Talk Radio Turns The Town On Its Ear (December 16, 1984)

An extraordinary thing happened to Neil Rogers, the radio talk-show
personality, last Sunday. His picture appeared on the front page of The
Miami Herald. And the accompanying story didn’t take a single pot shot
at him.

The occasion was a survey of public reaction to the newest South Florida
immigration controversy, in which a new wave of Cuban refugees seems all
but guaranteed. This new wave is widely predicted to become the largest
yet — 300,000 over the next 10 to 20 years is the figure most cited —
and there is lots of talk about it, much of it fueled by talk-show hosts.

There was lots of talk four years ago, when more than 100,000 Cubans
took Jimmy Carter up on his open-door policy before the door was slammed
shut again. Rogers was less lucky then.

On his WNWS radio show, he rallied his audience to protest the boatlift,
to try to slow it down somehow. Rogers claimed then that the sudden
infusion might well bring with it a kind of immigrant that no country
wants — drug dealers, street thieves and the like. When Rogers was
discussed then, in both the Spanish-language and “Anglo” media, he and
his station were called polarizers, even bigots.

Recent history may have something to do with it, or perhaps it’s just
that Rogers, who is now at WINZ, refuses to go away, but criticism of
him these days is not quite so shrill. It may be premature to say that
Rogers has gained a measure of respect, but he is being taken
seriously, and so is what he does.

It is about time that this community came to terms with its brand of
talk radio, which is contentious and sometimes frivolous, but which
continues to hammer away at local issues with a conviction that is
usually found only on the editorial pages of big-city newspapers. Paying
attention to Neil Rogers and his audience is a good thing — he even
turned up in a New York Times story last week on Florida reaction to the
refugee issue — and it would be a good thing even if Rogers were the
unreconstructed jerk that his detractors maintain. The same is true of
Al Rantel, the morning voice at Rogers’ old station, WNWS.

We can rail and whine all we want about their views — and this has been
done by a number of community institutions, from the local Catholic
archdiocese to Miami city officials in
Rogers’ case. But we cannot easily dismiss what these men do. Their
reach is simply too long.

Decision-makers and opinion-shapers in town have been slow to come to
terms with talk radio because they have little chance to listen. They
don’t listen during the day, because they’re at work; they don’t listen
at night, presumably because they are at committee meetings, charity
balls and theater openings or, on a slow night, watching (public) TV.

For those otherwise engaged, it’s easy to assume that nothing is going on.

But something is going on. Housewives and students and night-shift
workers and people who must drive for a living listen to Rantel in the
morning (9 a.m. to noon). Some of the same people listen to Rogers at
night (7 p.m. to midnight), and they are joined in the early evening
hours by the young and middle-aged who aren’t watching TV, and in the
late hours by the over-60s who don’t sleep so much. If you listen to the
calls, you hear Anglo voices and black voices and Hispanic voices.

And during recent weeks, if you listened to the guests, you have heard
officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the head of the
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and community figures
ranging from everyone’s favorite Black Spokesman, Dr. Marvin Dunn, to
the editor of The Miami News, Howard Kleinberg.

Whether you listen or not, you can thus understand that this is not the
talk radio of chicken-soup psychics and over- the-hill celebrities and
fad-book authors on tour. This is the real thing, the same people who
command respect, or at least attention, when they appear on television
or are quoted in the newspapers. The audience, as estimated by the
several ratings services, runs well into the hundreds of thousands each
week.

So it is worth paying attention to what Rogers and Rantel are up to,
particularly since they are up to it together. During the radio wars,
they were combatants, but the prospect of another Mariel led to a
private hatchet-burying. Now each, on his show, refers to “the other
station” being involved in a revival of Rogers’ “SOS” (Save Our South
Florida) postcard campaign. On the terms of the endless-loop mutual
reinforcement of the talk-radio audience, this is roughly analagous to
The Herald and The News writing joint editorials.

Already, both men say, they have “stacks” of mail. Some of this will
come to nothing, of course; it’s an idiosyncrasy of talk radio that it
attracts people who merely want the host to say he likes them, and to
hear it said on the air. But many of the postcards will go out, to the
White House and Congress.

In assessing their ability to give voice to the community, it matters
little whether Rantel and Rogers are, in fact, bigots. But in this
issue, it is important to remind those who haven’t heard either that, on
issues other than immigration, both are as likely to take the “Latin”
side of an issue as the “Anglo” side when the two diverge.

Rantel recently got religion on the question of American intervention in
Central America, and was hailed briefly by the Latin right for urging
listeners to petition President Reagan in support of the Nicaraguan
contras, a campaign he is continuing side-by-side with SOS.

And Rogers is a vigorous civil libertarian who has a near- obsession
with “balance.” Though a fervent critic of organized religion, for
instance, Rogers routinely brings religious spokesmen onto his show,
and once they’re on he does not pull the insult bait-and-switch; he
allows equal time and treats his guests politely.

And recently, on the immigration issue, Rogers has had a good number
of Hispanic callers; interestingly, on a random sample of nights last
week, they split just about 50/50 on whether the “new wave” is a good thing.

Both men have been at pains to tell their audience that what is wanted
is a comprehensive immigration reform that applies equally to all, and
both have said they mean “Norwegians” as well as Cubans. Each hammers
away at the “quality of life” issue, and each asks who is going to pay
for another immigration wave.

The “racist” tag won’t stick, not if you listen for a while, and neither
will the charge that Rogers and Rantel are “just in it for the
ratings.” It’s an axiom of the talk business that you don’t stay hot
long unless you have variety — in topics, in the guest mix, even in the
voices of callers. Harping on a single topic day after day is no way to
build ratings — and Rogers, who is perennially high-rated, rarely
does it. Neither had Rantel, until he discovered Nicaragua.

Both men have that big, eager audience. And each, lest we forget, has
his counterpart on Spanish-language radio, an influence on the body
politic that is even more “hidden” from the conventional power structure.

For years we have been saying in this space that South Florida talk
radio is, for better or worse, one of our community’s distinctly
indigenous institutions; no other major city seems to have anything
quite like it, when you consider that with WOCN and WRHC (the
Spanish-language AMs) we have four high-rated news-and-talk stations in
two languages — each of which spends much of its time on political issues.

Now, the talkers have begun to flex their muscles again. Whether or not
we agree with them, we must give them their due: They are talking to
South Florida, and listening to it, in a way that no other medium can.
We would be making a mistake to underestimate them, and we would be
downright wrong to dismiss them as mere rabble-rousers.
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Copyright © 1984 The Miami Herald December 16, 1984 by Bill Cosford

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