Capitol Alert

On talk radio, recovering politicians seek second act

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness talks during his radio show with Ryan Harris at KFBK on Aug. 17 in Sacramento. McGinness said he wants his show to feel like a coffeehouse conversation with friends.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness talks during his radio show with Ryan Harris at KFBK on Aug. 17 in Sacramento. McGinness said he wants his show to feel like a coffeehouse conversation with friends. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

For nearly 30 years, former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock hosted a talk radio show, weaving his trademark sarcasm into defenses of limited government and riffs on liberals to become perhaps the most accomplished past politician on the airwaves.

But before stepping down from his nationally syndicated program this year, Hedgecock took fellow Republican Carl DeMaio to lunch to gauge his interest in hosting a new show. DeMaio, a former San Diego councilman coming off his second successive defeat, said he was intrigued by the possibilities.

Though he’d been a guest presenter on programs, DeMaio said he still worried about whether he could converse on air for three hours a day, five days a week. “Roger laughed and said, ‘You are a recovering politician. Of course you can talk for that amount of time,’” DeMaio recalled.

In April, the “DeMaio-Sullivan Report” premiered on KOGO (600 AM), offering Southern Californians three hours of daily banter about topics as varying as infidelity, Caitlyn Jenner, police brutality and public employee pensions – a favorite topic of DeMaio’s.

He joined a long list of current and former officeholders to land positions on radio, a once-ailing medium with historic roots in activating marginalized constituencies. In California, Hedgecock, Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, former Treasurer Phil Angelides, former Rep. Dan Lungren and ex-Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness all have sat behind a radio microphone for hours at a time.

It has been years since politicians could rely solely on nightly television news to reach their intended audience. The radio shows – which vary from news- and caller-heavy to outrage-fueled, reactionary formats – permit would-be candidates to remain relevant in their markets at a time of increasingly fractured media, said Eric Jaye, founder and president of Storefront Political Media in San Francisco.

Talk radio can become a kind of favor bank for hosts, affording their like-minded guests access to their audiences, Jaye said. The programs also provide former elected officials with a steady stream of content for their social media accounts and other digital channels.

“They are becoming their own publishers,” Jaye said of the officials. “And when you are your own publisher, there is a constant demand for content.”

Nationally, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg have had standing radio slots, as did former U.S. senators Bob Dole and Alan Simpson as part of a point-counterpoint with the late Edward Kennedy. Former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Eliot Spitzer of New York and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan all hosted their own television shows.

The learning curve can be steep, and many elected officials never find their footing, “but if you can get down the broadcasting operations part, talk radio is filled with passionate listeners who want to change and fix government programs,” said Ric Grenell, a GOP strategist and Fox News media contributor.

“Whether it’s conservative or liberal, people are interested enough to turn on the radio every single day to listen to detailed policy proposals,” he said.

Weeks after DeMaio’s debut, Tim Donnelly, the former assemblyman and tea party favorite who ran unsuccessfully for governor, launched “The Tim Donnelly Show” on KIXW (960 AM) in the Inland Empire. Democrats are a constant target, but so is the GOP, which Donnelly described as one of the planet’s most effective anti-conservative organizations. “If they think you are any sort of threat to win, they mow you down,” he said.

Broadcasting from deep behind enemy lines in the occupied territory of the Socialist Republic of California.

From the introduction to “The Tim Donnelly Show”

McGinness, who spent more than three decades in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, described his on-air persona as one of a “relaxed professor” calmly imparting knowledge. He said he wants the show to feel like a coffeehouse conversation with friends.

Leaning forward in his studio at Sacramento’s KFBK (1530 AM/93.1 FM) one recent afternoon, McGinness spent the better part of an hour agreeing with listeners who wanted to talk about the rise of “trophy culture” in youth sports. One father called in to confess that he agreed with his daughter’s coach when she was benched in favor of a better player. McGinness was sympathetic to the dad.

“It’s very, very rare you find someone who excels at everything,” he said, later using talk radio as an example. “It’s a competitive field, and if your ratings aren’t there, then you lose your show.”

After holding the gig for five years – staying power that McGinness believes is proof of his success – his name still gets mentioned for political offices, including the perennial toss-up congressional district that takes in his Folsom home. Off-air, McGinness insisted he isn’t interested in running. “No,” he said. “Not a chance.”

Other hosts are cagier about their future plans as they use radio forums to advance their political agendas. Some conservatives say the platform allows them to bypass what they see as the inherent bias of news media.

“We don’t always get the opportunity to clearly express our contrary point of view to the controlling (Democratic) party’s,” said Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno, a career broadcast executive and talk radio host who owned stations in California and Idaho. “We think there is a different pathway to prosperity, job creation, roads, streets, health care. Quite frankly, we have a tool generally in California where the talk stations provide a forum for our side to be heard and our side to be in front of very large audiences.”

The shows are sometimes a place to settle old scores – and score points. Donnelly uses his program to promote a proposed repeal of a state law mandating the use of vaccines, while DeMaio rallies support on air for his planned statewide initiative to reform public employee pensions. (He noted that Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, has come on his show as part of a commitment to reflect opposing viewpoints.)

I find Donald Trump just anathema and a mess – toxic. But he’s like one of these wrecks by the side of the road. You can’t help but look.

Former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio on his July 15 radio show

DeMaio, who married his longtime partner Johnathan Hale earlier this year, has featured former Boy Scouts who are gay and would like to be troop leaders. He spent time talking about Jenner’s transition to a woman, including complimenting the former Olympic champion on her looks and asking: “Why did the liberal media have such a problem with Jenner being a Republican?” “You think Rush Limbaugh would talk about that in that manner?” DeMaio asked. “No way.”

The DeMaio-Sullivan show also has contracted with freelance journalists to do original reporting on topics like foster care and for-profit colleges. “You can’t just point out problems,” he said. “You need to be part of the solution. Unlike a newsroom, I can actually drive the solutions.”

Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant working against the pension measure, said he isn’t concerned about the influence of GOP-led radio, offering that the hosts are “preaching to the choir.” “Their spillover with mainstream audiences is minimal because most people don’t care about politics,” he said.

“Nobody shows up to vote anymore, and part of the reason why is the mockery of people on talk radio. They are trying to make government and Democrats unappealing. But really, they are a lot of noise in a world with more and more information overload.”

The programs have nonetheless played an important role in state politics, particularly in the run-up to the 2003 recall election of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Radio hosts hit him repeatedly as the state suffered through financial problems and an energy crisis. As the campaign against him ramped up, he defended his eroding popularity by declaring that “most governors we have elected probably wouldn’t be talk-show hosts.”

He wasn’t talking about California’s current governor.

Brown hosted “We the People” on Berkeley-based KPFA (94.1 FM), a stint that received fresh scrutiny when he ran for his third term as governor in 2010. On the show, he called capital punishment “state murder,” and unfavorably compared Bill Clinton to Richard Nixon.

Brown said in a 1994 Newsday report that he appreciated the value of a format that gave him a few hours a day to explore the issues.

“There’s a narrative in the talk-show format whereas the mainstream media is like acupuncture of entertainment and isolation,” he said. “Your brain is agitated, but your mind is not engaged.”

Some hosts don’t wait to leave office. As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom had a radio call-in show, where he interviewed city officials but branched out to guests like chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams.

I was shocked that people actually listened.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

As lieutenant governor, he signed on to host a weekly show on Current TV.

“The medium has changed,” Newsom said in an interview. “You want to broaden your reach and appeal. You want to make a case that you are more than just what folks in the local newspaper are saying about you. It’s a way for people to get to know you in a more three-dimensional way.”

Newsom said the program, which he left in 2013 when the network was sold, allowed him to dive into subjects beyond public policy: Google co-founder Sergey Brin let him wear Google Glass, and he drove around in a Tesla car with company founder Elon Musk. Newsom interviewed baseball legend Willie Mays and cyclist Lance Armstrong, who he said “notably misled me and the public about his use of steroids.”

A candidate for governor in 2018, Newsom suspects that opponents will peruse the tapes, but he shrugs at the possibility of political damage.

“It’s all fair game,” he said.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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