'Hot Talk' Radio Stirs San Francisco Airwaves
Hosts crusade against homosexuals and panhandlers
TOM KAMB, a former San Francisco police officer, begins his radio show each day with the sounds of gun shots, screams, and car crashes over the theme from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Michael Savage's drive-time program starts with the disclaimer: ''Warning: Savage Nation contains adult language, adult content, and psychological nudity. Listener discretion advised.''
But to many San Franciscans, Hot Talk KSFO-AM -- this city's first 24-hour conservative radio station -- is no joke. Five months after its debut, ''the fastest growing talk radio station in the country'' has survived community outrage, human rights investigations, and the firing of its most inflammatory radio host.
KSFO not only survives in a city famous for its liberal politics, it flourishes, according to operations manager and Hot Talk creator Jack Swanson. He points to increased ratings as the new format draws in conservative listeners who respond to hosts railing against immigrants, feminists, liberals, and homosexuals.
In the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, conservative talk radio is coming under renewed scrutiny as hosts defend themselves against charges -- including from President Clinton -- that they are ''promoters of paranoia.''
Conservatives in liberal city
But for San Francisco's KSFO, one of the most controversial far-right stations in the country, defending itself is nothing new. ''A handful of people are stunned that in this city it is possible to have a voice on the other side of the political spectrum,'' says Swanson, a 30-year radio veteran who is eager to label himself a liberal. ''There's no doubt in my mind that we're speaking to a significant voice in this community. We're not representing splinter groups.''
Yet few industry insiders are shocked by the seeming paradox that Hot Talk has found a home in liberal San Francisco. Conservative talk radio, they contend, dominates radio markets around the country because it is a format that sells -- and San Francisco is no exception. They also point out that the radio market is actually far wider than San Francisco's 700,000 residents and instead competes for the 6.5 million listeners in nine Bay Area counties, many of which are conservative.
Like other major cities, San Francisco is becoming more polarized, with an widening gap between rich and poor, whites and minorities. Critics argue that the use of race and divisive issues by KSFO hosts further encourages intolerance and the scapegoating of those less fortunate.
Such programs are ''galvanizing a constituency largely based on misplaced anger,'' says Bay Area media critic Norman Solomon. ''Instead of blaming corporate power that is foreclosing so many people's life options, right-wing demagogues are going after scapegoats -- those who've been for a very long time on the short end of opportunity.''
KSFO's current line-up of Rush Limbaugh imitators excels at what the industry terms ''non-guested confrontational radio.'' Featured are syndicated hosts Bob Grant of New York's KABC, Patrick Buchanan, former first-son Michael Reagan, and African-American conservative Ken Hamblin, the ''Black Avenger.''
''KSFO hits home to conservative folks who feel abandoned after 40 years of liberalism,'' says Mr. Kamb, a local host. ''It's easy for the left to accuse us of promoting or inciting dangerous behavior. But we're not the reason why people are angry.''
''General'' Michael Savage, another local host, says Clinton's ''paranoia'' remarks represent ''a new type of McCarthyism in America. Anyone who disagrees with [Clinton's] position is hate radio?''
Mr. Savage is best known for his attacks on ''the socialist federal government'' and the ''ultra leftist radical fringe.'' He accuses lesbian activist Roberta Achtenberg, a former San Francisco supervisor who intends to run for mayor, of wanting to ''homosexualize the school system.''
''Who wants gay maniacs to run this city?'' he asks. He also targets the homeless: ''I hate panhandlers' guts.''
Another incendiary host, J. Paul Emerson, was fired in February after the uproar caused by his call to quarantine people who are HIV-positive, provoking protests by gay advocacy groups, an investigation by the city's Human Rights Commission, and the withdrawal of advertising.
The increased influence of conservative talk radio on US politics is undeniable. National talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh mobilize popular support for issues. Over the past decade, the number of talk format stations has quadrupled.
In San Francisco, even some conservatives criticize KSFO's style. ''These people have no visible ideology, they don't do their homework, their opinions are uninformed,'' says San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders.
To Bay Area radio veterans, the debate centers on the misuse of a powerful medium. KSFO, they say, has benefited from radio's gradual deregulation. ABC/Capital Cities -- which owns San Francisco talk radio KGO AM -- recently bought KSFO, KGO's main competitor. The move secured control of the city's talk radio market.
Some argue KSFO's refrain will become tedious to listeners. Others worry it will serve as a call to arms. Savage, for one, says he frequently ''talks lunatics off the edge of violence,'' but recognizes that his rhetoric can go too far. The media ''has to be very careful,'' he says. ''We can trigger a lot of loose cannons to go off.''