"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.
"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.