Tune in to conservative talk radio in California, and the insults quickly fly. Capturing the angry mood of listeners the other day, a popular host in Los Angeles called Republican lawmakers who voted to raise state taxes “a bunch of weak slobs.”
With their trademark ferocity, radio stars who helped engineer Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise in the 2003 recall have turned on him over the new tax increases. On stations up and down the state, they are chattering away in hopes of igniting a taxpayers’ revolt to kill his budget measures on the May 19 ballot.
But for all the anti-tax swagger and the occasional stunts by personalities like KFI’s John and Ken, the reality is that conservative talk radio in California is on the wane. The economy’s downturn has depressed ad revenue at stations across the state, thinning the ranks of conservative broadcasters.
For that and other reasons, stations have dropped the shows of at least half a dozen radio personalities and scaled back others, in some cases replacing them with cheaper nationally syndicated programs.
Casualties include Mark Larson in San Diego, Larry Elder and John Ziegler in Los Angeles, Melanie Morgan in San Francisco, and Phil Cowen and Mark Williams in Sacramento.
Two of the biggest in the business, Roger Hedgecock in San Diego and Tom Sullivan in Sacramento, have switched to national shows, elevating President Obama above Schwarzenegger on their target lists.
Another influential Sacramento host, Eric Hogue, has lost the morning rush-hour show that served as a prime forum to gin up support for the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Now he airs just an hour a day at lunchtime on KTKZ-AM (1380).
“It’s lonely, it’s quiet, and it’s a shame,” Hogue said of California’s shrinking conservative radio world. “I think this state has lost a lot of benefit. I don’t know if we can grow it back any time soon.”
The immediate question facing the state’s conservative radio hosts is whether they can wield enough clout to block Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures in May. They portray them as reckless proposals that would hasten California’s economic decline. The worst, they say, is Proposition 1A, which would extend billions of dollars in tax increases for an extra two years, even while it imposes a spending cap long sought by conservatives.
In a special election likely to draw a dismal turnout, they hope that those most upset by the $12.5 billion in new taxes will be the ones most strongly motivated to cast ballots. Their inspiration is Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that capped property-tax increases.
“What we see is a significant parallel between what is happening now and what happened in 1977 and 1978, when established political elites, whether in the media or in Sacramento, pooh-poohed the idea of a taxpayer revolt,” said Inga Barks, whose talk show airs in Bakersfield and Fresno. “People are very upset.”
Unless organized labor -- which is divided on the budget measures -- spends millions of dollars to get its supporters to vote, “the only other ones who are going to show up at the polls are the die-hard, true-blue American voters, and those are the ones who listen to talk radio,” Barks said.
Still, in a state that Obama won handily in November, a decisive conservative push-back against the tax-spend-and-borrow ballot measures is far from certain. The older white Republicans who tend to listen to conservative radio are a shrinking portion of the state’s voters.
It’s also no sure bet that the radio shows are converting listeners who might disagree with their agenda.
“All these people are going to vote the conservative line anyway, or they wouldn’t be listening to those shows,” said Jim Nygren, a Republican strategist.
Conservative radio reached its peak in California in 2003, when stations prodded listeners to sign petitions for an election to recall Davis, then drummed up GOP support for Schwarzenegger as his replacement.
Since then, it has been a favorite ad vehicle for Republican candidates and causes, such as Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage last November.
Leading the charge against Proposition 1A are John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, whose afternoon drive-time show on Los Angeles’ KFI-AM (640) draws 670,000 listeners a week, according to the Arbitron ratings agency. That makes them the most popular conservative talk radio hosts in the state.
Day after day, they pound Schwarzenegger and the Republican lawmakers who joined Democrats in approving the tax increases. They are encouraging recall drives against the legislators. Their website features pictures of the governor and the lawmakers -- with their severed heads on sticks.
“They’re all pretty shaken up by it,” said Nygren, who counts some of the lawmakers as clients.
Last week, John and Ken urged listeners to show up with tax-revolt signs “outside Octomom’s house,” taking advantage of the media presence surrounding Nadya Suleman, the Whittier mother of octuplets.
“It’s guerrilla warfare,” one of the hosts said.
Many of the others on California’s conservative radio circuit are less belligerent. “It doesn’t need to be ranting and raving all the time,” Hedgecock said.
And apart from KFI, whose morning show with Bill Handel draws 652,000 listeners a week, the California shows are far less popular. The only hosts of conservative programs with a weekly audience of more than 100,000 are Doug McIntyre of KABC (790) in Los Angeles, Lee Rodgers of KSFO (560) in San Francisco and Rick Roberts of KFMB (760) in San Diego.
“The content is the same,” said Hogue, “but it doesn’t have the reach it once did. There are major players gone.”