A TIMES MIRROR poll released last week showed that radio talk show callers tend to be conservative, male, loud and angry. Listening to these shows is not for the faint of heart -- nor for the faint of stomach, either.
Talk show hosts, by their own description, fall into two main categories, conservative and liberal. Though the poll found an even split nationally, conservatives dominate the Baltimore airwaves, not only in number, but more tellingly, in the messianic fervor with which they pursue their listeners.
They tend to frame every issue as a liberal vs. conservative matter, and they uniformly denounce the news media as liberally biased. There are several liberal hosts, but none rant with anything approaching the evangelical passion exhibited by their conservative colleagues.
In Baltimore, the four best-known are Rush Limbaugh, Tom Marr, Les Kinsolving and Ron Smith. Mr. Smith is heard on WBAL, the others on WCBM. Mr. Limbaugh, of course, is nationally syndicated; the others are local.
On the typical talk show you will hear every device known to the art of debating: ad hominem, straw man, slippery slope, false dilemma, lying with statistics, false analogy, begging the question, the small disclaimer after outrageous assertion -- and so on.
You will hear a great deal of bigotry ranging from anti-black to anti-feminist to anti-gay to anti-poor to anti-any- minority. Along with the bigotry you will hear indignant denials of bigotry. Add to that a raging, mindless prejudice against all things liberal, Democratic, Clintonian -- and you have your typical conservative radio talk show.
Callers tend to call hosts with whom they agree, and they like to find new ways of restating what they have heard the host say before.
Then they stroke each other for a while, chortle over their own brilliance and ask, plaintively, "Why, oh why, can no liberals understand. . . ?"
Talk shows are not lessons in humility. With Messrs. Limbaugh, Kinsolving, Marr and Smith there is no uncertainty. The leader (because of his national audience), Mr. Limbaugh, has circled the wagons in a campaign he calls "America Held Hostage," as he rallies the faithful from the turrets of his "Excellence in Broadcasting" network.
In his modest, self-effacing manner, he tells us his "talent is on loan from God." He tells America "The Way Things Ought to Be" and has written a best-seller by that title.
Along with a stream of self-congratulation, Mr. Limbaugh's program is one endless diatribe against the new administration. This host is opposed to anything that Mr. Clinton has done or ever will do.
Ron Smith is the leading light on WBAL and is, by a good margin, the most respectable of the four. Many of his programs consist of interviews with writers on education, economics, sports and politics.
While he is noticeably more intellectual than his colleagues, he isn't lacking in zeal and certitude. His reasoning, however, often leaves huge gaps which only the true believer can span. His favorite quotation for a while was, "An armed society is a polite society." He likes to call himself "the voice of reason."
Somewhere between Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Smith fall Tom Marr (humorless) and Les Kinsolving (frequently hilarious). They, too, engage in maniacal bashing of liberals, Democrats and the president. All occasionally throw in small disclaimers -- usually in the form of "Let's be fair now . . ." -- to prove that they are objective. It is not very convincing.
These artists can, and frequently do, turn the most innocuous statements into ominous, conspiratorial pronouncements. Take a simple declaration: "I think I'll run down to the store for a couple of minutes." If it came from the mouth of a liberal, Mr. Limbaugh would handle it in one or more of the following ways:
* What does he mean? He thinks he'll go . . . He can't make up his mind about the simplest things.
* Ten minutes ago he said he was going to the grocery store. Now it has become just "the store." I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, you can't trust these liberals for 10 minutes!
* First it's a grocery store, next it's a store. Tomorrow it'll be the mall or the stadium or . . . I hate to think what might be next. And remember, folks, once these things get started, they never go back!
* That is the same store that some of the sodomy lobby and the so-called homeless frequent!
* Sounds like this guy's wife is one of those feminazis. He runs when she gives an order. You people [a favorite Limbaugh term] don't realize what a crazy mixed-up world we live in.
* Now let's be fair; we only have a second-hand report on this alleged incident, but ladies and gentlemen, if it is true, it just points out what a sad state we are now in. What has happened to morals in America?
Strangely, all of these hosts bitterly protest the lack of fairness in the news media (except the conservative mouthpiece Washington Times). They have their designated whipping boys -- The Sun and Washington Post, to name two. But if there ever was a model for lack of objectivity, it would have to be the radio talk show. I know of no other place, except court trials or formal debates, where a protagonist takes all the evidence on one side of a question and totally ignores all the evidence on the other side. Compared to talk shows, the news media are models of fairness and objectivity. Sadly, this is what passes for intelligent discussion on radio in this country.
The hosts -- and presumably their employers -- have no notion of balance. The late Isaac Asimov would have included them in his "Army of the Night," the self-anointed Pied Pipers of the Right.
Robert E. Wolfe writes from Hampstead.