The Pulse: In polarized broadcast world, time to turn dial

Bernie Herman , radio's gentleman.
Bernie Herman , radio's gentleman.
Posted: April 14, 2013

I signed off from the AM radio band Friday. Starting Monday, I will be heard exclusively on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. After 23 years on a terrestrial radio platform, this represents a major change. But while many see it as a futuristic move, given that 24 million Americans now have satellite radios, I refer to it as a return to my roots.

My inauspicious start two decades ago was as the guest of a guest host. Advertising guru Brian Tierney was himself filling in on WWDB-FM (96.5), "the Talk Station," when he invited me. I was hooked from the first minute the "on air" light went on, a combination of ego and the belief that I could develop a skill set. I still have the letter I then wrote to the station owner, Chuck Schwartz, seeking a gig. (He gave me a meeting after Larry Kane put in a good word.)

My first steady role was to offer political commentary during the 1991 Philadelphia mayoral race. (Good thing that not seeing Ed Rendell's winning the primary wasn't a career-ender!) I landed my own program on Sunday nights (where Barney the Dinosaur was briefly my lead-in), then moved to Saturday mornings, and then Saturday and Sunday mornings (the last a coveted slot because it meant preceding the legendary Sid Mark).

When Schwartz sold the station, a new owner from out of town began selling infomercials disguised as programming. That's when I moved to WPHT-AM, where Frank Rizzo once worked as a host. I did afternoon drive, then switched to mornings, and finally saw my program syndicated on 80 stations across the country. This month, Talkers magazine reported that I have the ninth-largest audience in the nation. Still, I am leaving, lured by the prospect of again working in a forum free of litmus tests.

There were some real characters at WWDB when I cut my teeth. Irv Homer was a former bartender whose politics were often libertarian before the rest of us had heard of Ron Paul. Frank Ford was an unabashed liberal, married to District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Susan Bray billed herself as the "Saucy Aussie" in recognition of her "down under" heritage. And Dominic Quinn was a conservative with a terrific command of the English language.

But the person I've thought about most recently is Bernie Herman, for whom I guest-hosted when he worked the 10 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift. Bernie's moniker was the "gentleman of broadcasting." Today that brand wouldn't get you a call back from a program director. But this was a different era. These hosts didn't share ideology; there were no talking points. What they had in common was personality and the ability to conduct a conversation.

And then came Rush Limbaugh.

Philadelphia was the last major market in the country to take Rush's show. That's because Schwartz believed that a local radio station should talk to and with its listeners via locally based hosts. As Schwartz opined to me recently, "Rush was also a predictable one-trick pony, which was not what WWDB was all about."

The first Gulf war provided the context for the rise of Limbaugh. The (then) Sacramento talker with extraordinary entertainment skills achieved success as he spread across the nation. Pre-Internet, this was an age when conservatives rightfully felt shut out of the mainstream media. Limbaugh filled that void, and soon stations wanted him and a stable of his many imitators. This programming attracted a very passionate base.

Then cable television news took flight, and when Fox News launched in 1996, it adopted the talk-radio playbook with great result. After floundering for several years, MSNBC found its voice when it gave Keith Olbermann a platform. Suddenly, CNN found itself both lacking an identity and relegated to third position in prime time.

Ironically, as technology has increased the number of outlets where people can get information, some Americans, faced with more choice than ever, nevertheless gravitate toward the like-minded, with dire consequences for the country at large. The nation suffers when too many members of Congress take their cues from the extreme dial positions, instead of the majority of Americans who clamor for civility and compromise. According to the National Journal, which has been tracking the ideological leanings of Congress for 30 years, we're at an all-time high for polarization. Every Senate Republican is more conservative than every Senate Democrat, and every Senate Democrat is more liberal than every Senate Republican. Like the airwaves, there is no room for nuance. Gone are the days when, on Ronald Reagan's watch, there were two dozen moderate Republicans in the Senate.

The rise in polarization among elected officials tracks nicely with the aforementioned rise in a polarized media. Coincidence? I think not, and Chuck Schwartz agrees with me.

"During my time, WWDB had no discernible point of view by design," Schwartz, who co-owned the station with his wife, Susan, told me last week. "We did not want to be predictable."

"We believed that you attracted and built your audience utilizing a variety of hosts who could not only conduct a free and open conversation on many topics, but who could also 'listen' to what was being said by their callers and audience," he said. "The best talk-show hosts are not just great talkers. They're excellent listeners as well."

Gridlock is what you get when Washington takes its cues from those with microphones and not the vast majority. Think about that as you change the dial.


Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.

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