Yesterday morning, with earwitnesses all around, Allan Prell called Rush Limbaugh a bozo on the radio. I'm quoting Prell loosely here, but it's OK since Limbaugh's not in town and never heard what Prell said. But lots of people around here heard it, including Jeff Beauchamp, who fought off hyperventilation long enough to assert that Prell was only joking.
"Tongue in cheek," declared Beauchamp. He is vice president of WBAL radio and catching considerable flak from listeners since it was announced that Limbaugh, the syndicated broadcaster who's the darling of conservatives, will be moving to WBAL from a station slightly to the left on the radio dial but far to the right of human reasonableness.
With Limbaugh taking over the midafternoon slot on WBAL, longtime host Ron Smith will be moved to nights (at least, those nights when the Orioles aren't playing baseball, which means almost no nights at all half the year), thus prompting Prell's on-air remarks yesterday about how much he loathes Limbaugh.
He said Limbaugh was a fraud, actually. He said Limbaugh tailored his political beliefs to suit his professional act, said Limbaugh didn't believe some of the outrageous things he mouths over the air, said he was best suited for "a trained seal act in Vaudeville."
All of this is what Jeff Beauchamp called "tongue in cheek" in a telephone interview. It's what others would call accuracy in media, but even this is not the entire problem with Rush Limbaugh joining WBAL radio.
Let's dispense with the manipulative Limbaugh as quickly as possible. He's a military hawk when it suits him, though a new biography, "The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent on Loan from God," notes that he found a friendly doctor to keep him out of the war in Vietnam.
He savaged Bill Clinton for (among other things) smoking pot once, but the book says Limbaugh quietly smoked it a few times himself. He rarely bothers to vote. He's taken a public stance attacking abortion, but privately admits that if he were married, he wouldn't stop his wife from terminating an unwanted pregnancy. He thinks it's funny to call feminists "feminazis."
It's a calculated cruelty of the airwaves. Politically, there's not much difference between what Limbaugh says and what Ron Smith believes. But there are differences in style which make this move down the dial so revolting to so many people.
At its best, talk show radio is a community talking with itself. It's an electronically enhanced extended family, working out its problems the way any family does: sometimes uncomfortably, but always aiming for some sort of constructive outcome, and always letting all sides have their say.
At its worst, talk show radio is some professional host pretending daily to be an expert on any and all subjects. That's Limbaugh. Or it's the host bullying listeners, out-shouting them, when they disagree with him or catch him playing fast and loose with the facts. That's Limbaugh when he condescends to take a call.
Limbaugh's a glib entertainer who spots an open wound and works at it with a lead pencil. He adds humiliation to the pain. The victim twitches, and his audience laughs at the sport.
Ron Smith happens to share some of Limbaugh's political views, and that's fine. It's healthy to argue things out in public, and forge opinions from such arguments. Smith lets listeners have their say. He's confident enough of his own views, and his own intelligence, to let you make your case while he's making his. Limbaugh would sooner trample on disbelievers.
"He's the hottest thing in radio," Jeff Beauchamp said yesterday. "He's got 20 million listeners. No one's come close to his audience."
Here's the problem: WBAL gains Limbaugh's following but loses its own history. With its 50,000 watts, and the only semblance of a radio news staff in this market, WBAL is Maryland's most important radio voice.
Always, that voice was civil. Now it won't be. Always, that voice talked about Maryland, about Baltimore, about City Hall and the Orioles and the neighborhoods.
Now, for three hours in the middle of the day, Maryland's radio voice ceases to be Maryland radio. It's anybody's radio. It's a voice from somewhere else, who hasn't a clue or a care about what's happening here, but wants you to believe otherwise.