BRANCACCIO: Turn on talk radio nowadays and you'll hear a pretty consistent message.
O'REILLY: But the Democrats can't win unless they emphasize class envy.
HAMBLIN: They do what Democrats do. You know, they go crazy. They beat their mothers. They kick their dogs.
LIMBAUGH: 'Cause the liberal media has been the liberal media for as long as there's been the media...
BRANCACCIO: It's almost a mantra on talk radio today: liberals are either naïve or outright dangerous. Liberals own the mass media: the papers, the network news, NPR and the like. And so the only place you're gonna get the truth is right here on your radio.
HANNITY: You never hear liberals complaining about spending money anywhere unless of course, it has to do with our military.
BRANCACCIO: Talk shows on commercial radio tilt so far to the right it makes your neck hurt. But you knew that. What you may not know is that talk radio matters. A Gallup Poll finds that one in four Americans get some of their daily news from talk radio, double just five years ago. And as this political year gets rolling, it's important to understand a medium with the power to move elections.
We've come to Portland, Oregon , a known hotbed of liberalism and even here, you can do this little experiment: flick on a.m. radio and out comes a refresher course in the charms of conservatism, courtesy of nationally-syndicated stars like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage. By our calculations, about 85% of Oregon's talk shows are conservative.
And Oregon's also got some stand-out, home grown talent.
KXL PROMO CLIP: The undisputed #1 local talk show host in the Northwest! It's Lars! Lars! Lars!
LARSON: Good afternoon seven minutes after the hour. You've got the Lars Larson show...
BRANCACCIO: Lars Larson is the #1 rated talk show host in Oregon, and a highly influential player in state politics. Known for his sharp-tongue as well as his trademark .32 Beretta, Larson has the ear of nearly one in eight Oregonians.
LARSON: …about the vaguely French-looking, Botox-denying John Kerry winning, and saying that from his perch as "Mr. Theresa Heinz," heir to the Heinz fortune, worth about half a billion dollars, he will speak out against the privileged and the special interests, like he's not one.
BRANCACCIO: Larson has a slew of favorite targets, putting the skewer into everything from Oregon's Democratic governor to the state's biggest paper, which he calls 'the daily dead fish wrapper.'
Larson's current mission is to make sure a proposal to raise taxes in Oregon is stopped at the ballot box.
LARSON: The retroactive and non-withheld tax increase which if voted through on Tuesday is gonna be taken out of your hide because it has not been taken out of your paycheck.
BRANCACCIO: It's called Measure 30, and Larson wants it squashed. The media war being waged over 'Measure 30' provides a fascinating window into the role that talk radio plays in American politics.
Oregon's budget is a mess, hit hard by the recent recession. It's such a mess that last year, Republicans and Democrats in the legislature joined together and passed a bill, a tax increase to avoid deep cuts in education, health care, and other government services. For the average taxpayer in Oregon, the increase would've added about $70 a year to their taxes.
But then came the anti-tax activists. They gathered enough signatures to stop the tax increase, and instead, let Oregon's voters decide.
LARSON: Now you have all of these State leaders; legislators, heads of school districts, the governor, all advocating in favor of the biggest tax increase in State history. Knowing that the majority of their constituents by one estimate early on, 70 percent oppose it. Now this is why talk radio is becoming so popular. Is that government has become 'tone deaf.' Government can be told ten times, "don't do that!" And they do it anyway.
BRANCACCIO: The local press is full of stories about the drastic cuts that will have to occur if Measure 30 fails. Most newspaper editors have repeatedly urged Oregonians to bite the bullet and pass the tax increase.
But for Larson, their dire predictions have become the stuff of parody.
LARSON: You hear lots of "No on 30" talk on the Lars Larson show. We want you to hear one of the positive spots in favor of voting for Ballot Measure 30. Take a listen at this.
PARODY ADVERTISEMENT: If you don't vote yes on 30, we will throw your grandma into a snowbank without her meds. And all violent criminals will be released from prison and run amok in your neighborhood. Middle and highschools will shut down permanently, rendering your children to a sixth grade education. Your dog will hate you…This non-biased purely informational message has been paid for by your tax dollars. This is your last chance to send us more of them. Paid for by the "We Need Every Single Last Dollar You Have Committee."
LARSON: Now isn't that nice? Some of that non-biased information that they're putting out just purely for your information…
LARSON: This is what Oregon government does, it says, "Pass this tax increase or we'll hurt this old lady, we'll throw this little kid out of school, we'll take this person who's medically needy and we'll cut their medicine." It's the baldest form of extortion.
BRANCACCIO: But your heart doesn't soften when you hear police officers, health administrators say, "We really need this tax increase?"
LARSON: No it doesn't, and I'll tell you why. What the legislature did was it said, "We will cut the things people care the most about, and we will keep intact those things that if you put them up to a vote they'd go down in flames."
LARSON: Let's go to Steve in Tuolome. Steve welcome to the Lars Larson show.
SCHOPP: Hi Lars, another great show. I'll tell ya…
BRANCACCIO: Meet Steve Schopp, loyal Lars Larson listener. He's got a small construction business in Portland.
SCHOPP: What public officials knew this? And, and when did they know it?
LARSON: Once again, I'm going to bring up the fact that the Daily Dead Fish Wrapper buried this story.
SCHOPP: And this is a typical example of how talk radio fills the void, because this is the only place the conversation's happening.
BRANCACCIO: Schopp is a big consumer of news. He reads the local papers, watches TV news, and scans the Internet. But talk radio is the only place where Schopp feels he really hears the truth.
SCHOPP: I read the paper, the local… THE OREGONIAN paper every morning. And usually that starts me out with some aggravations because I know things to be different than what are reported on a number of issues.
BRANCACCIO: Schopp calls into Larson's show as often as he can. He usually listens in his truck, driving from job to job. Larson's callers have been aflame this week, talking about the forthcoming tax vote.
SCHOPP: There's been such an absolute media blitz in favor of higher taxation by every conceivable media source except talk radio that it's just been staggering.
BRANCACCIO: Now, it's fair to say that Steve Schopp was never going to vote for the tax increase. But media scholars say talk radio's real power is that it's viral, in the nicest possible sense of that word. Talk radio arms repeat listeners like Schopp with carefully selected facts and arguments for use on friends and family.
LARSON: Is the news media going to hold the governor to as close and account as a lot of Democrats like hold the President? I don't think so. Call 'em up! Challenge 'em! Twenty minutes after the hour.
BRANCACCIO: Is there a Lars Larson factor in politics?
LARSON: Sure, sure. If the fact is that to one adult in five in the state of Oregon, I present an alternate point of view, and that gets them to think a second time about whether to vote yes or no. Whether to vote one candidate or another, whether to believe what they're being told by their local government or not, yeah we do make a difference.
BRANCACCIO: The difference talk radio makes can also be heard three thousand miles away. In Palm Beach, Florida, the a.m. radio dial still sounds awfully familiar.
SAVAGE: Every stinking, rotten radical left winger in this country poses a far greater threat to your freedom than does al-Qaeda.
HANNITY: The regulations, the law, the Constitution means nothing to these Democrats when it comes to maintaining power.
LIMBAUGH: The people on the left hold that as a fundamental belief, that the people can't be trusted. The people aren't smart. The people don't have any judgement. I mean, that's the essence of liberalism in the first place…
BRANCACCIO: Palm Beach is the home to the godfather of right-wing talk, Rush Limbaugh.
But in this one radio market, if you keep listening after Limbaugh, you'll hear a rather different perspective.
RHODES: And in two sentences President Bush spent 2 trillion dollars, he talked about making the tax cuts permanent. That is a $1 trillion dollar proposal. And the other sentence was when he talked about privatizing social security, that's a trillion dollars.
BRANCACCIO: This is Randi Rhodes. That rarest of species: a host of an in-your-face talk show that is liberal. And number one in her radio market.
So much for the argument that you often hear that liberals can't make it on commercial radio because they're too namby-pamby, because putting a liberal on a talk station would be like playing Mozart on a country station.
RHODES: So the man stood there and spent 2 trillion dollars in under an hour! That was an expensive night, lemme tell you. I've never seen a woman spend like that! Even when she's in Hermes with her husband's credit card.
BRANCACCIO: Rhodes has tapped into an audience that commercial talk radio programmers usually miss. And Randi's opinions seem to connect with her listeners the same way conservative audiences connect with her competition.
RHODES: For people who are liberal or Democrats, when they hear me, the most often comment, the comment I get most is 'Oh my God. I feel sane. Nobody sounds like me." You know? "And then I found you, and I feel sane."
We're the only industrialized nation that doesn't consider health care to be a civil right. They don't consider 'health' to be a right, and yet they talk about 'right to life.' Look, they love the fetus, they hate the people.
BRANCACCIO: So, why then, is Rhodes' such a lone voice on the radio? There's one answer, which says the radio industry plays 'follow the leader' and with roughly 20 million listeners a week, that conservative named Limbaugh is the leader.
But Rhodes wonders, if it's all about ratings, which she's proven she can deliver, why won't her owners syndicate her show nationally? It is here, Rhodes argues, where politics really matter.
Rhodes' station, WJNO, is owned by the media giant Clear Channel Communications. She argues that if her show went national, her jabs at President Bush and members of Congress might make life uncomfortable for Clear Channel.
RHODES: The media is so corporate now and it's got so much business in front of the administration with deregulation and can you own newspapers, and can you own radio stations and television stations? Can you own radio stations, television stations and newspapers? How many can you own? Can you own all the newspapers in one town? They have so much business in front of Congress they're not gonna rock the boat.
So if they made a few million dollars off of me, nothing compared to what they're gonna make if they got deregulation the way that they want it.
BRANCACCIO: We asked Clear Channel Radio, and they said political considerations play no role in how they decide which hosts to promote. Rhodes has been in talks with a group called Progress Media - they're the startup liberal radio network that has comedian Al Franken on board. But that venture has yet to launch.
BRANCACCIO: But you're really arguing that these big corporations are sucking up to the powers that be by putting on…
RHODES: What other explanation is there?
I mean honestly, there's like five of us, six of us, and how do you explain that when there's 10,000 radio stations? How do you explain that the only people that get syndicated are conservatives?
LARSON: Welcome to the Lars Larson show…
BRANCACCIO: Not only do conservatives like Lars Larson get syndication deals Larson got picked up last year and now airs in dozens of cities nationwide but they're also actively courted by the current administration.
LARSON: I've got a whole list of… I've pulled some White House trivia because I think we can have some fun with that.
BRANCACCIO: Larson is broadcasting from Washington, D.C. today. He's been invited here by the Bush administration for what's called 'Radio Day.'
LARSON: Sir, could you please take us to the White House?
BRANCACCIO: Talk show hosts from around the country are coming to the White House today for some exclusive access to top administration officials.
LARSON: I feel like we hit the lottery because the White House let us know last week that we will have on our interview list, confirmed, Elliot Abrams, Sean O'Keefe the NASA administrator, Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Director, and Donald Rumsfeld. And it just doesn't get much better than that.
BRANCACCIO: Even though it's quite rare to get interviews with anyone from President Bush's cabinet and campaign, they've been frequent guests on local talk radio shows across the country.
The White House refused to give us a list of which talk show hosts were invited to Radio Day. They wouldn't let us film inside.
But judging from Larson's interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there were chummy, conservative-to-conservative moments.
LARSON: My wife says she loves you more than she loves me.
RUMSFELD: Oh give her a hug for me, will you?
LARSON: I'll do that.
BRANCACCIO: A few days later, however, Larson is back on form.
Measure 30 the state's big tax increase is proving unpopular in the polls. Larson's pounding away at it daily. And within a week of the vote, he gets handed a fresh piece of ammunition.
LARSON: Welcome back to the Lars Larson show. We've a big surprise for you before the top of this hour, now…
BRANCACCIO: He gets a call from a group called 'Citizens for a Sound Economy.' They're a national anti-tax group headed by the former Republican majority leader, Dick Armey. The group played a key role in getting Measure 30 on the ballot in the first place.
WALKER: The governor's working on a plan, Lars, he's already come up with a plan to come up with half a billion dollars.
BRANCACCIO: The group's spreading a rumor that Oregon's governor is sitting on a stash of 500 million dollars. But the governor's been saying he's broke. If it's true, it could deal a mortal blow to the push for the new tax increase. It is an explosive tip. And Larson knows it.
LARSON: If the governor really knew, or knows today, about an extra half-billion dollars…
Well whadya think about that - Does the governor know about this?
He knows where there's a half billion dollars, 500 million to fill that budget hole…
BRANCACCIO: With no proof whatsoever that the allegation is true, Larson is running with it.
LARSON: And I want to see if the governor is gonna come clean on this, maybe the information is bad…
Call up every one of your local TV stations, your favorites, call up your daily local newspaper, your daily dead fish wrapper.
BRANCACCIO: Larson's producer comes in during a commercial break with news that listeners are doing what he asked, they're calling other media urging them to pick up on the story.
TAYLOR: KTOO called and they said, call off the dogs, their phone lines are ringing off the walls.
LARSON: So they're gonna call the Governor's office and ask about the half billion?
TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah. They're gonna check it out.
BRANCACCIO: With a good rumor, timing is everything. In this case, just a few days before the vote.
LARSON: By the way, we're hearing from a number of the TV and radio stations, and um, maybe even the newspapers that some of them will start looking into the claim that the governor has found an extra half billion dollars which he plans to make public after the vote.
BRANCACCIO: Larson provides the fuel the rumor needs, repeating it all afternoon long. Even the governor's denial isn't enough to stop it.
GOVERNOR'S SPOKESPERSON: No, we do not have a half a billion dollars, we haven't found any money.
LARSON: Alright, so that's her answer, there's no extra money. The official denial from the Governor's office. Wonder how long it will take them to find it?
BRANCACCIO: Eventually, Oregon's biggest paper, THE OREGONIAN, feels the need to weigh in, printing an editorial that the allegation is 'flatly untrue.'
On February 4th, it was official. Voters rejected Measure 30.
LARSON: Congratulations to all of you for joining with those people in Oregon who knew that the wrong medicine for this state.
BRANCACCIO: Larson is triumphant; six in ten have voted against the tax increase. Oregon now faces new cuts to schools, health care, police, and prisons. And to date, no hidden half billion dollar stash of money has been discovered.