Yakety-yak: Everyone's talking back and forth on talk radio

Second of four parts

They're never at a loss for words.

From Ed and Wendy King to Lynn Cullen or Marty Griffin, those who engage in the eclectic tradition of Pittsburgh talk radio have a lot to say.

"Hey My-rin! First-time caller ..."

Talk radio today is cycling its way through sports, sports and more sports, historically bolstered with the memory of hosts such as Myron Cope, who drew callers the way the Rubber Duck rallied kids at Point State Park this autumn. The evolution of political talk in the aughts -- conveniently labeled as "conservative" and "liberal" in some parts of the country -- is popular here but still pales next to sports talk.

The state of talk radio makes the memory of diversified talk -- exemplified by a WTAE-AM lineup in the 1980s that featured, among others, Ms. Cullen, Cope and Doug Hoerth -- a distant one.

"I've never understood why it was the model to have a format that only allowed a certain point of view," said Ms. Cullen, who helms a one-hour online talker at 10 a.m. at www.pghcitypaper.com. "To me, that was so stupid. ... I think it's mind-numbing.

"I think the greatest talk lineup this city ever saw was at WTAE-AM, when there was not any person like any other, politically or intellectually. Every host was smart and knowledgeable, capable, entertaining in their way. To me, that is the perfect radio format: eclectic."

Rise and decline of AM radio

Last week: Pittsburgh played a leading role in the development of the airwaves

Today: Talk radio in Pittsburgh.

Oct. 27: A tale of two stations -- WGBN and WZUM.

Nov. 3: Museums honor the rich history of Pittsburgh radio.

"Talk radio in Pittsburgh used to be just talk," said Mark Madden, whose sports persona listeners love to hate on WXDX-FM each weekday. "You had guys like Jack Wheeler and Doug Hoerth, Ed and Wendy King, John Cigna, who could go in any direction that day as their whim saw fit.

"You never knew what you were going to hear when you turned the radio on, but now, it's so topic-specific. I don't like to make myself sound predictable, but after the Steelers lose ... if you don't know pretty much exactly what I'm going to say when you turn me on today, then you just haven't listened to the show before," Mr. Madden said.

"[Shows] have become more fragmented, more specialized," said Michael Young, senior vice president and Pittsburgh market manager for KDKA and CBS Radio. "Maybe the open end of the funnel isn't as wide."

Diversity within any given hour might be dwindling, but the flavors of talk radio expand across the platforms of AM, FM, satellite and the Internet. Although many think those popular sports and politics programs are the be-all of talk radio, the field is actually quite varied.

"The broader term we use for political talk radio is 'news' talk radio, but that includes sports talk radio, health talk radio, automotive talk radio, technology talk radio, finance talk radio, relationship talk radio and then there's pop culture talk radio, which some people refer to as 'shock jocks,' " said Michael Harrison, publisher of the digital industry trade journal, Talkers.

"All that makes up the spoken word, which as far as I'm concerned, is part of talk radio."

Mr. Harrison said that the decline in talk listeners -- top-ranked Rush Limbaugh has more than 14 million listeners each week, down from about 22 million a few years back -- shouldn't be viewed as a genre free-fall.

Talk radio is constantly evolving to reflect the public's tastes, and if people aren't listening to the former heavyweights, it just means they are finding other voices.

"People will say, 'Aha! Rush Limbaugh went down in the ratings. It proves the conservative market is dead.' Conversely, when we had Air America [fail], they said ... 'This proves there are no more liberals left in America,' " Mr. Harrison said.

"We basically take it with a grain of salt because it does not reflect talk radio from an industrial or a broadcasting business perspective."

Pittsburgh's talk lineup, past and present, has included a stable of WTAE and KDKA voices on the AM dial. Among them, Cope and Stan Savran, Hoerth (all WTAE), Mike Levine, Fred Honsberger, John Cigna, Mike Pintek and Mr. Griffin (KDKA), Perry Marshall (KDKA and WJAS) and Jack Wheeler (WEEP and KDKA).

A young DJ named Jeff Christie worked at WIXZ and then KQV, but it wasn't until years later -- and a change back to his given name -- that Mr. Limbaugh became one of the predominant talkers in radio. He was heard locally on WTAE-AM, then KDKA-AM after syndication. He now can be heard on WPGB-FM 104.7.

Jim Quinn, a DJ at KQV in its musical heyday, made the jump to talk and now hosts "The War Room," with Rose Somma Tennent, on WPGB-FM. The Clear Channel program is syndicated.

Hoerth, who died in 2011, represented a kinder, gentler talk radio host for a perhaps more tolerant nation.

"Who were Doug's listeners? I don't know how to explain his listeners," said Ms. Cullen. "I think he was more of an everyman than anyone else on the radio. First of all, I think he was just an extraordinary storyteller, and that is something certain radio people no longer know how to do.

"He was also willing to be totally personal, sometimes, too personal," she added with a laugh.

"There wasn't a listener who didn't know his toilet habits, his hemorrhoids, the bottle next to his bed. But that's a character he created and he was a real character. That's not what [listeners] are looking for anymore. I think they're looking for provocateurs."

"Even though a lot of people thought Doug was the best radio guy ever in Pittsburgh, Doug didn't make a lot of money," Mr. Madden said. "At the end, Doug was alone and unwanted and off the radio and depressed, which is such a crime."

But if provocateurs are entertaining to the masses, Mr. Madden comfortably stepped into that role long ago. He said that creating a persona -- his is a combination of pro wrestler Ric Flair and Hoerth -- is part and parcel of the elevated showmanship of his program.

"I'm not necessarily a character but maybe an amplification."

He is, for example, "right-wing, economically" but pro same-sex marriage and pro-abortion rights. He's an unabashed fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins and will happily talk pro wrestling and European football. He'll bash the Steelers and won't hesitate to hang up on listeners.

His blog Monday on the WXDX website began, "Let the overreaction begin! The Steelers won a game. ONE GAME." Later that day on his show, he added that anyone taking heart in the team's victory over the Jets was doomed to disappointment: "That's like finding optimism after Pearl Harbor because one of the boats got away. ... Unfortunately, FDR isn't coaching the Steelers, Mike Tomlin is."

Mr. Madden isn't self-conscious about referring to himself as a "super genius" and is keenly aware of how he's perceived by listeners.

"There's nothing phony about what I do, but it is 'crafted.' I think there's a middle ground there," he said.

In contrast, Chris Moore could not be more earnest in his KDKA-AM talk show on Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m. An on-air talent and producer at WQED-TV, Mr. Moore said he cannot wait to engage in what he hopes will be meaningful discussion.

"I'm in my element when I'm doing talk radio because you never know what's next. People who will disagree with you, those are the ones I want to talk to. I tell the producer, 'Put those people first.' "

Growing up in Arkansas, Mr. Moore did not listen to talk radio. His service in the Vietnam War changed that, he said, opening the world and sparking his interest in current events.

He said he worries that too much of current talk radio celebrates bombastic hosts: "Most of the hosts of that genre feel you have to be wisecracking, with a put-down. It's almost like you have to be a comedian."

Mr. Moore bills himself as "the only talk show host where the callers hang up on me," trying to win the argument using a maddeningly patient form of logic.

"I want an intelligent debate. As long as you're not screaming at me, we can talk about it."

He chooses topics that span a spectrum of "forward-thinking" topics, from what he predicts will be a worldwide war over "not oil, but water," and his opinion that Israel is not an innocent victim in Middle East tensions.

"I am not interested in anything that Lindsay Lohan did."

But out there, across the dial, there is likely a talk radio program that is.

lifestyle - tvradio

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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