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Dixon talk-radio divide may reflect the one in jury room

If the debate among the jury in the Sheila Dixon trial sounds anything like what's transpiring on Baltimore's talk-radio airwaves, it is no wonder that a verdict hasn't be reached. After weeks of passionate debate, talk-show hosts across the dial report only "deepening" divides and "50-50 splits" among listeners.

"As the jury has stayed out longer and longer, the divide that I have been hearing from my callers has only become much more firm," says Clarence Mitchell IV, who is known to his WBAL radio audience as C4. "When this is over … we are going to find it was a direct reflection of what we have been hearing on the radio in recent days - a passionate, intense, complicated and deeply divided conversation."

While some callers tend to be focused mostly on personality and deliver a highly subjective verdict on Dixon as either crook or victim of an overzealous prosecutor, others offer a more multidimensional analysis, with distinctions about the difference between ethical violations and legal convictions. Many of those lighting up callboards at local stations also make it clear that they want to use the trial as a springboard to discuss everything from the culture of City Hall to why their garbage is no longer being picked up twice a week - matters they link directly to Dixon. The one thing they all share: strong, strong feelings about the mayor of Baltimore and the place in which she now finds herself.

"We know from their notes to the judge that feelings are divided, and it can get a little heated at times - just like what we're hearing on talk radio," says WBAL news director Mark Miller. "And the one thing we know about this story and talk-radio listeners: There are lots of them, and they have strong feelings one way or the other."

It's the "one way or the other" that hasn't changed much, despite the volume of radio talk.

Two weeks ago, Larry Young, host of WOLB's morning drive-time talk show, said that calls were running about "60-40 against Dixon in terms of guilt or innocence. Friday after his show, he reported a "50-50 split" among members of his audience.

"It's just too close to call," said the former state senator, adding that the inability to find a majority consensus has only added to the suspense and interest among his listeners With the jury returning Monday morning after a four-day Thanksgiving recess, Young said he expects his phone lines to be filled with more talk than ever of the trial.

One aspect of talk radio that has caught my attention as a media critic during the trial is the way that some program hosts who have expressed their support for Dixon have nevertheless allowed for a diversity of voices and points of view to be heard on their shows without trying to steer the conversation. Young is a case in point.

While Young was constantly urging listeners last week to "let the process play out" before making a decision about Dixon based only on what the prosecution had to say, he gave full play to those who were unwilling to wait.

"I understand that you try to take up for her," one caller said to Young. "But she's got to pay."

"She's done nothing but good for this city, and in no way have they made a case against her that's worthy of conviction in any court of law in this land," said another.

As spirited as the debate among callers has been, the one between Young and "The Coach" Butch McAdams, a member of the show's morning team, has been just as intense. There is an engaging rapport between the two, with McAdams playing Dixon's on-air prosecuting attorney, while Young constantly admonishes patience, fairness, restraint and balance.

Doni Glover, founder of the Web site bmorenews.com and host of the "Empower Hour" on WOLB, says he is also trying to keep his Web site and radio show open to a variety of opinions and a larger discussion about the role of city government in our daily lives.

Glover, who said in an interview last week that his "heart goes out to Mayor Dixon," nevertheless refused to state a position when one of his guests asked on-air last week for his view of her case.

"I'm just here to be the host today," he said.

"What I'm hearing is from two crowds," Glover said. "There's the legal-professional crowd ... who believe she can walk - not just on the theft charges, but also on the perjury charges."

Glover says the other group is more grass-roots, populated by visitors to his Web site and listeners of his radio show on WOLB. Some of them question Dixon's lifestyle and leadership - particularly at a time of such economic pain and hardship in their lives.

"There are those who remember her reaction when asked about her raise. It wasn't so much what she said but how she said it: 'I'm not going to give back my raise,' " Glover said.

"OK, fine, but then there are allegations that you have some type of shopping issue," he continued. "And I think the reaction to that is very much about the current economic climate. 'If I'm asked to cut back as an individual, then shouldn't you as the leader be demonstrating by example?' And I think those people who feel that way are uncertain about Sheila Dixon right now."

Anthony McCarthy, a former director of communications for Dixon who hosts "The Anthony McCarthy Show" on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM radio station, says he's hearing divisions within divisions when it comes to opinions on the mayor.

"There's a clear divide in my callers in support for the mayor, or a belief that the mayor has done something wrong and should be punished," says McCarthy, explaining one level of disagreement among audience members.

And then there is a kind of hybrid of the two: "And it's very clear to me that some people can actually like the mayor and think she is doing a good job, but believe she did something inappropriate with those gift cards," McCarthy says. "Then there is the question that's constantly raised, caller after caller, about the relationship of developers ... to Sheila Dixon when she was City Council president and when she was mayor."

"The bottom line to all of this, of course, is guilty or not guilty," WBAL's Miller concludes. "But a veil has been lifted in the courtroom and media discussions on a new form of currency at City Hall with the gift cards. A new definition of what business as usual at City Hall means has been offered - and it's important that listeners and voters are getting a chance to talk about that."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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