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Left must embrace medium

TWO VIEWS • Conservatives have the biggest voice on talk radio, but there's room for others. The question: Is there an audience?

Mark Twain understood the power of the media. In 1873 he was quoted as saying: 'I am personally acquainted with hundreds of journalists, and the opinions of the majority of them are not worth tuppence. But when they speak in print, it is the newspaper that is talking and then their utterances shake the community like the thunders of prophecy.'

Fast-forward to 2002, when many journalists have turned opinion makers, and 'objective reporters' have become pundits. In short, the media rules have changed.

The 24-hour news cycle fills its vast programming holes with dueling opinion makers. Editorial writers, once confined to newspaper cubicles, now expand their audiences to TV and cable. Internet users go to opinion-maker Web sites that share their political ideology.

Influence is all part of the new media picture, and talk radio is no exception.

Talk 'owns' just 18 percent of the radio audience, but don't let the numbers fool you. That 18 percent is the most educated, most motivated and politically influential audience you can find. The influence it carries is profound. Just ask the Dittoheads who followed Rush Limbaugh's rhetoric to push Democrats out of both houses of Congress in 1994.

These new political activists didn't try to play fair. They didn't try to be nice. They didn't try to be politically correct. They got off their butts, picked up the phones, wrote letters and voted.

As far as I can tell, the left still has something to learn from the right's media strategy.

Instead of criticizing talk radio, instead of concentrating on the things that divide us, anyone who considers himself or herself a progressive should focus on the goal of understanding and manipulating the media Ñ talk radio included.

A study of talk radio recently examined the political affiliation of talk-radio listeners around the country. In spring 2001, 20 percent claimed allegiance to the Republican Party. Fifteen percent claimed to be Democrats, and a whopping 51 percent said they were independent. Yet the vast majority of radio talk-show hosts are ultraconservative.

Why? Despite the myth of the so-called liberal media, ownership is increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer people. Whether Lars will admit it or not, large corporations own and control the content that viewers and listeners see and hear.

Even Bill Clinton now acknowledges that he didn't fully understand the impact of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It set the stage for mass consolidation in TV and radio. Now, if you happen to travel cross-country, you have the same bland menu of talkers: Rush, Dr. Laura, or _________ (fill in that blank with an angry, male, white conservative) .

The left has simply failed to see the power and influence that talk radio can wield. Some important progressive leaders have belittled the medium rather than seize its opportunity. I would like to see progressives move from the reactive mode into the active tense. I'm no political strategist, but I think James Carville has it right: It's time for progressives to stop trying to be so nice and start telling people what we're fighting for.

That fight includes claiming a position on the public airwaves. Here's my strategy.

1. Become an advocate for the kind of talk you want to hear. If you don't like radio being completely controlled by angry white conservatives, give the station owner a piece of your mind. You might be surprised by the influence of letters, repeated phone calls and public criticism of the status quo.

2. Attempt to encourage influential progressives to embrace the new media rules, not demean them. Encourage people with money to get involved in the media. The radio acquisition game can be played boldly by both sides.

3. Support the progressive radio that is on the air: Joe Jackson, Peter Werbe, Mike Mallow, Alan Colmes. The hosts are few and far between but could use your support. Make a fuss when a brilliant local host such as Bill Gallagher disappears from the airwaves.

4. Talk to advertisers. Nothing moves a station manager more than when advertisers hear customers complaining. If you bemoan the lack of choice in talk radio, listen to who is advertising on the station at fault. Then speak your mind to the shop owner.

Despite Lars' remarks about progressive radio not selling, the truth is that owners, syndicators and station managers are stuck in the status quo. Talk radio could be a huge influence in shaping the kind of public policy that is more equitable to people not represented by Lars and his cronies: small-business men, women, minorities, schoolchildren and anyone who may be left of the wholly owned subsidiary called the Republican Party.

Sheila Hamilton is a former reporter for KATU (2) who has been a talk show host on KPAM (860 AM).

Contact her at sheilahamilton11@ attbi.com.