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R: PHX, S: FEATURES, D: 11/25/1999, B: Dan Kennedy,


Clean elections and the demise of talk radio

by Dan Kennedy

Massachusetts last week came within a few gubernatorial pen strokes of losing the Clean Elections Law, a ballot measure voters had approved the previous November by a two-to-one margin. But even though Governor Paul Cellucci deserves credit for keeping some measure of faith with the electorate, the larger question -- how the state's elected officials dared to throw out a voter-passed measure as if it were yesterday's newspaper -- remains unanswered.

For what it's worth, here's one theory: the demise of political talk radio. In the 1980s, hosts such as WRKO's Jerry Williams, now in (temporary?) retirement, and Gene Burns, now in San Francisco, turned up the populist heat to a slow boil. State House switchboards were jammed every time Williams, in particular, inveighed against the seat-belt law (eventually overturned in a Williams-led referendum), legislative pay raises, or then-governor Michael Dukakis's plan to build a prison in New Braintree. As for the prospect that the legislature and the governor would throw out voter-approved measures such as Proposition 2 1/2, which took a huge bite out of property taxes -- well, that just wasn't going to happen.

"If talk radio were really focused on this, I would think you'd have a lot of phone calls to legislators," says Barbara Anderson, co-director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, who appeared regularly on Williams's show in the 1980s to push her organization's anti-tax agenda. In part because the airwaves are now silent, she adds, elected officials have concluded they can get away with almost anything -- even eviscerating a referendum approved overwhelmingly by the public. "Barring them getting caught kicking a puppy, most of them get re-elected. I think they finally have perhaps recognized that," Anderson says ruefully, calling on voters to kick out "maybe a couple, just to set an example."

Talk radio today is mostly entertainment, and much of it consists of syndicated national hosts such as Don Imus, Howard Stern, and Dr. Laura. WBZ's David Brudnoy, who's been around since the 1970s, and WBUR's Christopher Lydon are intelligent local hosts whose topics include politics, but both are too urbane to lead a populist revolt. And WRKO's Howie Carr, a Boston Herald columnist who used to appear regularly with Williams and Anderson to whack the Dukakis administration, is today more likely to yuck it up with a has-been from Laverne and Shirley than to talk about state government.

Indeed, Williams himself, the dean of talk radio, wonders whether he could have the same impact today. In the 1950s and '60s, he recalls, he was able to do shows about the Boston City Council. Today, by contrast, people barely know who their elected officials are. "Nobody knows anything. Everybody's boring," Williams says. "I imagine if the president of the Senate walked out in front of the State House, no one would know who he is."

There are rumors Williams will soon be back on the air at a new talk station with old call letters, WMEX, though Williams himself won't discuss those rumors. But in the current environment, he says, he's skeptical whether even an old-fashioned I'm-mad-as-hell talk-radio jeremiad would have made the difference on an issue as dry as the recent shenanigans on Beacon Hill.

"I know I could do something about the landing strip in East Boston. That I could definitely do," Williams says. "But the budget -- Jesus, sorry."