Radio Free-Fire Zone

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Lennox McLendon/AP

Still at the Mic: Limbaugh

If you listened to the radio this week, you heard that Al Gore is "a proven liar, a pathological prevaricator." Democrats arguing Gore's case are "mind-numb morons," "vicious political hacks" and "just a bunch of sleaze-bag crooks." Don't believe a word spoken by Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley: "All he does is lie." Hillary Clinton is "the witch" and, in an allusion to Vincent Foster's death, "the First Murderer." Half of America — the Democratic half — is "socialist." Or worse. After all, Gore won the popular vote because "Communist Kate Couric" and the rest of the media "prayed to Khrushchev" for a victory.

These sentiments did not issue from some short-wave broadcast in the Ozarks, or from a Minuteman bunker in Montana. They were expressed by hosts, guests and callers on some of New York City's top radio stations. In America's most liberal city — where most Democratic congressmen, solidly to the left of the President, were elected with 80 to 90 percent of the vote — the airwaves roil with right-wing rant from WOR's Bob Grant, WABC's Sean Hannity and Steve Malzberg. And in this weird election week, when pundits were as befuddled as that guy on the next barstool, the talk on Right Radio had the fervid certitude of true believers. George W. Bush is the voice of pure reason; Al Gore, says a caller to Grant's show, is the latest tyrant in a "pure dictatorship." ("We're on the same wavelength," Bizarro Bob replies.)

Instead of watching TV on election night and in the two convulsive days after, I listened to radio: NPR for the news, WOR and WABC for the commentary. In a spirit both journalistic and masochistic, I listened as the radio savants tried to make sense of the Floridation of presidential politics. I share the general puzzlement about the electoral college and the origami ballot in Palm Beach County. But I have two other questions. Will someone please explain how the members of the Radio Right can be so sure that they really are right? And why is political talk radio — in a country that has just voted for two middle-of-the-road presidential candidates — almost monopolistically conservative?

A little background. One: I'm on the political left — which might seem to make me part of the "liberal media" (is there any other kind?) against which the Radio Right froths and fulminates. Except that to me, Tom Brokaw and Judy Woodruff are not liberal; whatever their private beliefs, on camera they are part of the genteel, gray center, straining for the appearance of impartiality. By traditional standards of left and right, the network anchors deserve the liberal tag no more than NAFTA-loving, welfare-abolishing Bill Clinton does. I'd call Clinton a moderate Republican. The Radio Right would call him the antichrist.

Two: I'm a radio lover. I wake up to it, go to sleep to it. My AM radio — talk radio, on the subjects of sports and current affairs — is on for perhaps 12 hours a day. For some of those hours it's just off-white noise, a hum of verbs and volubility, to which I pay little attention while working or reading. But radio also provides entertainment and information, and I know the difference. So as a culture critic who can appreciate a spellbinding showman, whatever he's peddling, I introduced conservative chat guru Rush Limbaugh to TIME's readers back in 1991. In the next few years I wrote two other appreciative stories about the man with "talent on loan from God."

After the first flush of Rush, when he quickly built an audience of 15 million and earned bundles for himself and his stations, radio execs scrambled to put ditto-mouths on the air. Then, like most pop-cultural fashions, this one started to pale. Maybe the talk was too hot (listeners can't stay angry forever). Or political issues lost some urgency in a time when the economy was robust and, for most Americans, the rest of the globe ceased to exist (Bosnia, Belfast, world hunger... yawn). On radio, the sports-talk format took hold; so, late at night, did the extraterrestrial conspiracy theories of Art Bell and his guests. The Radio Right needed a new hook, and a close presidential election was just the thing to energize the commentators and their faithful. Gore might not have excited his fans, but he certainly energized the fanatics.

To Nader liberals and Buchanan conservatives, Bush and Gore may be barely distinguishable: gush and bore, or Tweedledumb and Tweedledull. Their platforms agree on most important issues, ignore many others. But to the evangelical right — and regardless of religious affiliation, the radio reactionaries are evangelical in their fervor, their certainly, their tendency to demonize the opposition — Gore had to do as the new Clinton.

It didn't matter that the vice president lacked Clinton's musk; that he was a flustered understudy pushed into the limelight when the star's run had ended. The right could fluff Gore up to satanic status, for nearly the same reason late-night comics could turn his stiffness into schtick. In a business less interested in issues than in personalities, one group of entertainers needed somebody to laugh at; the other group needed somebody to be furious at. The impulse had as much to do with showbiz as with politics. When the post-election fray was joined by Jesse Jackson (whom one WABC spieler absently referred to as "Reverend Sharpton") and Robert Wexler ("one of the most vicious Clinton defenders," according to one of Grant's guests), the Radio Right hosts were ecstatic. They feed on familiar figures of liberal fun the way David Letterman milked the name "Buttafuoco" for years of monologues.

Liberals and moderate Democrats look at the American landscape, slouch into torpor, and say, "They won." "They" are the Republicans. They control the Senate and the House, as well as most of the state congresses and governorships. They have survived for eight years under a President who talks populist but thinks centrist, and is on the starboard side of his own party. After the lawyers get through picking over the Florida tally as if it were a suit against Big Tobacco, conservatives will have a purchase on the White House. They already own talk radio. In Fox News, they have their own strident TV news network. And on the point-counterpoint shows, they speak with a vigor their so-called liberal (but really moderate) opponents are too decorous or slow-witted to even try to match. Liberal media? What liberal media? The Nation and the shattered remnants of the Pacifica radio network?

Yet to listen to the AM conservatives, you would think they'd been consigned to a gulag and were trying to smuggle messages out to Radio Free America. Anything they don't agree with is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Malzberg (who believes the Republic is so threatened that he stops his show each night for 30 seconds of "silent prayer") hints darkly that Bill Clinton wanted to ride the anxiety over Y2K to a state of martial law. Hannity, when not paying tongue-tied tribute to Mrs. Clinton's defeated rival, Rick Lazio, and his wife ("They should hang their head high"), opines that Hillary was elected by "a very biased media who anointed her queen." When they are not engaging in serious or comic bombast, they and their callers verge on the delusional. It's hard to think of another part of American society that is both so powerful and so paranoid.

After a two days of listening to unchallenged invective — where are the liberal callers? is there a lock box on their phones? — I literally got an upset stomach. (Or it could have been the sushi I bought that afternoon in the TIME cafeteria.) So I rolled the dial over to New York's sports station WFAN, where Mike Francesa and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo were doing their usual Martin-and-Lewis routine. But not about sports: about the election. And guess what? They both voted for Bush. It wasn't until late Wednesday night, on Joe Benigno's encounter-therapy session for Jets and Knicks fans, that I finally heard an anti-right suspicion voiced on New York radio. Doris in Rego Park, the nattering Queen Mum of sports-station callers, said of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, "He's gonna make sure that his brother is elected."

Doris, do a favor for the long-suffering New York radio audience. Give Bob Grant a call.