Talk radio the way it’s supposed to be

Sam Smith, 2006 – One of talk radio’s best hosts is gone for now. Your editor has done more than 600 talk shows but few calls delighted him more than one from Charlie Spencer at WHYN asking him to be on his Saturday morning program in Springfield, Massachusetts. The program was rated tops by Arbitron for the area and was one of the original progressive talk shows in the nation, beginning in 1993.

Sharing space with the likes of Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Howie Carr, he wasn’t a shouter and he wasn’t a debater. Like my other big favorite, Richard Kaffenberger of KAAA and KZZZ in the tri-state area outside of Las Vegas, he understands that radio is really the ultimate conference call and that the proper patois is conversation not bombastic rhetoric. Every week Kaffenberger leads a conversation between a real conservative and myself. It was on this show that I got conservative journalist Marc Morano to admit he was an “a la carte” socialist since he used Washington’s subway system. “You’re a subway socialist,” I had told him. “You’re just not a healthcare socialist.”

Secular Franciscan Spencer has kept busy since leaving the show. He writes, “I spent most of August in Bolivia spending time traveling the headwaters of the Amazon investigating Conservation International’s role in Madidi, in addition to learning from the Andean people. . . I still retain my position as Curator, Wildflower Gardens, Stanley Park of Westfield, molding and managing the second largest public woodland wildflower garden in Massachusetts. I’m also working on an internet ‘field guide to eastern wildflowers.'” Not your typical talk show host in more than one way.

I grew up on radio as conversation. As a kid in Washington I listened to a local show hosted by Arthur Godfrey who casually demeaned the “dirty old bear” in front of one of his advertisers, Zlotnik the Furrier. Later, in Philadelphia, I listened regularly to one of the first of the late night talkers, Steve Allison, who claimed to be the “man who owned midnight” and was, as far as I could tell, right. At my college radio station, I practiced the tradition as best I could, coming to regard my audience much as a blind man might: they were present, just unseen. They weren’t there to be manipulated or yelled at; they were, after all, your friends.

Later, as a radio newsman, I would run into these friends on the street. Or they would call in with their news tips like the man who started coughing as he described a nearby apartment fire, finally saying, “I think . . .(cough) I’d (cough) better go now.” And Dan, who lived alone with his multiple police scanners and would call to say, “I’ve got a body for you, Sam.” Another dollar went to Dan for his tip.

I remember once, as a guest host on the DC public radio station, gently scolding a caller who had questioned guest Sy Hersh’s patriotism: “Look we’re all good Americans here. . .Else we wouldn’t be listening to WAMU.” It wasn’t strictly logical, but it shut the guy up.

You get used to that sort of thing. Once in San Francisco I got a call from a guy who wanted to complain about aliens. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t Mexicans that bothered him but those from outer space. “Look,” I replied, “I think we ought to treat space creatures like all other newcomers to this country. Welcome them and make them part of us.” The caller hung up without debating the point. In recent years, talk radio has too often become pompous, tedious, raucous or just plain nasty. Somewhere between Diane Rehm and Rush Limbaugh, however, there is a happy valley of conversation that a few hosts like Charlie Spencer and Richard Kaffenberger have used with great skill. It doesn’t seem to hurt their ratings and they probably could do just as well nationally as they do at home. After all, part of the secret of America finding itself again is to stop yelling and start talking with each other.

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