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Sunday, February 16, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Talking Back -- Call-In Radio Programs Let Folks Sound Off. The Talk Is Sometimes Rude, Sometimes Entertaining And Sometimes Uncomfortably Revealing. -- Harley Soltes / Seattle Times: ''When You Listen To The Radio And You're Driving In A Dark Car, It's More Intimate.'' Kate Larsson, A Xerox Account Manager Who Calls Radio Shows On Her Car Phone.

IT'S DARK NOW, THE NIGHT closing ranks around the nocturnal. One headlight cuts through the dark velvet, the other one is on the blink, and that's just the kind of night it wants to be - a little off-balance, a little lonely, a little bit of funk that finds solace in the strange, confessional things being said over the radio. Talk radio, that is. The place where two strangers can go into a dark room together and say whatever they want and come back out unscathed, uncondemned and satisfied.

You can call that anonymous ranting cowardly, or you can call it cleansing. However it strikes you, talk radio is moving up the charts in the '90s as an increasingly disenfranchised public discovers one place where its voice can be heard.

Talk radio and country music are predicted to be the big radio formats of this decade. When you think about it, they're pretty much the same thing, with a hang-dog emphasis on broken promises, cheatin' hearts, lost faith and corruption. Lament is king in the '90s.

If that's a bit overstated, so is much of talk radio. It thrives on inflated ideas and egos. It wouldn't survive without blowhards. And, with the emergence of cellular technology and its explosion of car phones, talk radio has brought more of them into earshot across the nation and here in Puget Sound. Four AM stations now offer full-time radio gab in the greater Seattle area (see page 25), up from two stations just a year ago. That's not an overwhelming number, but it's an aggressive share of the market and has led to some pretty aggressive sentiments by callers who have a thing or two on their minds.

"This is the most rude, hostile, petty, mean-spirited, lack-of-warmth, vengeful place that I have ever seen, by far, leaps and bounds. I have had the middle digit done to me more times up here on the road, and by the way, those people had Washington plates. I have seen a kind of trendy liberalism, activism if you will, that rubs me the wrong way. It's a blatant, dour, drab, sour, unappealing manner. I have seen more uptightness here between the sexes, too. Let me give you an example. A man cannot even go down the street here and talk to a woman and ask her for a date or cup of coffee without being accused of harassment or something. There is a feminist tide here that is holier-than-thou. It's not the South, where you can go up to a woman and compliment her and she'll take it in a very fine way."

So sayeth a caller known only as Jim - a man who really needs to get a life. Somewhere in Washington, he sits by his radio, unhappy and disillusioned. He and thousands of others like him are the essence of talk radio, a quirky cross-section of humanity with an ear to the AM band. Occasionally, you get cross-over listeners from FM radio, but there's a huge gulf between the devotees of National Public Radio, for example, and the zealots of talk radio on the lower band. It's tempting to stereotype one group as highbrow and the other low, but talk radio is more complicated than that - ever so much more complicated and maddening and inspiring and intoxicating and so often more stupid that it makes you want to put that middle digit to work. Or pick up the phone.

"THIS IS RICK MILLER ON King Talk 1090. Marilyn, you're on the air."

"Hi, Rick. I don't know what the trouble is with these people. The fellow who called and said how sad it is to walk down the street and not get women's phone numbers? That's really pathetic. What he's doing is asking women to put themselves in an unsafe position."

Miller: "He did say they were more receptive and friendly (in the South)."

Marilyn: "Yes, and they also run for Miss America. They're going for Miss Congeniality. They're missing a sock from their sea bag ..."

Missing a sock from their sea bag? Only on talk radio, home to all those unmatched, drab socks that society has forgotten or thrown away. The forlorn, the lonely, the outcasts and eccentrics; they all have a place on talk radio.

And if you believe that, you've seen too many Oliver Stone movies. Forget most of what you learned from his 1989 film "Talk Radio." The crackpots and lonely hearts who dominated the phone lines in that movie don't reflect the real world of talk radio today, at least not the way it's playing out in the Northwest. People with car phones, who represent about a third of all callers, have brought new voices to talk radio, shouting over the shut-ins, retirees and housewives who once dominated the medium. For better or worse, upscale car-phone callers are hogging more airtime, and that has sparked new interest among young listeners, which means it has sparked new interest among advertisers, bringing in more money. But let's put that thought on hold; this is talk radio, and on talk radio, business is boring, so let's move to another call. Sheila from Kirkland, you're on:

"I'm not from here and I have to agree with that caller, Jim. I grew up down south and people in Washington are the most uncultured, rude, insensitive, most prejudiced and racist people I have ever met in my life. I leave here once a year to go get a reality check because Seattle does not represent the microcosm of America. Period. They are not even on the map."

Sheila may not know it, but it's that kind of gripe that keeps someone like Joe Cary tuned to talk radio for up to 18 mind-frying hours a day. He's a truck driver from Portland, and while he knows that too much uncensored gab can addle the brain, it beats the alternatives on radio.

"Music puts you to sleep and country music will give you a complex after a while," says Cary, 36. "Talk radio keeps you awake and keeps your blood boiling. It's also a way to keep in touch with the pulse of the world. Who wants to be out in the middle of the desert driving and have a nuclear war happen and not know about it until you get there? There is a need to have a life outside of a four-by-four cab."

Similarly, talk radio provides life beyond a Boeing assembly line for Glenn Schroeder. He's a 23-year-old mechanical engineer who works on the B-2 Bomber during an early shift.

"When I'm done at work, my radio goes on at 2 p.m. and it don't come off till 8," he says, seated in an old farmhouse that overlooks Narrows Marina in Tacoma. "I got hooked on it at about age 18. People used to laugh at me a lot because when you're 18, you're supposed to be listening to hard rock. You're not supposed to be listening to Mike Siegel or Rush Limbaugh. I said hey, you better wake up and realize that our generation has to pay the price for the S&L crisis, these congressional pay raises, the deficit, the homeless, all the problems we're facing today. If we don't start waking up, it's only going to fester and get worse down the road, and my generation is going to have to pick up the problem when it's 10 times worse."

He runs a thick hand through his blond hair and continues. "I'll tell ya, I've moved away from television. Talk radio has double the amount of knowledge, and when you watch TV, you can't call up Peter Jennings and say, `I'm really ticked off about a pay raise that my congressman got.' Talk radio is here and now, and you can get a lot of displaced anger out about a lot of issues. Most people feel their ideas aren't being represented today, so you take the stand on talk radio."

THAT SOAPBOX IS KEY TO TALK radio's success and intrigue. Sure, there are some nuts who recycle every conspiracy theory known to humanity, and there are others for whom the mundane represents extraordinary importance. Did you know, for example, that Elmer's Glue-All was invented in the Northwest? Did you care?

But push those two extremes aside and you'll find a vast, rich prairie of uncensored thought that offers a surprising look at the region's character. Anonymous callers have no reason to conceal their most rank sentiments, and they don't. Listening can be uncomfortable or downright nauseating. It can be powerfully enlightening: The message is so much more spontaneous than the carefully packaged viewpoints found on television or in newspapers, where most unrefined, crude sentiments are edited out and replaced with placid anecdotes about an antiseptic society that many people don't recognize in their own lives.

On talk radio, raw emotions seep out, sometimes laced with racist slurs, sexist put-downs and a disdain for authority and institutions of any kind. Too, you find the hapless liberals, shocked that anyone would question a single mother's right to a lifetime on welfare. It can be numbingly anti-intellectual.

This might sound like the stuff of old talk radio, which originated in the 1950s and was championed by the swing-shift set, but the upscale car-phone callers are no less reactionary and rigid-minded. Tune in for a while and you'll discover one of the great myth-busters of talk radio: Affluence does not necessarily translate to sophisticated or enlightened thinking.

"We get people who talk pretty racist stuff who sound pretty affluent to me, calling from car phones in Bellevue and such," says Shawn Splane, the producer who screens calls for the Rick Miller show on KING-AM. Every afternoon, Splane talks to hundreds of callers from around Puget Sound, posting their first names and abbreviated viewpoints on a computer screen that Miller views in a nearby booth. "I was surprised to deal with it on an everyday kind of basis."

Not all callers are closet reactionaries, but if you listen long enough, you will sense a persistent resistance to change and outsiders. What makes it so deceptive is the polite Northwest veneer that conceals that intolerance.

Many local talk-show hosts complain that this is the tamest, most polite, least-combative, nonconfrontational, skittish market in the country for what has traditionally been an in-your-face medium. Aside from people like "can't-get-a-date Jim," the typical Puget Sound caller doesn't openly vent about some social or personal injustice. He or she couches each crisis or criticism in subdued tones of civility, while often bemoaning the loss of a more wholesome way of life.

"I have never seen a group like this; it's very strange," says KING's Miller, who has been in Seattle since November, following six years of radio work in Portland and global travel as a print journalist. "The words that come to mind are `very set in their ways, very determined to preserve the status quo.' That may be unfair, but they're definitely provincial. You know, I traveled around the world for 20 years and all towns are provincial, but this town, frankly more than any I can recall, is determined to be provincial."

That feeling is echoed by Mike Siegel, the outspoken talk-show host who was fired from KING last August. He claims that the hometown owners of KING wanted to coddle listeners and couldn't stomach his combative style. KING disagrees, saying Siegel was dismissed because his ratings were lousy - pure proof that Seattle listeners won't put up with a put-down artist.

Now that theory is being tested at KVI. Siegel found a new home there, and from 4 to 8 p.m. he rides roughshod on the airwaves. Leaning into the microphone, he furrows his bushy eyebrows and shoots out two or three subjects for that evening's debate, trying to provoke a reaction about everything from corrupt police officers to the high price of pasta. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

"Seattle is very accepting, open-minded, nonjudgmental and willing to listen," says Siegel, 46. "It's also uncomfortable with confrontations, to some extent. More so than any other place I've worked - New York, Cleveland, St. Louis, Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C.

"There seems to be a very strong sense of family and values here," he adds. "I've done a show in several places where I ask: `If you found a wallet with $1,000 in it, what would you do?' In most places, you get an even split between people who would keep it and those who would return it. Here, people call in and say, `Oh my God, I couldn't keep it.' There would be a very strong sentiment and a great sense of integrity."

But scratch that polite exterior and you'll discover a rough underside. Siegel, who is Jewish, keeps his door locked at night. Since he moved here three years ago, he has received virulent hate mail from Jew-haters. At one point in his career at KING, he was given a special indoor parking spot - mindful of the neo-Nazis who gunned down Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg in 1984, after he ridiculed one of them on the air.

"Somebody called on my voice mail at KING in a German accent, saying `We're going to take care of you,' " says Siegel. "The police asked me to take different routes home at night."

For the first time in his career, Siegel keeps an unlisted phone number. And the Seattle police opened a file on him to record the threats.

Most of them came during the Persian Gulf War, which Siegel ardently supported. Since then the venom from callers has subsided, although he hears it in other ways, primarily from communities outside Seattle. "I sense an undercurrent of anti-social behavior," he says. "It appears that there's more aberrant behavior by the fringe element that's very dangerous. The Aryan Nations, for example, couldn't ever exist in New York or Boston.

"Also, child abuse and spouse abuse seem to be pretty widespread here. When I talk about spouse abuse on the air, I hear more justification of it by men - `If she says so and so to me, I'll have to slap her down.' I have a sense that it's a real strong macho thing, more than any place I've ever worked. It blows my mind. I don't understand that. It's a real frontier mentality."

SIMILARLY, RICK MILLER HAS discovered Seattle's raw side. One day in December, Miller, who claims to be 34 years old but is closer to 50, read samplings of the hate mail he had received in his first month at work. He knew his style was more theatrical and confrontational than Seattle was accustomed to, but he didn't realize listeners were taking it so personally.

"I have never been anywhere where so many people who, through letters or calls, have gone to management and called for my job," Miller told his audience. "I think that is hostile, petty, vengeful and spiteful. I really do. Those people really want to hurt me, bad, and I find that just appalling."

A caller named Larry responded:

"In the Pacific Northwest, we're giving people, we're caring people and we're very polite."

Pause.

"I don't like you and I would love to write a letter to management expressing myself. I think you're very rude. I think you're crude and I just don't think you have any real beliefs in what Washingtonians are. There is a license-plate holder that I saw just before I got on to talk to you: It said, `Welcome to Washington, now please go home.' And I really feel that you should read that and just go."

Miller: "Is that directed at me particularly, or all interlopers, or just rude ones?"

Larry: "Just rude ones, and I think that the way you create controversy is just being a very rude, irritating person."

Miller: "This may come as a shock to you, but there are a huge number of people who do not consider me in the least bit rude. So, is it at all possible that it's in your perception?"

Larry: "With the number of letters received by management, no."

Miller: "It's a well-known fact of human nature that people who are very unsatisfied and very unhappy and maybe full of spite and hate and vengeance are more inclined to contact management than people who love me."

Larry: "Love you? I would love to meet you face to face and try to get in your head and figure out why you're so rude."

Miller: "Well, Larry, I'm going to stop you there. I don't think I'm rude and you seem to have your mind made up that I am."

Click.

TALK RADIO TOUCHES NERVES. MOSTLY, it touches male nerves. Far more men than women call in. As noted by one woman who did call in: "I've wondered for a long time, why so many more men call than women? It must be that men don't work very hard at work. Tell the men to work harder."

As noted by the next male caller: "I'm a man and I've been working hard all day. I just took five minutes off to call. Ex-cuse me."

Is talk radio a bastion of maleness? Let's answer that with another question. Do apes have hair on their arms? Men manage the stations, man the mikes and, by far, make most of the calls.

"Most talk radio is run by a bunch of white guys," concedes someone who would know: a white guy named Bill McMahon who is a talk-radio consultant. "I don't know if they can deal with a strong woman."

Amen to that. Nanci Donnellan, the self-proclaimed "Fabulous Sports Babe" on KJR's new all-sports talk format, got trashed in a year-end poll taken by The Seattle Times. All those polite readers voted her the "Media Turkey of the Year," citing her abrasive demeanor. Never mind that the Babe is quick, deliciously sarcastic and receives a heavy stream of calls from guys who do like her gruffness; many readers didn't like her unladylike manners. Maybe it's the way she expresses herself: "Is this your worst nightmare?" she recently asked listeners, after announcing she would be sitting in for a morning host at KJR-AM. "I'm going to wake your butt up."

For many, it was their worst nightmare.

"She's rude, loud-mouthed and ridiculous," Jeff Kavanaugh wrote to The Times during its poll.

Ditto, Scott Bean from Redmond: "It's one thing to have an attitude and debate callers, but to be rude is something different. That hype works better in Miami."

Female hosts are underrepresented on talk radio and are often rebuffed when they do appear - another clue that there is something off-balance about the whole medium. High culture pulls one way; talk radio twists the other. But what do you expect from a medium that is asking the most burning questions of our times, namely: Is it OK to tell dumb-blonde jokes in mixed company?

Even if you can't answer that vexing question, you can understand the intrigue it holds for some people. Take Darlene Wild. She is a 37-year-old mail carrier who has to sort through piles and piles and piles of mail each morning. It is very boring. Talk radio cuts through that tedium. Maybe some blondes really don't like those jokes after all ...

With earphones tucked under her dark hair, Wild listens in, starting each day at 9 with Jim Althoff on KING.

"Just to show you what a devoted fan I am, I have a picture of Jim and me right here," she says during an interview at her home near Green Lake. She holds up a snapshot that was taken at an arts event hosted by Althoff. "He's very smart and somewhat irreverent and I like that. And you can tell he's a very sincere person. After listening for so long, I do feel like I know him. I even know where he lives - I asked another postal worker.

"I don't want to sound obsessive about it," she adds, dismissing any notion that she harbors some kind of weird crush on the guy. "But after listening to him 15 hours a week, I know a lot about him. Jeez, you don't even spend that much time with somebody you live with."

TALK RADIO IS STRANGELY intimate, and has been labeled accordingly: "Verbal intercourse," "group therapy," "town meeting." Jim Groves, a computer-sales engineer for CompuCom and a devoted listener, calls it all that and more: "It's like a culture. It's like standing in line at the grocery store looking at a National Enquirer magazine. Nobody will admit that they do that, just like nobody will admit that they listen or call in to talk radio."

Like anything covert, it's thrilling for that very reason. It's oddly satisfying, like eavesdropping on neighbors whom you've seen only from afar. Suddenly, you're hearing their innermost secrets and it's enough to make you sit up and take notice, because it's not what you would have guessed at all from the placid expressions they wear to and from the front door each day.

So, too, talk radio. Don't even begin to think you understand the neighborhood until you've listened in.

Talk radio is like a burlesque show in the back room. It's a verbal strip tease, slowly peeling off the outside garb and exposing the region's character beneath it. Peek in sometime. You might be surprised by the figure that greets you: Sophisticated and coiffed on the front side, flawed and chafed on the back.

Talk radio. You're on the air.

Bob: "Hi Rick. The question, where are we going to be in 50 years with race relations? Uh. I hate to say it, but I hope that we will already have divided this country up among the races...Give California, Nevada, Arizona, all those states back to Mexico...Give New York and New Jersey to the blacks...Asians assimilate well. I don't think we have a problem with them."

Rick Miller: "Oh, Asians are OK? We can keep Asians?"

Bob: "Right."

Miller: "OK. Now we got the Mexicans taken care of. We got the blacks taken care of. What about the Germans?"

Bob: "Germans? They're part of the white culture. No problem."

Miller: "Bob do you consider youself a racist?"

Bob: "Yes."

Miller: "Is it your basic feeling that America should be for whites only?"

Bob: "No, not really...You have to understand, by my own personal definition, I am not a racist. But what I'm saying is, by the Seattle standards - of the politically correct, very hip Seattle - I am a racist because I believe all people should be treated equally."

Miller: "You, at the core, are a very dishonest person. You're not telling the truth and you're wearing it like a badge of honor. But when it gets right down to it, you're not addressing the hatred that you have to feel."

Bob: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. I think you're way off base thinking that to be a racist it's required of you to hate a certain race. I don't hate any particular race."

Miller: "OK Bob, I guess we can't go any further with this. You're denying the passion, you're denying the hate. You can't be a racist without being a hater."

Click.

Linda Keene is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

-------------------------------------------- FULL-TIME YAK ---------------------------------------------

Talk-radio fans, who represent about 25 percent of all listeners, have four AM stations to choose from in the Puget Sound area. Last May, KVI dropped its oldies music format and took up full-time yak, competing with KING for call-in listeners. KJR also features all talk, all day, but limits is format to the wonders of sports. And KIRO is all news, with special guests and call-in programs packed around it.

KIRO Newsradio 710 AM (A non-flashy, just-the-facts-ma'am format) Call-in number: 421-5476 . News from 4 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. . Jim French, 9:30 a.m. to noon, some call-in, but mostly guest speakers . News from noon to 1 p.m. . Dave Ross, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., some call-in, but mostly guest speakers

. News from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. . Sportsline with Wayne Cody, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., some call-in . Face off with Tom Glasgow, 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., sports call-in . Night Talk with Bill Gallant, 10 p.m. to midnight, call-in .

. KING Talk Radio 1090 AM (A fluff-gruff format with something for everyone, except hard-core conservatives) . Call-in number: 441-5464 . News, 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. with Bob Hardwick and Tony Miner . Jim Althoff, 9 a.m. to noon, call-in and interviews . John Hinterberger, noon to 3 p.m., local call-in . Rick Miller, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., local call-in . Seattle Tonight, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with Chris Brecher and Alan Ray, newsmagazine with call-in . Larry King, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., nationally syndicated call-in and interviews . Dr. Joy Browne, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., nationally syndicated call-in for personal advice . Larry King encore, 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. .

. KVI Talk Radio 570 AM (Talk shows with bite, including the shamelessly self-promoting archangel of radio gab, Rush Limbaugh) . Call-in number: 421-5757 . News and interviews, 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., Dick Curtis and Brian Jennings . Rush Limbaugh, 9 a.m. to noon, nationally syndicated conservative call-in . Alan Colmes, noon to 1 p.m., nationally syndicated liberal call-in . Dr. Dean Edell, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., nationally syndicated call-in, medical advice . Barry Farber, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., nationally syndicated call-in . Mike Siegel, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., local call-in . Ron Seggi, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., nationally syndicated call-in . Mort Crowley, 9 p.m. to midnight, nationally syndicated call-in .

. KJR Sports Radio 950 AM: (Too much of a good thing; all sports all day!) . Call-in number: 286-9595 . Keith Shipman, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., local sports call-in . Mike Gastineau and Rick Du Pree, 10 a.m. to noon, local sports call-in . Nanci Donnellan, noon to 3 p.m., local sports call-in with The Fabulous Sports Babe ("Talk to me, sugar") . David Grosby, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., local sports call-in . Syndicated talk sports shows 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., featuring Bruce Williams' Talk Net program at 10 p.m. .

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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