Echo Chamber

Talk radio is professional wrestling without the physical exertion: there's mock conflict that occasionally and accidentally turns real, easily recognizable good guys and bad guys (Clinton: Booooo!) and a whole lot of volume that somehow always subsides in time for a reassuring commercial break.

Unlike professional wrestling, though, talk radio takes itself seriously. Real seriously. Since its certification by the "mainstream media" as an Important Force in American Life five or six years ago, talk radio has managed to become as smug, predictable and puffed up on itself as ... well, as the "mainstream media" that talk radio routinely derides as out-of-touch with the common folk.

There was plenty of studied chin-stroking over talk radio's place in the cosmos when the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts convened at the Sheraton Astrodome last week for its seventh annual conference (there was a lot of serious discussion about the O.J. trial, too). A few lonely voices did venture the opinions -- simply for argument's sake, of course -- that talk radio's listeners are mostly seeking entertainment and that its practitioners perhaps shouldn't believe everything they read about their impact on public policy. But it's hard not to take yourself seriously when your elected leaders are tripping over themselves to gush about your reach.

Mayor Bob Lanier, in welcoming the NARTSH conclave to town, lauded talk radio as "a populist intrusion into the world of journalism" that helps guys like him bypass the "filters" of the "elitist" media and those "editorial boards" (he meant board) that, as he didn't add, dare to question him.

California governor and presidential hopeful Pete Wilson later chimed in with his description of talk radio as an "outlet for the disenfranchised" that "galvanizes and expresses public opinion to produce change in a forceful way."

"Your influence," intoned Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt the following day, "is really beyond question."

Most of the real opinion molders, the big machers of the AM band, weren't around to be told how much swat they have. The conference was sorely lacking in names -- Rush Limbaugh stayed away, even though he was honored at a Saturday luncheon as "Talk Show Host of Year." Jerry Brown was listed but didn't show, either. Closer to home, KPRC's Jon Matthews wisely was not seen consorting in public with the NARTSH conventioneers. Instead, there was a surfeit of syndicated talk show hosts whom you've probably never heard of, along with their even lesser-known colleagues from the dirt level of the talk radio food chain -- the non-syndicated hosts from Eau Claire and Tulsa searching for the secret of Limbaugh-like success at seminars on "how to book a guest on talk radio" and "the syndication marketplace: how to interact with it." Local or nationwide, most of them, as Rush himself might have observed, had faces made for the radio.

In Limbaugh's absence, the NARTSH get-together peaked celebrity-wise with June Lockhart, the Lassie and Lost in Space mom who serves on the organization's advisory panel ("I'm a political press enthusiast," she explained) and Michael Reagan, the presidential son, who asserted with a straight face that talk show hosts are the "investigative reporters of the 1990s." ("Stop the presses! We've just got a fax saying that Vince Foster was murdered in Hillary's apartment!")

Somebody at the convention quoted a survey showing that 70 percent of the 400 to 500 hosts who do "political talk" (as opposed to sports, or astrology) consider themselves conservatives, but the organizers of the NARTSH conclave, in a sort of reverse spin on the merits of "diversity," made much ado of the fact that there were real, live, unabashed liberals among their number in Houston. The most prominent of the handful seemed to be Gloria Allred, the lawyer for the Nicole Brown Simpson family, who hosts a drive-time gabshow in Los Angeles.

Allred is the kind of orthodox, knee-jerk liberal who conservative talkers couldn't live without, and she was obligingly contentious in NARTSH's own self-generated "controversy" over the presentation of its annual Freedom of Speech Award to G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate felon who once so revered the First Amendment that he proposed assassination as an option for silencing Nixon administration critic and muckraker Jack Anderson. Talk show hosting has become the last stop on the celebrityhood train for involuntarily retired politicians and those of dubious resume -- Ollie North has one, Mario Cuomo has one and O.J. no doubt will be in coast-to-coast syndication soon after his acquittal -- and the experience of being heard in 260 markets across the republic seems to have magically transformed Liddy into a champion of free speech.

Some of the fraternal order, though, were upset by the NARTSH board's decision to honor Liddy with an award that previously had been given to Cuomo, Salman Rushdie and Jack Anderson, especially in light of the G-Man's on-air recommendation that the best place to shoot a federal agent who busts into your home unannounced is in the head or groin.

The idea of honoring Liddy with any civil liberties award was, of course, a sick joke, given his role in the presidential administration whose record as the spying-est, wiretapping-est, breaking-and-entering-est in American history likely will stand forever. But the "controversy" certainly gave the talk show hosts something to grind their jaws over, and it guaranteed that their convention, as it built to the award presentation to Liddy, would be accorded front-end coverage on local television news as well as a front-page slot in the Sunday Chronicle. NARTSH executive vice president Carol Nashe even acknowledged that Liddy's selection was "absolutely intended to bring attention to the organization." But another factor, she explained, was the organization's belief that Liddy and talk radio were "being attacked by the government," and that was a "major problem."

But nobody could say exactly how the government was trying to chill anybody's freedom to speak on the radio, other than citing President Clinton's criticism of Liddy and talk radio after the Oklahoma City bombing. And nobody was willing to concede that the same First Amendment that apparently gives Liddy the right to shout "shoot a federal agent in the groin" in a crowded theater also gives Clinton the right to verbally abuse talk radio, no matter how lame a political ploy that might be.

Standing in for Clinton and the government was Gephardt, who in a speech that read much better on paper chided talk radio's "pandering and ideological backslapping," joined Pete Wilson in equating Liddy with gangsta rappers who rhyme about cop-killing and asked that the conventioneers boycott the award ceremony that evening at Space Center Houston. The host of the convention, a talk-radio magazine editor named Michael Harrison, tried to look as indignant as humanly possible in informing Gephardt that his request was "as outrageous as anything that Gordon Liddy has said!"

It certainly would have been outrageous for any red-blooded talk show host to pass on the abundance of food and drink that awaited in Clear Lake. About 150 of them and assorted hangers-on were seated at the Space Center pavilion when Liddy, sporting the fashionable penis-on-hind-legs-with-a-mustache look once found only on wrestling villains with names like Boris and Mr. Sputnik, lived up to his talk show host's sacred duty to say something outrageous (it was to the effect that the only way to keep Clinton from using the Bill of Rights as asswipe was for the citizenry to remain "heavily armed"). Gloria Allred, who earlier had promised a Houston Press photographer she would provide "a visual statement" to protest Liddy's award, ran to the front of the stage, waved a couple of signs, yelled something that nobody could hear, then stalked off. America yawned and rolled over.

Afterward, Liddy smiled and graciously posed for pictures with his new award. Then he and America's talk show hosts concluded their evening, which had been made possible by a grant from the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers Association, by heading off for a special showing of the IMAX film at the Space Center Theater.

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