the illegal immigrant problem: “Run ‘em over at the border.” “Suddenly,” Kohl said, “we were on the other side of a media blitz.”

Kohl later noted that he was “absolutely” saddened to see the host go. “He was one of the top talk talents.” While he acknowledged that it was “a horrible remark, a despicable remark,” it was something that was said “in a nanosecond . . . a joke” and the host “apologized profusely.”

As for the actual numbers of women and minority hosts, the picture is muddled. Michael Harrison, editor-publisher of Talkers Magazine and convention chairman, says that of about 4,000 hosts, 25% are women, 10% minorities. Carol Nashe, the association’s executive vice president, estimates 15% women, 3% to 5% minorities. “Look around you,” she said at one point. “A lot of the women here are with the exhibits.” Both agree that representation is improving.

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At a workshop on the status of women and minorities in talk radio, Gloria Allred, who is heard on KABC-AM (790) weekends from 7 to 9 p.m., called the industry “one of the most segregated in America” and brought with her a lawyer from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who offered advice and its toll-free number.

At one point, Blanquita Cullum, president of the talk-show group, interrupted, saying she wanted to “take it in a different vein.” While she had told of discriminatory incidents--a San Antonio station in the 1970s made her change her Latina first name to Toni--she said, “you’ve got to be resourceful” and “open” to new ideas, and that opportunity doesn’t always come “in a silk dress.” She added: “If I had listened to people telling me no, I’d have been dead 25 years ago.”

But mostly the talkers talked shop--from the nitty-gritty of taking calls and how to pace them, to the seismic shift from individual station ownership to corporate conglomerates. Norman Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One, on Saturday conceded that “there will be fewer home-grown talk-radio shows--it doesn’t mean there will be far fewer.”

The hosts traded jokes, publicly and privately, about pollster Dick Morris, who was forced to resign last year as an advisor to President Clinton over revelations about his relationship with a prostitute. And they grumbled about his poll and speech about talk radio, which they say told them what they already knew: that Washington political issues are out and personal issues of jobs and family are in.

Morris, who is seeking his own talk show, was still acting like the insider. Posing for a photo with KABC host Larry Elder, Morris promised to take Elder’s views opposing race-based preferences to the president.

Saturday afternoon, KABC’s Michael Jackson, who was named talk-show host of the year, regaled and moved fellow talkers with stories from his 30-plus years at the station. Saturday night, David Brudnoy of WBZ-AM in Boston, this year’s Freedom of Speech Award honoree, who drew national attention in 1995 when he told his listeners of his homosexuality and nearly dying of AIDS, urged his peers not to be a “sounding board for the lunacy” of primitive mentalities, “nor to be contrarians, heaping abuse,” but to be a “filter for what makes sense.”

In a “culture that oozes with hatefulness,” he suggested that the hosts heed the words of a character in Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


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