Ron Smith greets a visitor to WBAL with a newspaper tucked under his arm. If you think it might be The Sun, the New York Times or the Washington Post, you haven't been paying much attention to his radio talk show over the past 10 years. So, of course, it's the conservative Washington Times.
Mr. Smith, 53, has been a con- servative voice on Baltimore's most powerful radio station since the first dittohead was just a gleam in Rush Limbaugh's eye. Since 1985, this former Marine and stockbroker has been a full-time part of the talk lineup on WBAL (1090 AM).
Except for a 13-month stint at night that ended Feb. 13, he's been, to use one of his self-descriptions, the "Voice of Reason" on weekday afternoons.
If you find Mr. Smith and his views unreasonable, you may not be listening to WBAL much these days. For three hours preceding his 3 p.m.-to-6 p.m. show, Mr. Limbaugh is on the air. After two hours of sports talk, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican candidate for governor last fall, takes over at night.
Today's civics lesson is on the nature of talk radio. Mr. Smith and his visitor are seated at a conference table on the top floor of the WBAL building. He sits on the right.
Q: A few years ago, you were the only conservative in WBAL's lineup. Now, conservatives dominate WBAL Radio talk. Which do you like better?
A: It's difficult to relate one time to the other. Talk radio has changed tremendously in just the last decade. . . . Obviously, one always likes to be associated in one's living with doing something that is au courant, that's cutting-edge, and certainly talk radio is. . . .
Now, obviously, because I'm conservative, it's a lot more fun for me to be involved than for someone whose message does not resonate with the people who listen to talk radio. . . . It's fun to win, and that's what I would describe as almost anti-liberalism carrying the day in American politics right now. It's gratifying to have your voice and the things you believe in become sort of the majoritarian view in the country. It's very exciting.
Q: Why does the conservative viewpoint dominate talk radio?
A: I don't think there is anything we could say is crystal clear, but there are many reasons. There are a number of things that one could suppose or think is very likely are at the root of it. One of the things is that the establishment media, the old media -- The Baltimore Suns, the Times, the Newsweeks, the local television stations, the major networks, so on and so forth -- have all been speaking journalistically with the same kind of voice, the same kind of received wisdom, the same kind of insistence in an opinion-making way that this is the way all decent people believe, while millions of Americans have not believed in the left-liberal message of the last 40 years, have thought there is something wrong with it. . . . And so talk radio gives them an amplification of their views. It's an authentication of what they believe.
Q: Though some talk hosts separate themselves from "the media," isn't talk radio just another voice in the media?
A: I think you can easily delineate between old media and new media. It's interactivity that delineates. . . . This is something that is spontaneous. It's in real time. You have to defend positions as you put them forth. You have to be prepared for attack from all directions.
The new media include faxes, the on-line services, desktop publishing. . . . This is a way to circumvent the people who have always had the stranglehold or the license, if you will, of the commodity we call information. Information, like everything, has become more fragmented. And that's all to the good as far as I'm concerned.
Q: Is the tilt to the right just a trend in talk radio? Will we have a wave of liberal talk hosts in a few years?
A: The whole key is: Can you attract a whole bunch of people to listen to what you have to say? That's the only thing. It doesn't matter what the message is. If you can, fine. You can be liberal, you can be conservative, you can be middle-of-the-road, you can be Communist, you can be whatever. . . . We have all this concoction -- people say: "How can we get a liberal antidote to Rush Limbaugh?" Well, maybe it can be done, maybe it can't be done. But it can't be done by some kind of imposition. It can't be done by saying, 'Well, Mario Cuomo, why don't you sit right down and do this radio talk show? . . . and this will be the antidote to Limbaugh.' Because, remember, Limbaugh wasn't imposed on anybody. Limbaugh is an ad hoc phenomenon. . . .
Q: Do you think your audience all agrees with you, or do you think there is a sizable group of listeners who disagree?
A. There's a surprising number who are at least in somewhat of a disagreement who are attracted to strongly held opinions and interested in hearing them even if they don't agree with them. . . .
Q: Do you think politicians react more to talk radio than newspapers and television?
A: You'd have to ask politicians. . . . Certainly, politicians have become more aware of talk radio in the last few years, because it's a politician's job to keep his ear to the ground, to know which way things are going, to know which way the landscape is shifting. So it's entirely natural that they would pay attention to talk radio, even though it's not a scientific poll of their constituency. It nonetheless is a sounding board for what may be troubling people in their districts. . . .
Q: Have you grown more conservative on the air in recent years, or just become more forceful in presenting your views?
A: The second has happened. When I first started doing talk radio, I had the desire, which is universal, to be liked by everybody. So even if someone was in profound disagreement with my views, I went out of my way to be nice to them. . . .
But I did learn from a couple of sources that it is best simply to express your considered opinion and let the chips fall where they may. And one of those object lessons was what happened to George Bush. He spent so much time trying to please his enemies. And yet, when all was said and done, his enemies were still his enemies. And yet his friends had dwindled away because his attempts to please his enemies. That made a very big impression on me. Furthermore, Limbaugh showed me that you could simply take your stand and that it still could be a popular thing to do in terms of gathering an audience. I figured if he could do that and gather an audience, then I shouldn't have to worry about tempering my message.
Q: What are the hot-button topics that get your biggest response from the audience? Abortion? Gun control?
A: Abortion is one I try to stay away from, because you can light up the board with it but you'll never change anyone's mind. . . .
The topics I do enjoy talking about you can change minds about it if you show them the evidence. . . . Gun control is a fascinating topic that stands as a symbol and a surrogate for many other things in our society -- in terms of whether it's best for government to rule our lives or whether self-reliance is the thing that must be turned to in the end. So gun control is a wonderful topic to generate stimulating discussion on that topic, but it also resonates far beyond the topic of just gun control. It stands for other things. . . .
Q: What is the difference between the afternoon and the evening audience?
A: There's less time to talk. . . .
Q: Is the influence of the "liberal media" overrated?
A: Gwinn Owens, late of The Evening Sun, I recall a column he wrote in 1984, one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen, and this is echoed in other similar journalistic anecdotes. He wrote a column that he could not believe that the polls showed Reagan with a lead over Mondale since he didn't know anyone who was going to vote for Reagan. . . . Talk about disconnect. The influence of newspapers in election results has diminished over the years, some of it, I have to suppose, from the expansion of other outlets. . . .
But the establishment media does have a certain set of assumptions under which it operates, that all decent people figure, for example, that they are pro-abortion, that one must be in favor of affirmative action, the expansion of homosexual rights, feminism in its more ardent forms, all of these things go without saying. . . . That groupthink is at odds with the commonly held assumptions of millions of Americans.
NB Ray Frager is an assistant sports editor at The Baltimore Sun.