How I Learned to Love Hate Radio

KSFO Radio's anti-fans

The caller is one of the anti-fans. All radio stations have ardent fans. KSFO is the only place I've ever worked that has an ardent anti-fan base. Thanks to the anti-fans, my life as a KSFO producer has not been one-dimensional. In addition to a primer in conservative politics, I've had a peek into the joyless crusade against hate that dominates the Bay Area political consciousness.

The anti-fans radiate hostility. They are, you might say, hatefully opposed to hate. I can almost see them through the phone, sunken-chested, clenched, and scowling as they sputter with rage and spit fire into the phone. Sensing that they are on an intellectual kamikaze mission, the anti-fans rarely agree to go on the air, and choose instead to rail at me. I used to treat calls from the anti-fans as discrete occurrences. Over time, though, frequent and repeated contact with the anti-fans has convinced me that they are not random individuals who accidentally tuned in to our program instead of NPR, and then got rankled by what they heard. They are listening on purpose, and they are listening regularly. I now view them as a mass phenomenon.

If I read the anti-fan phenomenon correctly, there are thousands of people out there in search of something solid to bump against, even something they find despicable; people who are frustrated by the amorphous and murky character of modern political dialogue, who are looking for clarity, or self-definition, or both. They are doing what's necessary to find it, even if it means consorting with conservatives, and even if it means subjecting themselves to messages they find disturbing and confusing; messages laced with conservative concepts, loosely understood and loosely defined as hateful.

This is my conjecture. I don't know, because the lunatic fringe of the anti-fans, those who bother to dial up and suggest that we should eat shit and die, don't tell me why they listen. I am left to contemplate it for myself, and to draw my own conclusions.

What I Didn't Know

The KSFO branch of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy is anything but. The half-dozen or so "hot talk" hosts embrace varying brands of conservatism, with varying degrees of intensity. Nobody owns a pointy white hood. Most do own guns. They rarely see each other, never mind conspire together. They come and go, passing at the door like people doing shift work, which is what they are.

Their unifying characteristic is a knowledge of world events, current and past. They are buttressed in their ability to stir the political pot by the ability to reference history, both recent and ancient. Whatever the topic, if they did not personally witness it, if they did not cover it as journalists, or participate as military personnel, they have done their homework well enough to know about it.

The producer's job is to be a researcher, a secretary, a confidant, a cheerleader, a public relations manager, a call screener, an audio engineer, a political analyst, and a minister of information. It is the latter two requirements whose challenge caught me by surprise. As a registered Libertarian who votes, attends town meetings, and hosts a public affairs program on another station, I was arrogantly self-assured about my own understanding of current events. How jolting it was to discover that the audience -- the real fans -- was better informed than I.

Occasionally, a listener, wielding the same historical authority as the air staff, will test me like a crusty old civics teacher, tossing out the name of a general or a prime minister, a revolution or a treaty, and asking if I understand its relevance. Often, though, listeners are calling for updates on current news items.

"Can you tell me whether AB 468 has gone before the appropriations committee yet?" a caller asked me on one of my first days. I sat in unknowing silence for a moment. AB stands for assembly bill, I told myself stupidly, as if reciting the alphabet to find a phone book listing. She was talking about a bill that was circulating in the California state Legislature.

"Uh, keep listening!" I chirped, mortified that I had no idea. "We'll be discussing that later today!" I hung up quickly, hoping that if the issue was current, it would be discussed on the air. I scribbled on my purse calendar: AB 468 -- what is it? Also: "quick review of bill-to-law procedure in state assem."By the end of the week, I had a half-page of homework items.

"If Prop. 10 passes, will it be implemented on a county-by-county basis?" another caller asked. "Um, let's see ... there's a Web site with information, but uh ...." I made a note to get a list of ballot initiatives for the upcoming election.

"Clinton has issued an executive order that completely subrogates U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations. Why aren't you talking about that?!" an angry caller yelled.

Whaaaaaat???

"These right-wing wackos got it goin' on," I thought. Their knowledge was so specific, their concerns so precisely articulated, it was startling. They were armed with facts, names, places, and clearly stated if-then propositions. I'd wanted to study talk radio up close, and instead I'd enrolled in a political science seminar with a whip-ass syllabus.

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