John “Couchburner” Denning was near the end of his Friday talk-radio shift at WNIR and he was in no mood to let a caller rant about labor relations at an area company.
“I’ve seen how lives are crushed by unions,” he told the man who wanted to tell listeners about a strike.
Denning said his family has had union workers in years past and the results were not good.
He offered some advice:
“Put your tail between your legs, put your pride in your lunch box and go back to work on Monday.”
The caller tried to give a list of grievances against the company but Denning said the problem was elsewhere.
“You’re screwing your kids’ future,” he said, his voice raising.
The caller talked about wages.
“When you don’t have a job two weeks from now, you call me back and tell me how you feel,” Denning said. “Go back to work.”
By this time, the man seemed flustered.
“I absolutely hate unions, I’m sorry,” Denning said.
It wasn’t long before a commercial was playing and Denning’s shift was over.
He would be back the next day for another stint on Saturday, his sixth of the week.
The guys at WNIR 100.1-FM will tell you that listening to their talk-radio format is like chatting over the fence to a neighbor.
They do it for fun and profit.
The laughs come easily and few topics are too serious for making fun.
But there is an edge.
When late-afternoon host Bob Golic discusses the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, he doesn’t hesitate to call President Barack Obama a liar.
When midday talker Denning refers to the lawyers representing the man accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, he calls them “bleeding-heart liberals.”
When the news summary included an item about homosexuality, Denning facetiously claimed to be a lesbian and the newsman adopted a falsetto voice.
Denning and Golic start their shifts with monologues offering talking points, but the callers turn the conversations wherever they want.
Most of those issues are in the news but Denning and Golic don’t want to be called journalists and don’t want to be held to the same standards of civility expected from more serious television and radio shows.
“We use techniques to be entertaining, yes,” said Bill Klaus, chief executive officer and station manager. “We use sarcasm. We are satirical like Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. We use entertaining ways, humor and exaggeration to elicit a response to point out something. Sometimes extreme exaggeration sheds light on an argument.”
The humor is similar to The Daily Show, but the presentation is different.
Stewart labels his show “Fake News” but the WNIR hosts say they do their best to get the facts right. Denning and Golic keep a laptop computer nearby for reference. Denning often shakes a newspaper near the microphone so readers know the source of the story he is citing.
Still, the talk-show hosts insist they are just entertainers kept apart from the news summaries every 30 minutes at the station.
For Klaus, those standards were established and refined by Howie Chizek over his 38 years at the station, ending with his death last June at age 65.
“We use techniques that are entertaining for the audience and after a while, after 38 years, they knew Howie Chizek and when he was putting somebody on or playing devil’s advocate or saying something as an argument for the sake of an argument,” Klaus said. “And people are getting to know John in the same way … when is he discussing, when is he being a little serious, when is he being a little bit cute, when’s he being exaggerating, when is it done for entertainment purposes and most people can play with it and be a part of it or enjoy it.”
And when the talking is done, Denning says everyone is still friends.
“It’s about the sin, not the sinner; you are a good person,” he said one afternoon after a reporter sat in on his show.
As a part of the America Today and Ohio Civility Project, the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute conducted a poll of Akron area residents. It came just as the country was turning its attention to the presidential election and partisan jousting was starting to flow.
The institute, a partner in the project along with the Beacon Journal, two other universities and the Akron faith community, asked: “In your opinion, which of these groups is the single most important reason for the lack of civility in politics?” The news media ranked highest at 39.1 percent, followed by election campaigns, 27 percent; public officials, 25 percent; and the public itself, 8 percent.
Asked to further describe incivility in the news media, almost 80 percent called cable news channels “a major source of incivility,” followed by major newspapers and their websites at 77.4 percent. Talk radio (considered part of the news media in the poll) came next at 60.9 percent, followed by local television stations, 47.7 percent; and local newspapers and their websites at 46.7 percent.
The poll did not try to distinguish outlets within categories, so WNIR’s talk shows would be in the same group as Rush Limbaugh’s show and other local and national talk shows.
Refining the genre
Denning reveres Chizek. During commercial breaks and during a joint interview with Klaus, Denning’s stories often are put in context of how Chizek handled the show.
Chizek was brought to the station in 1972 by Media-Com. Inc. owner Richard Klaus, father of Bill Klaus and his brother, Robert Klaus, president and general sales manager.
According to Bill Klaus, Chizek founded and refined the concept of a local talk-radio show at an FM station.
It’s no mistake that Chizek adopted a conservative point of view still followed by the hosts today.
“Most of the people have a conservative to centrist viewpoint and that’s what we try to present to the Akron area,” Bill Klaus said. “And I am not talking Republican or Democrat. I’m talking about philosophy.”
If he were broadcasting in a more liberal area like San Francisco, the format might be different, Klaus said.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, estimated in 2007 that 91 percent of talk shows in America are conservative. Reasons cited included market forces that led owners to conclude a conservative approach is more profitable.
And he defies any comparison with national conservative talk-show hosts like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
“There are a lot of stations with syndicated programming where the hosts are extremely regimented into one narrow extremely conservative approach. That’s not our approach at all,” Klaus said. “We are a local station, with local callers and we want to hear all points of view. Now we may present more ideas that are centrist to conservative, but we are open to all points of view and want to hear all points of view and say, hey, knock me off my perch and tell me I’m wrong.”
He said Chizek was not too proud to change his mind when the facts pointed him in another direction.
The WNIR staff also denies trying to build outrage against liberals, politicians or opposing parties to build an audience.
Not so for Rush Limbaugh, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of Echo Chamber. Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment.
Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, says Limbaugh uses “polarization” and balkanization” techniques to build a loyal and profitable audience united against liberals and their policies.
The process, she said, is to create an “in group” of conservatives, and an “out group” for liberals.
That’s where the incivility begins.
“Once you have created the ‘out group,’ you stop treating them with respect,” he said. “As a result, you attack them instead of attacking their arguments because they are stupid or they are uncivilized or uncultured.”
In an era with hundreds of radio stations, thousands of cable television shows and what seems like an unlimited number of Internet outlets, capturing one segment of the political spectrum can be profitable.
“One of the reasons we have the niche extremes in the media is that there are audiences that can be drawn into them that ensure profitability,” she said.
She did find one of the draws for Limbaugh and Hannity is the same as what WNIR searches for. It can be fun.
“People report they enjoy watching the fight,” she said “It feels good to have your own sense of identification with your group reinforced and an out group identified so now you feel morally superior. There’s a psychology under why polarization feels good to partisans.”
Denning, 49, has degrees in business and geology and has worked in both fields.
His start in talk radio came as a caller more than 20 years ago. Nearly every day, he would dial up Chizek and talk about the day’s news or what was going on in his life.
After Chizek died, Denning was part of what seemed to be a series of tryouts and won the competition. He started full time in August.
The WNIR website says he acquired the “Couchburner” nickname “as a result of some youthful pranks at the University of Akron.”
Denning says a key factor in incivility and a line he will not cross is name calling. He insists he never attacks individuals. But he does make exceptions.
For example, when Candy Crowley, the CNN correspondent, who was in the news as a presidential debate moderator last year, came back in the news last month, Denning made fun of her as a “big fat chick.”
He did it with a laugh, another trait of Chizek and the dedication to having fun.
“I can’t be Howie, but I can imitate the hell out of him,” he said in an interview.
Chizek was known as a ratings leader in the Akron radio market. Denning is close. Bill Klaus released ratings that showed Denning is ranked second in Akron’s midday market among listeners over 18. Golic ranks third in the late afternoon ratings.
Ratings obtained independently by the Beacon Journal show Denning second in the more commonly used Arbitron “P 12+” measure of everyone over 12. Golic was tied for fifth in that ranking.
Leaving football behind
Golic, 55, graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business management. He played 14 years as a linebacker and defensive lineman in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl three times with the Browns.
He tried sports-talk radio, but concluded it wasn’t for him.
“I’ve never been the type of person who calls people names or says bad things about them,” he said. “ Maybe that’s why sports-talk radio wasn’t for me.”
In his business and football travels, he came to enjoy listening to local talk radio, even in towns he never visited before. He enjoyed the debates about the news.
He enjoys talking about the news, but don’t call him a newsman.
“I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever talked about that doesn’t have my slant to it or my opinion attached to it and I don’t think you are a journalist anymore when it becomes your opinion.”
He insists the listeners know the line between his opinion and the station’s news summaries.
“I think we try to set it up pretty much where [newsman] Mark Richards does the news and he says it very succinctly and you can hear it in his voice that this is the news.”
Emphasis on healing
In addition to having fun, Golic, Denning and Klaus all emphasized the idea of maintaining friendships, and customers after all of the talking is done.
“It has become a lot more polarized and so then we have people who feel we have an agenda or they have an agenda and they are just not going to let it go and not be quite as understanding of the point of having a conversation.” Klaus said.
And what’s that point?
“We would like to have a spirited, enlightening, enjoyable, provocative conversation but at the end say that we are still friends, that’s civility,” Klaus said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.