All right, all the time
Thanks to the almighty liberal media in Sacramento, talk-show host Mark Williams has found a rabid following
By the time Mark Williams and his wife, Hollie Willette, arrived at the state Capitol late in the morning on Nov. 25, the protestors were spilling down the north steps of the Capitol, lining the sidewalks up and down L Street, and filling Capitol Park to capacity. According to some counts they were 5000 strong, these demonstrators, and they were mad as hell.
5000 mad-as-hell Republicans.
“My God,” Hollie gasped. “What have you done?”
All Williams did, he’ll tell you, was to amplify the unrest that Republicans were feeling about the contested presidential election results in Florida. Williams is the host of KFBK-1530’s “Night Talk Live,” a conservative talk radio program that airs Monday through Friday, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The unrest, which began the second Al Gore challenged the results of the election on Nov. 8, gave near-instantaneous birth to a Web site, LoudCitizen.com, which encouraged Republicans nationwide to rally against the “mass of Leftist Democrats … seeking to do whatever it took, legal or otherwise, to get their candidate in the White House.”
Williams discovered the site and began promoting the organization’s planned Nov. 25 rally in more than 100 cities across the country on his radio program. Al Gore was stealing the election, and if Sacramento listeners wanted to do something about it, this was their chance.
They could make a day of it—show their support for George W. Bush and get their Christmas shopping done at the same time.
Five-thousand mad-as-hell Republicans jamming downtown Sacramento.
OK, as far as protests go, this was no Kent State. No students throwing rocks, no National Guardsman shooting into the crowd. It was precisely what you’d expect a crowd of 5000 mad-as-hell Republicans to look like: a sea of men, women and children of all ages, almost all of them white. They were carrying signs they’d kept rolled up in their knapsacks during that morning’s annual Santa parade, bearing such clever slogans as, “Mothers against chad abuse” and “the creeping coup by the creep Al Gore.”
Not a whole lot of clever going on, and let’s face it: Five-thousand mad-as-hell Republican men, women and children can only be so intimidating. Still, the demonstration was one of the largest crowds to gather at the Capitol in 2000, and this is probably the first time most of you have read about it. Coverage of the rally was buried in the Sacramento Bee, and it received scant play on that evening’s local TV news broadcasts.
This lack of coverage played right into Mark Williams’ hands. For the moment, this journeyman talk show host who came to Sacramento in August via stints in Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida, New York and Philadelphia, was in the spotlight.
He had arrived, and he was raising hell.
“Is it news when 5000 people gather at the Capitol?!” Williams ranted on KFBK’s special live broadcast from the rally. He was facing an interesting philosophical problem. There seemed to be no press on hand, other than his colleague from KFBK. If you spark a demonstration and no one reports it, does that mean it didn’t happen? “Maybe there’s another Krispy Krème opening somewhere? My God!” Williams pondered.
Maybe there was.
Or maybe the so-called liberal media didn’t give a rat’s ass about 5000 mad-as-hell Republican men, women and children having a hootenanny on the Capitol lawn. Shame on the “liberal media.” As one young man in the crowd who sucked up to Williams’ microphone noted, without talk radio, “there wouldn’t be any honesty and accuracy in the media.”
The next week, Republicans rallied at the Capitol again. A small but angry contingent peeled off from the rally and stormed over to the offices of the Sacramento Bee, demanding to know why the newspaper’s editors hadn’t featured the Republican demonstrations more prominently. But Mark Williams was not among them. He says members of the contingent had become a little too organized by then; they lacked the spontaneity of the first and larger rally.
Perhaps it’s also because he realizes that without the “liberal media,” talk radio wouldn’t be where it is today.
Neither would he.
KFBK’s broadcast studio, in a building complex just across the road from Cal Expo, is a dimly lit node on the collective media consciousness. Computer monitors and microphones jut up from the large central console that dominates the space. Reel-to-reel tape players and banks of digital electronic components line the walls. A turned-down television constantly tuned to CNN sits above one end of the console. Recessed lighting in the low ceiling combined with the glow from the computer monitors give the studio a gloomy air. The only thing missing is cigarette smoke.
It’s Thursday, Jan. 11. The presidential election has long been decided in favor of George W. Bush, and tonight’s topic on Night Talk Live is the Four R’s: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic and respect. Williams, 45, a self-proclaimed ex-hippy who wears his dark, medium length hair in a feathered ’70s style, accompanied by a silver and turquoise thunderbird ornament dangling from his left ear, selected the topic after reading a story earlier in the day about a school in Louisiana that requires students to wear uniforms and stand whenever an adult enters the room.
The problem with kids today, Williams says, is that they just don’t show any respect. That’s because they’re not taught respect in the schools, the curriculum of which has been determined by “fuzzy-headed liberals” whose ideal is to “live in the South Sea Islands and walk around naked eating coconuts all day.” Forcing kids to wear uniforms and stand when an adult enters the room will teach them respect, he says, and we should do it, because kids don’t have any rights, anyway. To hell with the liberals. “Bongs are out of style,” he insists. It’s funny, hip patter delivered with a biting East Coast accent, and most of the people who call in agree with Williams. But a junior high school student, wise beyond her years, tells him, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” He treats her cordially while she’s on the air, but during the exchange with the next caller, he says he “feels sorry for that girl when she goes for a job interview.”
On the next Monday, Martin Luther King Day, Williams subs for KFBK afternoon talk show host Tom Sullivan. The topic is the African-American reparations movement, which seeks federal payment for the atrocities committed against African-Americans during slavery. Williams doesn’t favor the movement and says blacks should let go of the past, which is mild compared to what the people calling in have to say. “We should give them the money and they should return to Africa and not come back,” says one woman. “They ought to pay us for bringing them here,” says one man. That’s too much for Williams. “I believe the issue is that they didn’t want to take that ride, sir,” he replies.
That evening on Night Talk Live, the topic concerns a Milwaukee mother who is facing 16 years in prison for child abuse because she gave her 13-year-old son condoms. He had contracted an STD from a 15-year-old girl, and the mother thought condoms would be the best way to protect him. Williams is big on parental responsibility. The Milwaukee mother was wrong to give her son condoms, Williams says. She had an option. “You lock him up in his room and you don’t let him out. If we catch him in bed with some little slut, we lock him back up.” Still, he says the mother shouldn’t be charged with a crime, since high-school sex education programs are allowed to distribute condoms. Almost all of the callers have exactly the same opinion.
During the last hour of the show, Williams switches topics. What would Martin Luther King say if he were alive today? Williams had seen that day’s MLK rally in Sacramento, and noted that most of the faces in the parade were black. Back in the day, when he was participating in civil rights protests in Boston, it was much more racially mixed. What would MLK say if he were at the rally? “I think he would probably storm through that rally not unlike Jesus in the marketplace, saying this isn’t why I died. I died so bigots would be the minority, and today it’s the bigots who have taken over the civil rights movement.” The phone lines light up, but soon, call screener Jamie Stephenson, a Sacramento State communications major who’s only been on the job for a couple of months, comes running out of the booth that’s directly behind Williams. “Someone’s saying we should kill them all!” she cries. Williams ends the hour without taking any calls.
That morning on KFBK, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative king of talk radio, had asked much the same question. As usual, he answered it himself. In Limbaugh’s view, if Martin Luther King were alive today he would have been against affirmative action. In a sense, by ending the day with the same question, Williams was completing two circles, the circle that began that morning on talk radio, and a much larger circle that began fifteen years ago in this very same studio.
Imagine you’re the typical AM radio executive living in Sacramento during the mid-1980s. FM radio has been chewing away at your market share for years; no one wants to listen to music on AM radio because it sounds so lousy. Television has stolen the local news business from you. These are not the best days of your life.
Then in walks this guy, this very fat and peculiar guy, a talk show host who breaks all the radio rules. Number one, his spiel is further to the right than a John Bircher’s. Number two, he allows no guests on his program. Number three, he never checks facts. Number four, he rustles papers and rudely cuts callers off if they don’t agree with his extremely narrow point of view. This peculiar fat man’s name is, of course, Rush Limbaugh, and he brings your Sacramento AM radio station, KFBK, something it hasn’t had for quite some time.
Wonderful, beautiful, spectacular ratings.
The rest is talk radio history. Limbaugh went national in 1987; his New York-based show immediately took off, spawning a host of imitators and causing AM radio stations across the country to jump on the news/talk format bandwagon.
In 1983, only 53 radio stations had news/talk formats, compared with more than 1,000 today. The vast majority of these stations feature one or more conservative talk show hosts. In Sacramento today, there are no less than five AM stations carrying the talk/news format. KFBK, consistently the top rated local station among listeners 12 years old and over, carries four political talk show hosts; three, including Mark Williams, are profoundly conservative. KFBK’s sister station in the Clear Channel network, KSTE-650, carries the most successful of the Limbaugh clones, New York-based Mike Gallagher. Farthest to the right on the dial is KTKZ-1380, which alternately bills itself as “the right choice” and “command central for the war against liberalism.” It features 24-hour-a-day conservative chatter from such right-leaning luminaries as Oliver North, Michael Medved and Michael Reagan, along with a trio of local conservative ipse dixitists.
If you’re hankering for a liberal host and your radio has decent reception, you can pick up Bernie Ward on KGO-810 out of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Or you can get up before the crack of dawn and catch one hour of Jim Bohannon on KFBK.
Other than that, it’s all right, all of the time.
Why do conservative hosts pull so much better ratings in a country reduced to hair splitting in its last presidential election? What can possibly account for this remarkably lopsided state of affairs?
It’s simple: The “liberal media.”
Whether there is such a thing as the “liberal media” is beside the point. Many conservative Americans believe that there is, and until Rush Limbaugh came along, newspapers, television and radio had more or less ignored conservatives. Capitalism abhors a vacuum, and talk radio stepped in to fill the void.
It has turned out to be a rather lucrative void. Contrary to popular belief, the talk radio audience isn’t totally comprised of geriatric hillbillies. According to Talkers, an industry trade magazine, 70 percent of the audience falls within the 35 to 64 age bracket. Two-thirds are white, more than half make $50,000 a year or more, and one third have at least a college degree. Translation: people with disposable income. Rush Limbaugh has sold a lot of Snapple. Carrying his program alone guarantees a station a decent share of that market’s audience.
In Sacramento, 25 percent of the listening audience tunes into Rush Limbaugh every weekday. Some people, even a few liberals, listen because they find Limbaugh entertaining. But most listeners share the same conservative ideology, and with few exceptions, anyone who calls in and wants to get on the air has to agree with Rush. Limbaugh’s call screening policy has two effects. First, and most important, it makes the host appear omniscient. Second, it creates the illusion that the audience, and by inference, a majority of everyday Americans, is in lockstep with Limbaugh. Clearly, in Sacramento, where Al Gore received 49.3 percent of the vote, compared to 45.3 percent for George W. Bush, this is absurd. Limbaugh’s fans here and across the nation are a minority of hardcore conservatives. How Limbaugh wields his political influence is another story, but as far as his audience is concerned, he’s preaching to a small but vocal choir.
And that, Mark Williams says, is something he doesn’t care to do. He’s borrowed plenty from Limbaugh’s playbook. He’s got the conservative ideology and the playing fast and loose with facts down pat. But Williams is rarely outright rude to callers who disagree with him, and if someone catches him making a mistake, he’ll own up to it—something Limbaugh is loathe to do. Moreover, Williams openly appeals for liberals, as well as anyone else who might know something about a particular show’s topic—say a doctor, lawyer or teacher—to call and put their two cents in.
KFBK has impressive reach and influence, he says, more than the 50,000-watt monster he worked at in Albany. Stephenson, his call screener, concurs that when Williams puts out the word for a doctor or a lawyer, one usually calls within ten minutes. It’s the liberals who don’t call. Sometimes Williams will go out of his way just to get one on the show.
Which is exactly what he does on Tuesday, Jan. 16. The state Assembly is working late, trying to hurry through a bill to keep California’s electrical utilities from going bankrupt. KFBK has a reporter at the scene, and in the studio Williams goes over his notes, checks Web sites and confers with Night Talk Live producer Brandi Brady and Stephenson before the start of the show. At precisely 7:07 p.m., just after the news break, Brandi kicks the bumper music in and a man screams “It’s Mark Williams from KFBK!” It’s an excerpt from the mad-as-hell Republican rally.
Night Talk Live is on the air. Tonight’s first caller is Harvey Rosenfeld, head of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. You can’t get much further left than that in California, but Williams contacted Rosenfeld, an expert on the state’s utility crisis, in advance to get him on the show.
“Harvey, what’s up?” Williams asks.
“It’s really bad news,” Rosenfeld says. “A bill’s been introduced [on the Assembly floor] that’s a blank check for the utility companies. No one opposed it. It’s going to pass in four or five minutes, then it will go over to the Senate.”
“What’s in it? What’s it lacking?”
“There should have been provisions to protect the taxpayers. Essentially, the state is going into the power supply business. This is worse than what happened in 1996.”
“What can we do, Harvey?”
Harvey says we can call Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, and tell him to stop the bailout before it’s too late.
“Oh my goodness gracious, we have a disaster on our hands!” Williams chortles. “We’d love to get something started for you!”
So he starts pumping out the Speaker’s phone number into the cold January night. “If this doesn’t work by 8 o’clock, we’ll switch to something else,” he says during the break. He zaps through a few of his favorite Web sites: the Drudge Report, the New York Post. The phone lines are lighting up. It’s showtime.
“The midnight raid of California taxpayers and ratepayers is taking place right now!” Williams asserts. “Thieves in the night!!”
It’s then that it hits you who this guy really is. He’s the town crier. You might not agree with him and he might be wrong more than half the time. But he’s pretty good at what he does and he’ll admit when he’s wrong.
Susan calls in to the show. “Why should PG&E and Edison break even?” she asks.
Thieves in the night!
“I’m totally against it!” says caller Tom, adding that he’s already put his call in to the Speaker. A second computer console to Williams’ right displays the names of the incoming callers and a brief sentence describing what they want to talk about. Another Tom wants to know why PG&E executives haven’t cut their salaries. Maria wants to know why California has to bail the utilities out.
Thieves in the night!
Just before 8 o’clock, Williams really hits paydirt. Paul Hefner, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, calls in.
This station has reach.
“Let’s make this perfectly clear,” Hefner says. “This bill is not a bailout for utilities. It’s a lifeboat for consumers.”
“So we’re putting the state in the electric business?”
“We would only stabilize the current situation.”
It’s a terse exchange that’s ended abruptly by the newsbreak at the top of the hour.
Williams calls his wife Hollie. He calls her two or three times every night, usually at the newsbreak, to see how he’s doing out there. You’d call her, too. She’s a cute little redhead and she plays a mean bass guitar. Someday she’ll have a hit country western band. This is Williams’ 401K plan. “Hi baby. How’s it going? How’d I sound?”
She thinks he was a little rough on Hefner. But Williams knows that the fact the spokesman called means listeners are calling the Speaker. A potentially boring topic has suddenly become a civics lesson by rousing the rabble.
If you didn’t catch the whole show, only a tiny bit of it, you’d be hard pressed to figure out whether Williams was a liberal or a conservative. Unless you caught the part where he compared the state of California to Castro’s Cuba. Or the part where he called the Assembly Bill “as phony as a dollar bill with Hillary Clinton on it.” Or the part toward the end, when he parroted the Republican line that the problem with the 1996 utility deregulation was that it really wasn’t deregulation.
The show goes on. Williams contacts Rosenfeld again, who agrees to come back on the show and refute Hefner’s statement.
“Harvey, tell us. Is it a little innocuous bill—or is it a bailout?”
“It’s a bailout,” Rosenfeld says. “Their [the utilities] greed is insatiable. In 20 years, I’ve never seen such a juggernaut.”
Thieves in the night!
Caller Casey agrees. “Thieves work best at night. If a foreign country was doing this, we’d nuke them back to the Stone Age.”
And so it goes, right up to 9:30, when an urgent phone call comes in from a KFBK reporter who has been covering the special Legislative station. An 18-wheeler has plowed into the Capitol and it is in flames. They put the reporter on the air.
“We heard a voice telling us to get out of the building. We heard a gigantic boom! We continue to have … the flames!”
A couple of thoughts go through Mark Williams’ head. Holy shit is the first one. Then: Is the reporter safe? Is the station far enough from the Capitol to weather the blast from the truck bomb? But of course it’s not a truck bomb. There is no explosion. The reporter is still raving about the flames. “If he says, ‘the humanity, the humanity,’ I’m going to puke,” Williams jokes, in reference to the famous radio report of the Hindenburg’s flaming crash in 1937. The thought that the truck driver might have become angered while listening to his show, causing him to crash in to the Capitol never occurs to Williams. But it does occur to a couple of listeners, who call in to tell him just that off the air.
This station has reach.
Three nights later, the station reaches out again, and the topic is a familiar one: President Bill Clinton. The president topped Talkers’ annual list of the 25 most talked about people for nine successive years, from 1991 to 1999. Bashing Clinton proved to be good business, generating billions of dollars in advertising revenue for the talk radio industry. But most radio analysts agree that conservative hosts have been beating a dead horse since at least 1996, when talk radio’s ratings peaked. Nevertheless, they pursued Clinton to the very end of his presidency, culminating in an orgiastic frenzy of violent ejaculations that convulsed and sputtered through his final hours and beyond. No one missed out on the act, Mark Williams included.
In the dim light of the KFBK studio, Brandi Brady handles the production chores, and Tim Parrish, one of the station’s utility players, subs in the call screening booth as Williams gleefully hammers Clinton, perhaps for the last time.
“This is it!” he exclaims coming out of the 9 o’clock news break. “It’s your last chance to get your licks in on Bill Clinton … oh, I can’t say that.”
He pauses, lets the joke sink in.
“OK. This is it! It’s your last chance to get your blows in … oh, I can’t say that either.”
He pauses again.
“This is the day, the day! Get your last shots in on Bubba.”
He takes a call about Hillary.
“Everybody’s happy, the wicked witch is gone,” says the caller. “The wicked witch is in the Senate,” Williams reminds him. “Let me try this out on you for size. Hillary for president in 2004, and Bill for vice president.”
Before the caller can answer, he jumps to another subject.
“Let me ask you. Do you think she’ll dump the cad?”
Cut to commercial.
The caller never gets to answer.
From gays in the military, to Whitewater, to Lewinsky, Clinton provided a nonstop scandalous feast for the ravenous radio rhetoricians of the right. You might think, during the last week of his administration, they would have let up a bit. Giving a little credit where credit is due, show at least some respect for the office. For the most part, such was not the case.
“Just go away Mr. President, just go away,” growled Mike Gallagher, quoting from a long, humorless letter sent in by a listener. Clinton’s plea bargain with the special prosecutor was just another attempt to grab the spotlight, according to Gallagher. “He’s that sick!” he hissed.
“He’s a loose cannon motivated by one thing: self-promotion,” Limbaugh said without a trace of irony. “Reagan is a giant, and Clinton is a small man.”
Even the normally avuncular Tom Sullivan turned mean. An avowed conservative who has done his fair share of Clinton bashing, he generally confines his afternoon show on KFBK to investment tips and light news items, which are delivered in a sanguine manner. Not this time. “They’re all a bunch of scum,” he spewed. “No one with any integrity will hang around them.”
Talk radio hosts have claimed for years that liberals lack a sense of humor, but their commentary during Clinton’s final days had the overall tone of a pet owner severely beating his dog for peeing on the carpet. Williams was one of the few exceptions, one of a small number of hosts who could still have fun with a topic that’s been done to death.
“If Jack Kennedy would have lived, this is what we would have seen,” he teases the audience. “Of course, we would have seen better looking babes. Clinton scores chicks like he’s driving a 1970 Vega with body rot.” He digs the Kennedy riff. “You take away the bullet, you take away the Russians, what have you got? Clinton! Of course, you don’t get the same kind of chicks in Cape Cod as you do in trailer parks in Arkansas.”
Williams was the only host in Sacramento who publicly acknowledged talk radio’s debt to Clinton, opening his show with a sarcastic remark that had more than a little truth in it.
“It’s the last night for Bill Clinton, let’s rip! God bless him, I’m gonna miss him! He was wonderful for talk radio and newspaper columnists, he pumped tens of millions of dollars into our economy!”
It’s arguable that no industry benefited more during Clinton’s reign than talk radio. It kind of makes you wonder. What are these guys going to do without him?
Casting about for new villains, the best Rush could do was old familiar bogeys Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank. Perhaps realizing that neither Frank nor Kennedy has done anything newsworthy for years, he later theorized that, “Bill Clinton is not going away”— he’s going to establish a “shadow government” and control the country through the Democratic Leadership Council.
Such conspiracy theories might play well on Art Bell’s overnight paranormal radio show (for all you UFO buffs, Bell returned to the air this month), but it’s not the kind of stuff great ratings are made of. Great ratings require raw, quivering meat. Who’s gonna provide it, now that Bubba’s gone? Hillary seems like the obvious choice. “Many talk show hosts tell Talkers magazine that regardless of their political persuasion, they are (quietly) thrilled that Hillary won the New York senate seat,” the magazine reports. “After all, what would talk radio do if it didn’t have at least one Clinton to kick around?” But so far the freshman senator from New York has kept a low profile, and no host has singled her out. Yet.
What are they going to do?
Anything for ratings.
That’s why, in addition to getting his last licks in on the Clintons, Williams has been poking fun at George W. Bush all night. They’ve all had scandals, every last one of them, he’d said at the top of the show. JFK. Johnson. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. Why should George W. Bush’s administration be any different?
“What will be the first scandal of the W years?” he asked. “Why wait? Let’s get a head start. One of the great scandals, if not scandal, revelation, will be that white people can’t dance.”
Most of the callers wanted to talk about Clinton.
“Well, president weasel slides out again,” said Dave, who adds that Dubya brings a level of integrity that’s been sadly missing in the White House.
“Yeah,” Williams responded. “But who will be president? George W. or his father? Will it be Dick Cheney or Colin Powell?”
Some callers questioned the taste of this new dish Williams served up.
“George W. Bush has all the indications of being a real fine president,” said one caller. “Let’s give him a break.”
“I think the guy is clean,” Williams answered. “I just hope Dick Cheney keeps poppin’ that nitro.”
Pretty tame compared to the abuse the Clintons have taken over the years, but at least it was a start. Toward the end of the show, a call comes in from Bruce, a rather demented-sounding caller who compares George W. Bush to the recovering alcoholic Dudley Moore played in Arthur. It’s kind of funny, considering Dubya’s drinking history, and Williams laughs, but it quickly becomes clear that Bruce is one of those guys who thinks the Oklahoma City bombing was a legitimate act of war.
“The bottom line is that in this country … there has to be bloodshed!” Bruce raves. Williams motions to Brady to cue up a marching band version of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” He lets Bruce—who can’t hear that he’s being drowned out by the song because his radio at home is turned off—ramble on.
“The revolution has to be sparked by the means of talk show hosts such as yourself!” Bruce insists before the break cuts him off.
Williams is laughing, and during the break he thanks Tim for letting the call through.
“It’s called screening!” Brandi fumes at Tim.
It’s one of those moments that reminds Williams why he loves doing talk radio. There’s no heavy lifting, you don’t have to kill your own food and you can be an adult while avoiding the dreaded G-word: growing up. For twenty years, he’s been sparring on the air with folks from all political persuasions, and he’s at the top of his game. But he’s tired of moving around from city to city, station to station. He and Hollie like Sacramento, and they’re looking for a home.
They may have found one.
The latest Arbitron ratings are in, and thanks to a healthy ratings spike attributed to the election controversy, KFBK is back on top, after being displaced for three months by a country music station. Mark Williams is No. 1 in his time slot among 35- to 64-year-olds. He’s just signed a two-year contract to stay with the station.
He was on the air the other night, wondering why California students aren’t required by law to start their day with the pledge of allegiance. Most of the callers wondered why, too. A couple of teachers called to tell him their students do start their day with the pledge of allegiance.
This station has reach.
Then an older-sounding guy called and gave Mark hell, told him that such blind servitude to country and flag is ludicrous, it’s the same thing the Nazis did.
“You’re just an angry old fart,” Mark told him.
“Well … you’re a … you’re a … you’re a TURD!”
America the beautiful, live on talk radio.