Taking up battle stations

Special to The Times

With developments cropping up hourly on the world stage, the arguments for and against attacking Iraq are swirling into a cacophony that Southland radio listeners can cut through, if they want to, by tuning in to direct lines for each of the polar opposites of the war debate.

Whether it's the time and location of the latest peace march in Alhambra, or tips on how to boycott French products, listeners can flip among commercial talk stations on the right, such as KFI-AM (640) and KABC-AM (790), and the left-wing Pacifica affiliate, KPFK-FM (90.7). Each offers the point of view regular listeners would expect, but they also hope to make the most of the Iraq crisis by attracting more listeners and support.

KPFK just completed the most successful fund drive in its 44-year history, topping $1 million in pledges for the first time. Pacifica, founded by a conscientious objector after World War II, cited similar gains at its other stations during drives earlier this month -- support that network executive director Dan Coughlin credited to the stations' war coverage, which offers an alternative to what he called the media giants' cheerleading.

The five-station network "is providing a real diversity of views, which includes perspectives on peace," he said.

Meanwhile, KFI and KABC are urging listeners to stick with them if hostilities break out in Iraq, and to rely on their respective news operations. And both could reasonably expect a bump in ratings once the shooting starts, mirroring the spike in listenership for news and talk stations nationwide after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. KFI's audience share increased by 40% in the three months after 9/11, for example, while KABC's was up 13%.

"We're keeping people apprised we're staying on top of developments," said Robin Bertolucci, who oversees KFI as director of AM programming for Clear Channel-Los Angeles. She said she wants prospective listeners to seek out her talk and news programming for "the opinion side of the issue and the raw information side of the issue."

Until something does boil over, on-air personalities are doing their utmost to stir a simmering pot.

John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, afternoon hosts on KFI, urge their fans to "rise up and tell Hollywood to sit down," encouraging them to protest war and peace musings by celebrities and offering a "hit list" of targeted organizations for the effort.

On the flip side, Pacifica's highest-profile on-air personality, Amy Goodman, host of the morning newsmagazine "Democracy Now!," was arrested last weekend in front of the White House during a women's antiwar demonstration.

On his KABC program Wednesday, Sean Hannity sparred with Democratic political consultant Vic Kamber, who asked why the United States isn't gearing up to attack other despots, such as Moammar Kadafi in Libya or Kim Jong Il in North Korea. To that, Hannity replied, "One at a time."

Even the stations' Web sites reflect their reference points: KABC has an American flag flying in its logo; Pacifica has an olive branch.

Another regular feature for the various shows is to seize any news reports likely to resonate with their audiences. So KFI's Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday cited an article from the London Observer published two months after the Sept. 11 attacks. It said Iraq was hosting a terrorist training camp in the Salman Pak area of Baghdad, complete with a Boeing 707 fuselage on which to practice hijackings.

On the other hand, on Wednesday, "Democracy Now's!" Goodman cited reports in the Wall Street Journal and the London Guardian saying that Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton, is among those in line for a U.S. government contract to rebuild postwar Iraq, and, according to the Guardian, that Cheney still receives up to $1 million a year from the oil-services firm.

Obviously, some Limbaugh fans would sooner kiss Saddam Hussein than tune in to Pacifica's "Peacewatch," while someone checking KPFK's "Morning Show" antiwar calendar would only be infuriated by an anti-protest poem on Bill Handel's KFI show expressing hope that "one day Hollywood gets gassed." Some listeners, though, could actually be sampling all sides, tacking from one to the other to plot their own course.

"I think people have become pretty sophisticated consumers of information," KFI's Bertolucci said. "I tend to think people are pretty smart and are interested in a variety of viewpoints. At the same time, people have a pretty clear idea of where they stand. Everybody's just kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop right now."

Monsieur Chirac,

KROQ is calling

Instead of commenting from the sidelines like other radio stations, alternative rocker KROQ-FM (106.7) appears to have plunged into the middle of international diplomacy, or at least stumbled in with a Jerry Lewis-style pratfall.

During Wednesday's "Kevin & Bean" morning show, comic sidekick and entertainment reporter Ralph Garman telephoned the office of French President Jacques Chirac, impersonating Lewis, a beloved figure in France. Much to his surprise, he got through.

For several minutes, Garman, claiming to be Lewis, chatted with someone who said he was Chirac, who was initially skeptical that he was talking to Lewis. But the two launched into a conversation about France's opposition to the U.S. position on Iraq, Americans' hostility toward France, the traditional friendship between the nations and prospects for a U.N. resolution to enforce disarmament.

A spokesman for Infinity Broadcasting, KROQ's parent company, said, "We're looking into it, and beyond that there's no comment."

Throughout Thursday's show, the program crew made jokes and veiled references to the incident, and about how much grief it was causing them. Co-host Kevin Ryder joked that he hoped not to live to see the end of the show and a 10 a.m. meeting with station attorneys. After a promotion for a ticket giveaway to see Pearl Jam in Orlando, Fla., Garman said he could be attending -- "I might have a lot of time on my hands."

The group considered its next career move, and invited KFI morning host Bill Handel onto the show. He quizzed the duo on current events, asking if they knew who the French foreign minister was.

"We don't know anything about France," Ryder said.

They missed a few more questions, prompting Gene "Bean" Baxter to say, "Maybe KFI's not the place for us."

But, according to the French consulate in Los Angeles, maybe the joke was on KROQ.

"It was not Jacques Chirac; we're all very sure here," said Anna Laban, deputy press attache. "I think it was a joke. I don't think Jacques Chirac would have been on live on a talk show."

She noted that the French consul general had been on KABC the night before, and said they would have heard about an appearance by Chirac, even if it was inadvertent. "It was definitely not him. We would have been informed."

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