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Tuesday, June 9, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Michelle Malkin

Kvi's Shrinking Clout: From Hot Talk To Ho-Hum

KVI-AM (570), Seattle's once mighty and virile conservative radio station, needs a high-frequency dose of Viagra.

In 1994, the local hot-talk fraternity ran First Lady Hillary Clinton out of town by drumming up massive grass-roots opposition to her government health-care takeover tour. The KVI-inspired protest made national news. These days, sadly, KVI conspires against far-less-formidable threats to the nation's fabric. Like telemarketers. The top method of revolt espoused on KVI? Pretend you're in the bathroom.

Not so long ago, KVI made public officials dyspeptic and gave local media the hives. But hot talk has yielded to ho-hum radio. Precious commute time is now spent whipping up such contentious and weighty "debates" as the pros and cons of women's tube tops. "I'm for the kind they wore in the '70s and in the '90s," slavered a KVI caller. "Haw, haw, haw," replied the afternoon host and his female producer (both ardent pro-tube toppers).

Coming soon: Toilet paper rolls - sheets over or under?

KVI's qualitative demise is mirrored in its sagging Arbitron ratings. Among listeners 25-54 (the most important demographic group for advertisers), KVI hosts in every time slot are down from a year ago. The latest statistics for February-April indicate that KVI's descent may be accelerating. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., KVI retained only an average 2.4 percent of the 25-54 audience. KIRO-AM (710) held more than twice as many listeners in that time slot, with an average 6.3 percent share.

Conventional talk-radio bashers will argue that the numbers mean we are tired of hard-hitting conservative commentary. Wrong. As several listeners told KVI program director Casey Keating on a special sound-off hour two weeks ago, the problem is too much "fluff" and not enough "guts."

An obvious explanation for KVI's downfall lies in the firing of popular host and native son John Carlson in February. But the station's potency was beginning to wane even before Carlson was sacked. The key turning point took place two years ago, when the station canned mid-day host Mike Siegel. Granted, Siegel had a tendency to shoot from the hip. But his style - anti-establishment, bare-knuckles, intensely local and must-hear - has proved irreplicable.

At its populist best, KVI's hosts roasted political blowhards in both parties; demanded accountability from local law enforcement agencies; exposed seamy abuses of individual liberty; and made headlines instead of recycling them. KVI was fearless and fearsome. Yes, going too far in that direction cost Siegel his job. But retreating too far in the other direction is costing KVI its clout. Siegel's muckraking editorial crusades against Exxon, sex offenders and civil-rights abusers in Wenatchee have been replaced with movie reviews, Civil War songs, and fawning interviews with Beltway insiders such as former Clinton mouthpiece Lanny Davis.

Entertaining? To some. Influential? Hardly. Safe? Absolutely.

KVI's last memorable expose - blowing the whistle on a patently racist diversity-training seminar sponsored by the city of Seattle - occurred more than six months ago when Carlson was still behind the mike. Now, when the weekday hosts aren't trafficking in insipid chitchat, they can be heard reading verbatim from unidentified history books, GOP press releases, newspapers and wire services. KVI's airwaves are saturated less with sizzling conservatism than with partisan cheerleading and borderline plagiarism.

KVI hosts might still be able to rally listeners around bread-and-butter conservative causes, as they did last year in helping to defeat a proposed gas-tax increase and several ballot initiatives. But do they continue to provide "news and views you can't get anywhere else?" On any given day, the hosts can be heard pontificating about hot topics such as the female jail guards who sued King County over verbal harassment by inmates; the 1/128th Chicasaw Indian who's suing the state for denying her affirmative-action status; or the school that disciplined kids by putting them in an isolation cage.

All were items the hosts learned about in Seattle's daily newspapers, the same papers they say are infested with untrustworthy reporters and biased editors - the same papers whose news and op-ed pages they are so heavily dependent upon to fill their air time. Blanket criticism of the liberal press used to be cutting-edge. But today, in the age of Drudge and Rupert Murdoch, such incessant media-bashing has all the incisiveness of a rusty blade.

Many of my colleagues would be content to spit on KVI's grave once and for all. Many more could care less about the station's tailspin into triviality. I do not share these feelings of glee or indifference. Smug Seattle needs less civility, not more. The local press needs more vigorous and diverse competition, not lazy swats. The listening audience needs to be engaged, not pandered to hour after hour after hour.

Unfortunately, the station's current weekday lineup is no longer up to the task. Keating admits that "We're not as healthy as we used to be" and continues to search for a new afternoon host.

From those of us who miss KVI's once-muscular presence on the political landscape, one wish: Get well soon.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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