How I Learned to Love Hate Radio

KSFO Radio's anti-fans

"Would you please TELL BARBARA that she can thank HER HERO, RONALD REAGAN, for the illegal drug trade?" It's the car-phone guy in Santa Rosa. He hates the radio station. He hates Barbara Simpson. But he's always out there, listening.

"It's a talk show, sir," I tell him. "I can put you on the air, and you can say it yourself, but I don't pass along messages."

"She sure does love to BASH CLINTON. You people LOVE to BASH CLINTON. You are SO WEDDED to your OWN VERSION of things, you CAN'T ACKNOWLEDGE that it was THE SAINTED RONALD REAGAN who started the FREE FLOW OF DRUGS into this country 15 years ago!!! YOU TELL HER THAT, OK!?"

"Why don't you tell her yourself?"

"Because she doesn't believe in FREE SPEECH," he hisses. "Because she'll just CUT ME OFF. Because all your talk show hosts are SO THREATENED when anyone DISAGREES with them. So much for the big FREE SPEECH advocates at KSFO. Free speech is the last thing YOU PEOPLE believe in."

"Barbara would be happy to talk with you if you offered your opinions in a more civilized fashion," I tell him. It's true that she has cut him off a number of times. It's also true that he's the worst kind of snotty, gauntlet-throwing know-it-all. The kind talk show hosts can't resist cutting off, and making a big production out of it.

"Why don't you try a different approach?" I coax. "A little more reserved, less confrontational."

"Listen," his tone changes. "You sound like a decent person. You'd better get out of there, because you're in the belly of the beast. You'd better escape while you still have a soul."

"Do you want to get on the air with Barbara or not?" I ask, ignoring the suggestion that I might still be redeemable.

"Get out while you still can, honey," he warns softly, almost lovingly. "They're going to steal your soul." Click. He's gone.

The Anti-Fans

"Conservative." Since I came of age, it's been a political epithet. A word to sling at the unenlightened. A pronouncement of counterprogressiveness. Even the phrase "conservative movement" is a verbal pairing made for a George Carlin routine, like "jumbo shrimp." An unappealing parade of high-profile conservatives has helped cement the association between the political right and undesirable traits. For sexual hypocrisy, think Newt Gingrich. You want frumpy? Look at Barbara Bush. Richard Nixon, Oliver North, and David Duke ... ruthless, stiff, and bigoted. And the conservative philosophy itself? One of wretched self-interest, of starving babies, of poisoning the earth, of profit over people.

In the ill-defined political vernacular of the moment, "conservative" has been expanded to new limits, and is now synonymous with the most vague, yet most stigmatizing, of all insults. To be conservative, nowadays, particularly in San Francisco, is to be considered hateful.

By extension, a radio station offering conservative talk is tagged "hate radio," and to some degree, despite marketplace success and a sophisticated staff, the tag sticks. KSFO Radio has been described in tones of hysteria as a cauldron of racism and homophobia, a wacko gun-nut unit, a nest of conspiracy theorists spouting political paranoia. And that's by the working press. Competing broadcasters denounce or discount the station. Occasionally an employee jumps ship, unable to tolerate the rhetoric, and unable to view it as just a job. My predecessor jumped, offering practical reasons -- money, hours, goals, and, well ... he paused reflectively, looked around, and offered a grimace that spoke volumes about how he viewed his role as munitions officer in the gun-nut unit.

"Truly," he said, "I'm just not comfortable with the politics."

"It's just a job, dude," I remember thinking to myself. But of course, that's never completely true.

I signed on as a producer at KSFO just over a year ago, having given no thought to the baggage I would carry merely by being on the payroll. A passionate broadcaster, madly in love with radio, I saw the station as an offbeat little boutique in the midst of chain stores. I wanted to work there for reasons that had to do with professional development, not with politics. Soon enough, though, the politics grabbed me by the collar, and shook me with such force that the broadcaster fell aside, and the citizen was pushed forward, unable to turn away from the disturbing revelations of so-called hate radio.

While I haven't bought a gun or picketed an abortion clinic, simmering in the conservative cauldron has been enormously clarifying. I've been sensitized to my role as a voter, and to my responsibilities as a broadcaster. I've been made hyperaware of something that can only be described as a highly dysfunctional relationship between the government and the governed. Most surprising of all, I have lost my cringe reflex to the word "conservative," and have developed a countervailing cringe to certain other current political keywords. Chief among them is the ubiquitous and sloppily used "hate."

"Why don't you hateful people eat shit and die?" our most exuberantly disapproving listener curses me regularly. He always hangs up before I get a chance to ask -- and this is not a sarcastic question, it's something about which I am quite curious -- why he doesn't listen to something that's more to his liking.

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.


"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.

Impeachment, gay marriage, affirmative action, guns. Hate crimes, religious persecution, education reform, guns. Executive orders, campaign finance, banking regulation, guns. Kosovo, NATO, the U.N., China, Iraq, Russia, Israel ... major conflicts, minor skirmishes, peacekeeping missions. And a never-ending succession of bills in the state Assembly. There were few items on the syllabus about which I didn't have an opinion. There were also few items about which I'd been exposed to complete information. Slowly, over months, I arrived at the demoralizing truth: My view of the world rested on a partial picture, one developed with minimum critical effort, and by culling easily available sources. Confronted with my own staggering ignorance, I was first embarrassed, then angry and overwhelmed.

No longer deluded with an image of myself as politically hip, I worried about people with other kinds of jobs, where they don't get paid to keep up with world events. The seed of my worry may have been during the impeachment, where it was obvious that despite the sheer volume of coverage, press reports of Monicagate were abbreviated and biased. Maybe it was the question that every KSFO host would pose to the audience: "Did you see this in the Chronicle? Was this covered on CNN? Where's the coverage?" The answer was always no. No I didn't, no it wasn't, and I don't know.

What about the real people, I obsessed, what about the citizens? They couldn't possibly be aware of everything they need to know. There aren't enough hours in the day to hold a full-time job and still keep up! How can the people make good decisions? How can they vote wisely? I whipped myself into a froth, needling my friends and family about the important decisions they were making without enough information.

Furthermore, I ranted, that's the way the leaders want it. The last thing legislators want is well-informed voters. Watching Sacramento is overpowering evidence! None of the important stuff makes the newspapers. It's obvious the press is complicit, whether through laziness, indifference, or bias.

The initial stages of creeping KSFO paranoia? Most people responded with the slow, silent nod usually reserved for Alzheimer patients. As if the beloved person who inhabited this familiar body had gone, and a babbling stranger had taken her place. Even my most indulgent friend finally lost patience.

"When did you start being this way?" she demanded. She is a soulmate, and a previous a companion on many flights of fancy. She's an X-Files fan, for crying out loud. She hadn't batted an eye the time I suggested that perhaps we could will ourselves into other people's dreams. But the idea that elected officials might depend on the help of the press to operate without voter scrutiny was outlandish. By the time we finished our second beer, Ifelt outlandish, and I let it rest.

Voices From

the Closet

"I guess she thinks all the niggers should get shipped back to Africa, right?"

The anti-fans are always on standby, ready to condemn, in rabid terms, whatever commentary falls under the large and leaky rhetorical umbrella called "hate speech." Virtually any sentiment uttered by a conservative voice qualifies. I am always stunned into momentary silence, no matter how many of these calls I pick up.

"Am I right?" the caller demanded. "Because that's the road she's started down, and that's where this diatribe is going!" Barbara was reading a Los Angeles Timesarticle that questioned whether some black and Latino students were academically prepared to function in universities once they had been recruited into the system through affirmative action. The caller declined my invitation to challenge the idea on the air, though his outrage was palpable.

A significant number of off-air callers identify themselves as gay or black. Some are anti-fans clearly trying to bait me into a homophobic or racist response. Others might be characterized as closet fans, offering timid or reluctant agreement with the host through the producer. Contact with me is enough to bring them out of the closet, but that's as close to broad daylight as they care to get.

"Would you like to get on the air with that comment?" I ask.

"Oh, no! My voice is too recognizable," they quickly hang up.

Occasionally I persuade them to talk on the air.

"I don't like you," a black man named Earl says to Michael Savage, who is arguably KSFO's most controversial host. "But I learn from you, so I listen every day."

Michael uses Earl's call to validate himself and promote the radio station. He deftly executes this bit of show business, and dismisses Earl in order to expound on the enlightenment KSFO might offer to people of all colors and persuasions, if only they were receptive. I sense that Earl's comment was not quite so literal. What Earl is learning, I think, is much larger than Michael Savage, or KSFO, and more complex than Earl himself could have articulated, no matter how long he'd been kept on the air. I've been trying to articulate it from the inside for months.

Confession of a Political Pornographer

I am a political pornographer, a facilitator of something profane. I am the barker at the door of the red-light district in Utopia. An anonymous guy in an overcoat sneaks in for the show. When he pulls back the red velvet curtain, he lets go, briefly, of the behavioral requirements of life in Utopia. It feels good, but it feels bad, too. And God forbid his next-door neighbor should see him leave the booth.

An hour or two of right-wing dirty talk puts him in touch with his nasty, insensitive, self-interested, tribal, misogynistic side. In our establishment, he can relieve the pressure, and yet remain aloof. In the light of day, he can face the neighbors, squeaky clean, appropriately PC, devoid of the sin of hate.

He commits a thousand acts of hate each day, according to the standard-bearers of behavior. A careless word, an ill-considered joke, a preference or a principle, a personal goal ... all wave the red flag of incipient hate. The citizen proceeds through life with extreme caution. Should the citizen heed the race or gender of every person, or instead find some wordless way to assert that we are all the same? In honoring the differences between us, will he forget to discount their importance? Should he elevate group identity above individual identity? Or not? One slip from the behavioral high-wire brings social reproach at best, career or financial disaster at worst.

The citizen, no matter his politics, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, is squeezed in a clamp of political correctness, and faced with public castigation if he departs from the acceptable line of thought or speech, even to point out an obvious truth.

Free speech, like the sex trade, raises eyebrows. Its practitioners can be targets of scorn. What do real pornographers say, I wonder, when a new acquaintance asks what they do for a living?

Do they try, case by case and person by person, to anticipate the likely reaction? Are they ever too tired, or not in the mood, to project confidence about the value of their work? Do they fear rebuff, even those who are satisfied in their work? Do they hesitate momentarily, then offer a generic answer?

"I'm, uh, I'm in video distribution."

My work is important and meaningful. My work is the living manifestation of the very founding principle of this country. I have been broadened, and smartened, and strengthened by my work.

I, uh, I work at a radio station.

Designer Hate

"You are bigoted garbage," the caller tells Barbara.

"Why?" She is curious, rather than defensive. I have my finger on the button already, prepared to bounce him if he gets obscene. Barbara is more relaxed.

"Because you are. You're a bigot."

"Why?" Barbara asks again.

"You made very hateful remarks."

"What did I say that was hateful?" She had questioned Supervisor Tom Ammiano's qualifications to be mayor of San Francisco. Ammiano's political rise was fueled with gay issues, she'd said. He is unable, possibly unwilling, to move beyond identity politics in order to take on the larger task of running a city.

They go back and forth for several minutes. Barbara knows exactly what she said. She repeats her words and prods the caller to identify the offensive portions. Although he is unable to do so, he clings to his charges of bigotry. His focus, interestingly, is less on Ammiano's qualifications than on whether Barbara's intent was to injure with her words.

"Your remarks are quite vicious. They're quite mean-spirited," he says. "And this is not the first time you've made cruel remarks about gay people. You meant to offend."

"No, I didn't. You're being overly sensitive."

"And you're bigoted garbage."

It's becoming clear to me that hate as a political concept is a diversion, calculated to keep the citizens engaged in brainless squabbles, while politicians from both parties raid the pantry unnoticed.

This brand of hate, largely nonthreatening and rather nonspecific in nature, is not hate at all, but a political byproduct manufactured from scraps of uncensored thought and opinion; let's call it "designer hate." It's a favorite core component of post-civil rights era political machinery. Designer hate offers an efficient method to divide and conquer. What could be more divisive than encouraging ordinary people to believe that they are either hated, or full of hate?

Designer hate is a powerful tool for expanding taxes and regulation. Who could argue with a policy to protect, a program to educate, legislation to compensate, the victims of hate? They all carry significant price tags, of course, and significant opportunities to energize constituencies, pass laws, and reward cronies. They all make the government larger, and the citizen smaller. And almost always, they are ineffective, or miserably corrupt, or both.

Here in the city that hates hate, we were given a textbook example last year when a scandal surfaced at City Hall. San Francisco uses an affirmative action program while awarding city building contracts. Administered by the benignly named Human Rights Commission, the program ostensibly corrects for the inequities resulting from hate. Whether through ineptitude, or outright corruption, city contracts have been handed, under extremely questionable circumstances, to one of the mayor's friends, a minority individual who had previously been convicted for abusing the city's minority contracting program. The program, now under investigation by the FBI, is a testament to the value of designer hate as an instrument of power and profit for political insiders.

Occasionally, the political elite pull their hands from the cookie jar just long enough to stir the hate pot anew. The word is redefined yet again to suit the opportunity of the moment. Another cycle of hate-news keeps the word on our lips, and the thought uppermost in our minds. It resonates at our deepest level, it echoes the earliest and simplest training we were able to grasp -- be nice. The niceness imperative occupies a large piece of moral real estate in most of us, having been the first and most basic social lesson of toddlerhood.

The citizens gracefully receive their slap on the wrist from the nanny-state, embracing self-reform. They accept ever broadened definitions of the word "hate," and ever more sweeping extensions of the concept, seemingly without question. They relinquish their right to hate, and then to speak of hate, and then to speak.

Hate of an 11-Year-Old

"Let's talk to Jamie, he's 11 years old. Hi Jamie." The hosts love to put kids on the air. Even if they have little to say, the cute factor nearly always makes good radio.

"Are you talking about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence today?" Jamie asked.

"Yes we are."

"Good, because I hate all faggots! If they come near me, I'll kill them."

Radio people measure their working lives in seconds. A missed cue results in two seconds of silence that sounds like an eternity, yet a 30-second sign-off can be impossibly short. The rookies can be distinguished from the veterans by the way they work with seconds. A real pro can write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. On this day, the day I encountered the one and only moment of authentic hate in my unfolding talk radio career, I was still a rookie. I had seven seconds -- the delay between what is said, and what is broadcast -- to react, which is, in fact, a very long time.

Did he say what I think he said? The little bastard lied to me! He was perfectly angelic when I screened him. Do I hit the button? Strictly speaking, he didn't use an obscenity. And yet, he was outrageous. The host had already hung up, and was issuing a rebuke. Yes, that's the smart response. Censure, not censor. I turned my head to look at the button, which appeared to be a thousand miles away. I was glued to the spot. My seven seconds were gone.

Today it would take me a microsecond to dump the little creep -- but not because of his unsavory message. As a Libertarian, I reject the notion that hateful idiots should be censored. The utterances of hateful idiots are full of valuable information. In civilized society, so-called hate speech is one of the only primitive scents we still carry. It sends a signal to others. It tweaks intuition, provides a social sorting tool, and offers lessons to everyone who encounters it.

Nonetheless, if Jamie repeated his stunt today, it would never hit the air. I would bounce him, not to suppress his words, but to protect the integrity of my product, which I have learned to love. I would do it to keep his homophobic remark from creating a moment of validation, accidentally or not, for the anti-fan claim that conservative radio is hate radio. I would give the anti-fans a moment of sanitized radio. Isn't that something they clamor for? Given the choice, wouldn't the anti-fans take sanitized radio over having to endure the immature rant of a badly brought-up 11-year-old? I wonder if they would be angered knowing that I made the choice for them.

Sometimes I listen to the real hate radio, from the BBC World Service, where they serve up bloody marketplace bombings, mass torture, institutionalized rape, and other horrors that are commonplace around the world. In these places, hate is a fact of daily life, woven into the warp and the weft of social fabric. Why do we conduct an obsessive search for hate under every American bed, when a survey of the world illustrates that we harbor little of it? Have we become so confused by designer hate that we think it's the real thing? Are we so out of touch with the big picture?

Deep in our American souls we know the difference. Aberrant incidents like the Wyoming murder of Matthew Shepard and the Texas pickup truck dragging of James Byrd are barometers of the American attitude toward real hate. The American people were unanimous in their horror and rage. In both areas, the locals rushed to avert regional stereotypes, publicly condemning the attitudes behind the killings. The trials produced stern justice with minimum deliberation, supported in spirit by the entire population. In this country we find real hate repugnant, and we give it little room to breathe.

Sex and Hell

Every phone line in the studio is blinking. The on-air discussion has turned to sex education, and the introduction of gay sex into the curriculum. I answer the KSFO listener line for roughly the zillionth time in 18 months, sounding, if I do say so myself, as chipper as I did on my first day.

"KSFO, do you have a comment for Barbara?"

"The haters are preaching hate again." His tone is deliberately menacing. "She sounds just like Hitler right now. You're all a bunch of Nazis."

Abruptly, I abandon my regular phone policy, which prescribes treating even the nastiest anti-fans with detached politeness.

"Why don't you change the station!" I snap. "We're not in a one-station town. If this is so upsetting to you, why don't you listen to something else?"

"Because I'm on a one-man crusade against hate. Hate equals hell, and you're all going to hell."

This is not the first suggestion that my immortal soul is in danger. I take a moment to contemplate a hell filled with pornographers and talk show personnel.

"Perhaps in hell they are more tolerant of diverse opinions," I reply. But he's already gone.

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