When gab came to radio

AMONG the first to be lobbied by White House spin doctors last week after President Clinton released his health-care reform plan were radio talk show hosts. Hillary Rodham Clinton and assorted administration bigwigs briefed the radio gabmeisters and invited them to broadcast live from the White House lawn. (A few hosts saw the schmoozing for what it was and refused to attend.) It was a strong indication of how far "talk radio" has come as a force to be reckoned with.

And it's a relatively new force, made possible by technology that allows hosts to speak live, even from points remote from their stations, with one, two or even more callers, while listeners hear all of the conversation. Two Baltimore stations (WBAL and WCBM) devote most of their schedules to talk radio, while most others gab with listeners at least part of the broadcast day.


The tradition in Baltimore goes back at least to 1948, when the first talk shows were broadcast from the Copa, a nightclub in the 100 block of West Baltimore Street. Baltimore disc jockey Jack Wells was the host. The show went out over WITH from 1 to 4 a.m. six nights a week. Seated at a table at the center of the club, Mr. Wells had a microphone in front of him and a telephone to his left.

"I'd say, 'I'm at the Copa. Where are you? Please call me,' " Mr. Wells recalls.


It was, of course, one-way radio. "Listeners called me on the phone while I was in front of a live mike. I could hear the caller, but the listening audience could not. So it was up to me to make known to the listeners what the caller was saying."

The show was famous for getting calls from the Baltimore that lived in the night: cab drivers, politicians, jockeys, number-runners, race track touts, nightclub bouncers, cops on lonely patrol and strippers from The Block.

"In most cases I would more or less repeat over the air what the caller said to me on the phone. But in some cases I couldn't let on what was being said, some of the most shocking things. So I would often respond with something like, 'That's lovely. I'm so glad your aunt is getting better. Please call again and give her my best.' "

The show was modeled after a similar one at the Copacabana in New York. "We stole the idea," Mr. Wells says. "In those days it was thought of as a pure entertainment medium. That was all before talk radio became so angry and so politicized."

Not much happened to talk radio in Baltimore until 1964. In that year John Sterling broadcast the first two-way conversations from WCBM. "He came along," says John Grimes, operations manager of WBAL, "at a time when the phone company had just developed the technology of two-way radio. From there on out it was a question of any number of stations picking up the idea."

The night of Wednesday, Feb. 26, 1969, was memorable. That evening appliance dealer Jack Luskin, listening to Gene Burns on WCBM, became so infuriated by what he believed to be biased and unfair comments about the Middle East that he rushed to the studio and barged in on the host. Mr. Luskin seized a microphone and put in his own two cents' worth.

Glimpses couldn't begin to list all the local hosts and their stations. Early hosts included Tony Donald (WTOW), Ron Weber (WFBR, now WJFK) and Joe Knight (WFBR). These days, too, Baltimoreans can listen to nationally known hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Larry King. Their shows reach millions, and their books wind up on best-seller lists.

Some 25 years after the Copa closed, Mr. Wells says that when he gets a late-night call, "I'm scared to pick up the phone. I'm afraid it's some girl from The Block calling me at the Copa to talk dirty."