Syndicated radio host Mike Gallagher is rated sixth in the world of talk radio. He's leading his 9 to 11 a.m. slot Thursday morning talking about Democratic Senator Zell Miller. Miller's fire-breathing keynote address is the talk of Radio Row at the Republican National Convention.
"A Democratic turncoat is a conservative radio host's dream," Gallagher says just before going on the air.
Conservative talkers like Gallagher own the mornings at Madison Square Garden. It's an echo-chamber of conservative ideology. More than 100 hosts chatter and yell, some with flailing arms, some relaxed. There are maybe a half dozen liberal talkers on Radio Row, most prominently the folks from Al Franken's Air America.
The truth is liberals – and Democrats – covet the great megaphone that is talk radio. But talk radio is like Texas -- there are liberal corners but its Bush country as far as the eye can see (or the ear can hear, in this case).
Local Dallas host Darrell Ankarlo says talk radio's conservative bent is only controversial "when you go through liberal areas."When you go through the Heartland," Ankarlo says, "[it's what] you are going to hear."
"It has sass," Gallagher says of conservative talk, including the Fox News Channel in his analysis. Fox beat all other television networks – the over-the-air networks included -- in convention ratings Tuesday night. The sense from Gallagher is that ratings come from "Right-on" talk. Right-on in political bent and truth, he asserts.
The room overflows with theories on why liberals fail at talk radio. Nationally syndicated Geoff Metcalf says it's because the mainstream media is liberal and "that appears to be the perception and the reality."
Nashville's Steve Gill, who does "conservative activist stuff," says, "Liberals have failed in talk radio because a crucible of ideas is what talk radio is all about." Breaking from his rush hour morning show, he adds, "Liberals have depended on emotion."
"Liberals are simply not wired intellectually and emotionally to be receptive to talk radio," claims Scott Hogenson, the Republican National Committee radio director.
"It doesn't mean they are not smart. It means talk radio is not the sort of medium that is going to trigger their judgment and perception motivator," he explains.
Allowing for the dominance of conservative talk, former Fox's News Channel host and now Fox Radio morning man, Tony Snow, is skeptical of radio's reach.
"I think maybe on the margins," he says, breaking from his show, holding a National Review in his hands. "I don't think people turn on the radio and say I am going to get my views there. It's a big kitchen table."
It all started in 1987. When Federal Communications Commission repealed the "fairness" doctrine – which stated that since airways are public political views must be balanced – the flood gates opened thereafter.
In 1994, the force of conservative talk radio materialized massively. The giant of the medium, Rush Limbaugh, was considered instrumental in helping the Republicans recapture Congress.
After Limbaugh, Sean Hannity is the number two talk jock. When Hannity walks on the convention floor a woman yells, "We love you Hannity." GOP delegates want their picture taken with him.
They stop Mike Gallagher for autographs too. One woman cried to him. Others just want a handshake. In Madison Square Garden these men, mostly men, are celebrities of the highest order.
"It's unbelievable," says Gallagher, exhaling, genuinely bewildered. "Here I've been posing for pictures every night, signing autographs." He says that a talk radio fan is a Fox viewer and so the Fox men have extra cache and Gallagher is also a contributor on Fox television.
Outside the convention, in the city of five Democrats from every Republican, he quips, "I've only been called a Nazi here there times."
"If I have a Fox jacket, I cover it up so nobody sees it," Gallagher goes on. "No, I think it's a hoot. We had protesters outside my apartment building the other night and I thought, oh great, they found me."
A June study by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 45 percent of listeners to talk shows on radio were conservatives, compared to 18 percent that are liberal.
Talkers magazine has found that over half of the listeners are between 35 and 64; 64 percent are white and 54 percent are male. By their numbers, there are more than three conservatives for every liberal listening, twice as many Republicans than Democrats.
But as Gallagher lauds "turncoat" Georgia Senator Miller and stokes the fire over Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, he insists that they're not preaching to the choir.
"Inevitably we've had an impact I hear everyday from people who tell me, boy Gallagher I don't even vote, I never voted before I started listening to you," he says proudly. But Gallagher emphasizes "our goal is to be entertaining first and enlighten audiences second."
"Our mission is to do great radio. It just so happens it has evolved over the years with people like Rush who sort of exploded our medium," he continues. He adds that liberals "get a little duped because they forget we are just radio hosts. We are not splitting atoms."
As he explains, one day he may talk about Georgia's Miller but the next day "I might talk to the fat lady that sat next to me on the airplane."
And were they ever talking about Miller Thursday morning, the room overflowing with kudos for the Democratic backer of President Bush.
"I think Zell lit it up," Nashville's Gill says. "There are a lot of southern Democrats who are still voting Democrat not because they agree with gay marriage, or abortion, or higher taxes… but because their great grand daddy was a Democrat."
Gill shoots into his shtick: "If the God-fearing, gun owning, baby loving, men and women marrying, too high tax paying southern conservative vote."
Gill, like Gallagher, can turn it on at a moments notice.
"I'm just passionate about doing this," Gallagher explains. "Not only changing people minds maybe but also saying that was one entertaining radio show."
Entertaining makes good ratings. And as they all chase Limbaugh's 15 to 20 million listeners -- Gallagher has 2.5 million -- the right-radio lot was feeling good about the GOP gathering.
Gallagher says "the one-two punch of the swift boat vets and the convention," will give President Bush "a big spike." Later on the air with another Dallas radio host, Mark Davis, Gallagher blurts, "I think that the ship has sailed [for Democrats]."
"And that ship takes the form of a swift boat," Davis replies as he rattles away. "This convention continues the momentum that those courageous Swift boat veterans started," the conservative Texan continues. "When push comes to shove Nov. 2, you and I know who they are going to vote for."
Gallagher leans back, smiles triumphantly and says, "Oh, it feels good to be a Republican this week."
By David Paul Kuhn