Dueling egos of the AM dial

Talk radio played a key role in igniting the recall drive. But talk-show hosts stake competing claims about who was there first.

KTKZ talk-show host Eric Hogue, left, broadcasts live in front of the secretary of state’s office, with Ted Costa, the anti-tax activist who started the effort to recall the governor.

KTKZ talk-show host Eric Hogue, left, broadcasts live in front of the secretary of state’s office, with Ted Costa, the anti-tax activist who started the effort to recall the governor.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

Just before dawn, downtown was empty and quiet—except for a couple guys sitting at a table under a tent lit by construction floodlights, as speakers broadcast their voices into the darkness. Radio talk-show host Eric Hogue, with his first guest, was about to start his broadcast from the sidewalk across the street from the secretary of state’s office, a couple blocks from the glowing Capitol dome. In front of the tent, an older couple unfolded lawn chairs and sat down. Then, a few other people showed up to catch the 5 a.m. start of the show. As the sky lightened, more listeners showed up—a dozen, two dozen, three dozen—including a guy from Granite Bay who’d skipped work to be there. They carried noisemakers and handmade signs that read “Dump Davis” and “Toast.”

The remote broadcast doubled as a rally and coincided with other pro-recall events scheduled there that day. The point was to call on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to certify the signatures collected by recall proponents. (At the end of the day, Shelley announced that he would.) Hogue had newspapers and articles spread out in front of him, along with the latest Newsweek cover story: “California in Crisis: Will Gov. Davis be Recalled?” A CNN crew showed up. When Hogue had Republican Senators Rico Oller and Tom McClintock on the air with him, Los Angeles talk-show host Mark Larson picked up the feed live and aired it on his show on KRLA 870 AM and other stations in San Diego and the Inland Empire.

Hogue could take pride in the bizarre political free-for-all unfolding around him: He helped start it. The true believers gathered around him were a key part of the recall, which almost certainly wouldn’t have exploded the way it did without the enthusiastic promotion it received on the conservative-dominated talk-radio airwaves.

“I don’t think we’d be here today if it wasn’t for talk radio,” said Dave Gilliard, the political consultant who runs Congressman Darrell Issa’s Rescue California group.

Cards propped up on the table in front of Hogue touted his, and his station’s, unique claim: “Where the Davis recall was born! 1380 AM KTKZ.”

In a way, the recall did begin on KTKZ—though where it was “born” is another question.

Like the official proponents of the recall, who formed three separate committees and climbed all over one another at times in their zeal to take out the hapless governor, talk-radio personalities have made competing claims about who really got the ball rolling.

Melanie Morgan, a talker on San Francisco’s 560 AM KSFO, said she brought up the recall issue back in December. And Mark Williams, of Sacramento’s AM giant 1530 KFBK, also has claimed that his show got into the recall act before anyone else.

KTKZ now calls itself “your home of the Davis recall” in promo spots. And at the rally, a station employee waded through the crowd handing out T-shirts printed with the words “It started with KTKZ 1380 AM.”

Hogue, a former pastor and longtime talk-show host who transferred here from a Cleveland radio station three years ago, said KFBK is more concerned about revenue than representing the people. “KFBK is the No. 1 station. Where are they? Not here,” he said.

“No matter what KFBK says,” KTKZ account manager Phil Baltzley added, “Eric is the voice of the recall.”

Throughout the course of his four-hour remote broadcast, Hogue had many of the main recall players on the radio by phone and in person, but it was anti-tax crusader Ted Costa who drew the warmest response. Die-hards continually approached to shake his hand, thank him or ask for his autograph. Costa, who is the chief executive officer of the tax-watchdog group People’s Advocate Inc., teamed up with outgoing California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel to form the Davis Recall Committee.

Costa is the official proponent of the recall—a position he grabbed by being first to file papers. He’d been kicking around the idea of a recall since early December, and he decided to get started in early February.

Hogue said Costa called the studio February 4 during the 6 a.m. news break to say he needed signatures for the notice of intent to recall. Costa, on the line from his small office behind a doughnut shop on Arden Way, went on the air after the news. “He said, ‘Hey, we are set to begin the recall today,’” Hogue said. “He said, ‘I’m at the office, I just made a pot of coffee, and we need 65 to 100 people, valid registered voters, to come down and sign.’”

Hogue didn’t expect the outpouring of support. “By 8:35, we had a total of 325 people down there.”

Other Republicans had been thinking about a recall, too, and the maneuver stepped on their toes. Sal Russo, the political consultant to Bill Simon’s disastrous campaign, had been talking about a recall with former Republican Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian.

“I didn’t know Russo was doing it until after we filed,” Costa said.

Last week, some of those who signed the original document were out at the rally, wearing little badges that identified them as original signers, as if they’d signed the Declaration of Independence. “I’m No. 99,” boasted Cathy Vilhauer of West Sacramento. “I ran down there on February 4 with my 5-year-old to sign the petition and get it going.”

The rest of the story, as AM radio staple Paul Harvey might say, unfolded on other stations around California, including KFBK, the Clear Channel-owned station where conservative icon Rush Limbaugh got started. Mark Williams, that station’s big recall backer, hosts a show called The War Room from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights. At night, the station’s powerful signal extends the reach of his voice up and down the West Coast—a far cry from KTKZ’s small, 5,000-watt signal and meager listenership.

Williams said the recall dates back to last November, when it became obvious that Simon would lose. In January, Williams said, it was on his show that Costa broke the news. “Ted, who listens on his way home at night, came on the air and announced that he was starting a recall.”

After that, he said, “every radio talk-show host in the state at every little podunk station” jumped on board, too.

“He staged a little promotional signing here to get his bite of the apple,” Williams said, noting that talk-radio hosts often get big heads. “This is very much an ego business. You’re going to see everybody pounding their chest about how they started it. Every guy who’s talked about this on the radio from Oregon to Mexico is going to be saying, ‘I’m the first one; I did this.’ So, I suspect there’s a little bit of that going on with Eric, too.”

Williams, however, also wants his due. In May, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and News 10 hosted a town-hall meeting on the budget crisis that was broadcast live, and Davis was one of the panelists onstage. When Williams rose in the audience to speak and get in a few jabs, he took credit for the recall, saying it was born on his show.

Hogue spent much of his next two shows playing the Williams sound bite over and over, fuming about Williams’ audacity (while speculating whether he meant “born” as in “given birth to” or “borne” as in carried along by) and encouraging readers to call his competitor and set him straight.

KSFO’s Morgan stakes her own claim.

“The idea for the recall was mine. It came about during a conversation with Shawn Steel,” she said, remembering a December 30 broadcast. “I just blurted out on the air: ‘Well, why don’t we recall him?’” Steel said he’d report back and started talking to Costa.

After Kaloogian heard about what they’d been saying, Morgan said, he approached Russo. Kaloogian and Russo later formed the Recall Gray Davis Committee, not to be confused with the Davis Recall Committee formed by Costa and Steel. Issa’s Rescue California was the third to form.

“I’m not trying to claim credit for any movement,” Morgan said. “Everybody was thinking about it. I just said it out loud.”

Determined to work closely with the players, Morgan started talking to Russo every day for the inside scoop on what was happening behind the scenes of the recall effort. She also began bringing Kaloogian on her show every Monday.

Talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, who initially dismissed the effort on his show at San Diego’s top-rated KOGO 600 AM, acknowledges that he was a little late to the recall game, talking it up after other hosts like Hogue and Morgan already had.

But when he did, it took on a life of its own, and he got an earful of pent-up frustration from some of the 250,000 listeners who catch his show. “It broke like a storm on talk radio,” he said.

As for the actual beginning, Hogue said he’s had people on his show talking about the recall going back to the energy-crisis days. But the recall was actually born on that February 4 show.

“There’s a lot of talk-show hosts who say, ‘We’ve been talking recall.’ Well, yeah, everyone’s been talking recall, but where did it happen? If you pick up the petition and look at the names on that petition, those names, if you called them up and asked them, ‘How’d you know to do this?’ they’d say 1380 KTKZ. So, that’s the claim to fame.”

After the signature-gathering phase began, the response was enormous. Hedgecock exhorted listeners to get on the Web, download petitions and gather signatures. Morgan invited listeners to come meet her at signature-gathering events. And Hogue promoted drive-by signings on his show in April, May and June.

Russo, the chief strategist to Kaloogian’s committee, said he worked with the hosts because he wanted to capitalize on the power of talk radio and combine it with the power of the Internet.

“They’re two new tools in the political arsenal,” he said. “Then, we had a network of 16 talk shows around the state that have picked up on this recall and made it a big part of what they talk about.” Now, Russo keeps about 30 radio-show hosts informed about what’s going on.

Like Russo and many other recall proponents, Williams credits many different factors for the ultimate success of the effort to get the recall on the ballot, but ultimately, he added, nobody can take credit away from the governor himself.

“The coup de grâce was when he tripled the car tax. How stupid could that be? You’re in the state that invented the car culture, and you’re clinging to political life, and you triple people’s car tax? That’s about the most boneheaded maneuver anybody could have done. It’s like backing up the Titanic and hitting the iceberg again.”