Bully Pulpit II

Jim Hightower Stages an On-Air Comeback

The man who brings intelligent, indignant populism to the airwaves and makes a hit of it will qualify as a hero. Even the addled males who now populate talk radio are beginning to suspect that there is a permanent corporate government, usually invisible, and that the visible, provisionally elected government is putting on a show. That a class war is indeed being waged, against them, and they are losing it. There are good reasons for thinking they might respond to a leader who could persuade them to stop thinking in terms of the liberal-versus-conservative phony war. Television anesthetizes, radio implicates: a radio personality who combines Rush Limbaugh's flair for the medium with a hot-wire to reality -- an instinct for making heresies palatable -- could take a nasty chunk out of the fat boy from Missouri and inspire defections from his ranks.

Alas, there are also reasons for believing our own Jim Hightower, the "pocketbook populist" who begins a new weekday radio show on Labor Day, is not that man. On his ABC weekend show, unceremoniously yanked off the air almost a year ago, he did not demonstrate a natural affinity for the form. He lacks that eerie ability Limbaugh and a few others have for engaging in easy banter with total strangers, all the while folding it into a steady propaganda barrage. There is a ratchety insistence in his voice that many find grating.

Hightower seems to grasp some of this, for the advance word on his new show makes it sound more like a politicized Prairie Home Companion than classic talk radio, featuring plenty of guest interviews and musical interludes. The Hightower team even promises interaction with the audience at the new Threadgill's Restaurant in south Austin, where the show will originate from
11am -- 1pm on weekdays. In what could be an entertaining throwback to radio's golden age a la Garrison Keillor, the show will be done live in the middle of the restaurant, right in front of the lunch trade. Hightower often seemed more comfortable when he had someone to interview, and as a vehicle for his practice of viewing the political spectrum from top to bottom instead of left to right, it could work.

So one wishes him well and is frustrated over having to report that you may not be able to hear it. The show will be carried on the fledging United Broadcast Network, and the natural outlet for it in Austin is KVET, which used to carry the weekend show. At least a couple of higher-ups at the station are reportedly in favor of picking up the show, but a decision is still pending. "It's not that simple, because you've got to figure out what you do around it," says Ron Rogers, KVET's president and general manager, referring to the necessity of juggling time slots and giving current performers a chance to build an audience. "Jim's a talented fellow, but he wasn't a ratings success with us before. If it can be a monetary success and not a ratings success, then we'll look at it. We're going to talk about it this week." Rogers also said he was curious about how the new format would hold up.

Now, KVET is not currently burning holes in the Arbitron sheets with the Joyce Isaacs show from 11am-1pm; it's a slot more or less owned by Rush Limbaugh down the dial at KLBJ-AM. The new Hightower show seems like a natural for them, not even that big a gamble. Still, the character of the station must be taken into account. KVET is owned by former mayor and notorious paleoconservative Roy Butler, and its general operations manager is Bob Cole, one half of Sammy and Bob, whose morning show is a petri dish of loony reaction. (Our homegrown Rush clone, Paul Pryor, holds forth on KVET from 1-4pm, his former rude energy noticeably lacking.) And even aside from all that, the station's reluctance in taking on a new show with an unusual, unproven format would be understandable.

"If KVET doesn't want to carry it live, then the network is re-feeding it in the evening, and either KVET or KLBJ could pick it up," says Hightower aide-de-camp Betsy Moon.

Whatever his fate on home turf, Hightower will at least enjoy a full measure of independence in his new berth -- although it is worth noting that his demise at ABC probably had as much to do with low ratings as with the fact that he attacked Disney right after the entertainment giant bought ABC. (He also derided ABC-TV and its news division for caving in to tobacco industry legal pressure.) "The handwriting was on the wall. He might have lasted another six months if not for that," says a local broadcasting expert who requested anonymity. "If he'd had good ratings, he could have demanded Michael Eisner's balls in a jar and it wouldn't have mattered."

According to Betsy Moon, the other major radio networks all passed on the show after the ABC debacle. Then UBN approached them and offered Hightower headliner status. The new network is a retooled, expanded version of the People's Broadcast Network. Based in White Springs, Florida -- and financed by the United Auto Workers and several private investors, probably left-leaning millionaires -- it will start up in over a hundred markets. The setup sounds roughly analogous to Paul Newman bankrolling The Nation, that reliable leftist weekly. Hightower has been guaranteed total editorial control. Rather than sell time for standard commercial spots, advertising revenue will be generated by selling products directly over the air using toll-free telephone numbers and catalog contacts. In keeping with Hightower's fervent opposition to NAFTA, only products made in the U.S. will get the nod.

Hightower also plans a newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, published biweekly for a very low subscription cost beginning in the fall, and a book of his commentary will be published next spring by Harper Collins. His web page is at http://tap.org/hightower/.

Stymied in San Diego

TheStatesman sent its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ken Herman to the Republican Convention in San Diego, and three of the local TV news outfits had people there as well. They came up with just shy of zilch, to no one's surprise, since the big guns at the networks and the major daily papers didn't come up with much either. The local coverage amounted to little more than free publicity for various members of the GOP Texas delegation. It was a strange week, as the major topic of the mainstream media's coverage was their own helplessness over how to cover a blatant, carefully scripted act of symbol creation. As if they haven't had years to figure it out.

Contrary to the basic theme of nothing-happening-here, there was a story to be had in San Diego. The religious right drove deep stakes into the party over the last few years, and for the convention to come off as a festival of moderation means that a deal was cut. That is how it works, plain and simple. Relatively little-known reporters like Herman and famous ones like Cokie Roberts, none of whom fell off the bus yesterday, all tiptoed around the fact, wasting everyone's time.

Traditional journalists can be counted on to bungle made-for-TV conventions, because they are themselves a conduit for the symbolism busily being created in the convention hall. If they took it all apart too aggressively, they would risk diminishing their own importance. So tact rules, and it was only hinted that Bob Dole's stirring declaration of principles was a vivid contrast to a career that seems to show he believes in nothing but expediency. An anonymous director at NBC briefly caught the moment, though, when Dole said that any bigots in the party could leave through the "exits, which are clearly marked." The remark was followed by a montage of white faces, at least of dozen of them. It was over in a few seconds and seemed to go on forever; while it lasted, the coverage met the event on its own terms and stopped feeling obsolete.

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