Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

Between the advertisements for debt-consolidation services, baldness remedies, miracle weightloss products, and all-natural memory enhancers, Hewitt has managed to interview some of Minnesota's most notable Republicans: U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman, gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan, and John Kline, onetime Congressional candidate and now vice president of a local conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment.

Now Hewitt is making his way to a podium at the nearby BayView Event Center. The ballroom is festooned with the red, white, and blue logo of the Patriot, WWTC-AM (1280) an Eagan-based radio station that broadcasts Hewitt's drive-time show six days a week and is sponsoring the evening gathering.

This is the station's first big promotional event since it adopted its all-talk format, and there is a giddiness in the air. About 250 fans shelled out $12.80 for the opportunity to mix with their fellow Patriot devotees and a chance to meet Hewitt. After three hours of cocktails and appetizers, they are primed when the radio host, who is still dressed in insulated ice-fishing bibs, takes the stage.

Hewitt doesn't disappoint. Talk-radio stations like the Patriot, the ebullient host tells the crowd, don't merely aim to entertain. They are looking "to change the political and social climate" of the country, to restore "commonsense conservatism" to its rightful place in the national ideology. "And this is the type of radio that, hopefully, can turn around the type of places that elect Paul Wellstones," Hewitt proclaims. There is a robust round of applause, then Hewitt steps into the throng to pose for pictures and press the flesh.

Since inaugurating its new format with a 24-hour marathon of John Philip Sousa marches and other patriotic songs last March, WWTC has established itself as, if nothing else, the most bombastic radio station in the market. Literally. The station's promos regularly feature the sounds of explosions: "Political correctness? [Kaboom!] Not on our watch!" goes one; another likens the Patriot's impact to that of a cruise missile. And then there are the not-so-subtle pitches to the listeners' ideology. "Finally, news talk with your perspective."

With the exception of a locally produced Saturday-night oldies show, all the programming aired on the Patriot consists of syndicated call-in shows. Patriot general manager John Hunt says the station aims to provide listeners with national perspective, unlike its chief rival in the talk market, KSTP-AM (1500), which relies on homegrown hosts. "They're kind of like the Star Tribune, and we're kind of like USA Today," Hunt offers.

The Patriot's hosts regularly veer into strange territory--even by talk-radio standards. On one recent show, morning host Mike Gallagher intimated that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, presumed to have been kidnapped after attempting to meet with a radical cleric in Pakistan on January 23, had not been abducted. In one of the now infamous photographs of the captive Pearl, Gallagher posited, it "looks like he's got a big wide smile, like he's laughing." Gallagher supplied no reason why Pearl would participate in such a deception.

A few days later, late-night host Roger Fredinburg blamed illegal immigration on the availability of legal abortion in the United States. Abortion, Fredinburg explained, created a domestic labor shortage. Afternoon host Michael Medved, a former film critic and self-avowed "cultural crusader," devoted much of a recent broadcast to the sweeping contention that "commonsense conservatives are just nicer people than idealistic liberals." A subsequent Medved show was dedicated to exposing that most "despicable" and "immoral" threat to American life: body piercing.

But without question, the edgiest and most provocative character in the Patriot lineup is the San Francisco-based Michael Savage. Now syndicated in more than 300 markets, his show, The Savage Nation, is played on the Patriot twice on weekdays, once on Saturdays. It is a peculiar blend: populist rage, spat out in a New York accent, with death-metal bumper music and over the top rhetoric.

In recent weeks, Savage has denounced everyone from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan ("a limousine leech") to Walter Cronkite ("a seditious hack"). Al Gore is "a socialist One World-er." New York Congressman Gary Ackerman is a "Stalinist." And in an often repeated Minnesota-specific promo for his show, Savage describes Paul Wellstone, in the space of 15 seconds, as "a nitwit," "a moron," and "a schmuck."

But Savage's chief concern is immigration. "You are going to wake up in a country that has been taken over by strangers. We have been invaded," he warned listeners last week. Most immigrants, Savage added, are coming to the U.S. from the Third World--not a good thing since "most of the people in the Third World are lazy."

Despite (or perhaps because of) the predictable accusations of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, The Savage Nation has proven remarkably successful. The show was recently declared the fastest-growing talk show in the country by the industry publication Talkers Magazine. And in San Francisco, Savage dethroned talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh as the market's top-rated host in the last ratings period.

"Sooner or later, Tiger Woods had to come along and give Jack Nicklaus a run for his money," says the Patriot's Hunt. "Savage gets people worked up. And you can easily listen to him and think this guy is full of anger and hates people. A lot of people don't listen long enough to see beyond the shtick. But if you look beyond the shtick, you can see that there is some really good comment. That's what our audience wants: some meat on the bone."

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