The Strange Radio World Of Alan Colmes

There’s something about the dark of night that changes talk radio. Once the schoolmarms and businessmen have turned to the tube or hit the hay, the freaks are free to play.

While the audience is markedly smaller, the listeners and callers are typically more relaxed and open after the sun sets. Their guard is down. And let’s be honest, more people are intoxicated at the end of their day. For a playful and creative talk host, the evening audience is full of entertainment opportunity. But that doesn’t mean talk radio at night is necessarily good. Nighttime talk radio can also be a backwater where second-rate hosts hold their own, where has-been hosts are put out to graze, and where some weirdo talkers thrive.

There’s one talk host I’ve been listening to lately that practically fits every genre of nighttime talk radio I’ve just described– Alan Colmes. Better known as Sean Hannity’s half-hearted liberal foil over at Fox News TV, Colmes has actually had quite a talk radio career around New York City and nationally. But as far as being on the air in New York, Colmes has had an intermittent presence here, jumping from station to station with gaps in between. Colmes is best known in New York talk radio history for putting two stations to bed– doing the very last farewell program on both WNBC (in 1988) and WEVD (in 2001).

Since WEVD went dark, Colmes eventually reappeared here (in his latest radio incarnation as a Fox News Radio national talk host) on WWRL and then disappeared again when the station became the Air America flagship. Then in the overhaul of both the Air America network schedule and the WWRL line-up, Colmes reestablished his presence in the nation's biggest radio market once again. (And in eclipsing the Jon Elliot show that Air America runs on the network during that time, Colmes saves the city from a giant nightly yawning spell.) So, for the first time I've found myself actually paying attention to The Alan Colmes Show. And much to my surprise, I almost like it. Or at least I keep listening.

Back when hosts I liked much more (Lionel and Mike Malloy) had that after 10pm slot, I didn’t pay much attention to Colmes or his program. I don’t remember many radio fireworks in my brief interludes with his show over the years, and maybe it’s been revamped, but the Alan Colmes show I’m hearing lately is often a fast paced circus of a talk show with unexpected bursts of strangeness. And the source of the weirdness isn't so much Colmes himself, but the people who take the time to call in to his show.

It’s Colmes’ unique position in the broadening left/right schism in political media that generates a bizarre caller base for the show. Although he's carried on some "progressive talk" stations like WWRL, his program also can be found on the schedule of a number of  stations that carry the run-of-the-mill right-wing talkers as well. So Colmes automatically gets more pro-Bush hate calls than any official Air America program, much like Lionel's show did when he was on at night on WOR’s network. But unlike Lionel, who’s prankster spirit and lawyer skills would make for some compelling cat and mouse conversation when right-wingers would get on his case (and Lionel was never the mouse), Colmes simply argues calmly and logically with the morons until they either give up or the call ends in some twisted (or childish) draw.

And more than any talk show I’ve heard since Bob Lassiter, Colmes attracts a lot of raw hate from the phone lines. A lot of it comes from his roll as the liberal punching bag on “Hannity and Colmes” every night. As the radio show follows his TV program, Hannity fans and other psychopaths who get all worked up watching Alan espouse non-Republican ideas on Fox News can pick up the phone and let him have it when his show comes on an hour later. In fact, his show has been structured to infuse the raw energy from all that animosity out there right into the show from the first few seconds it comes on the air.

He calls it “First Word.” With a burst of generic rock guitar, Colmes welcomes you to the show and starts punching up callers that have been waiting for him to get on the air. It moves pretty fast. If the call doesn't quickly offer some friction or entertainment value Colmes quickly moves to the next one in line. It’s a weird way to start a show, and more often than not the adrenalin is really flowing by the time he hits his first commercial break. And what’s kind of amazing, if not a little strange, is how unflappable Alan Colmes can be in the face of overt hostility. Sure, he’ll argue point for point and even raise his voice a bit, but he never seems to get truly angered or shaken. A bit scolding or indignant sometimes. Yes, he’s much tougher on callers than he ever his with Sean Hannity on TV, but never resorts to epithets and he rarely goes for the jugular.

Here’s a couple of hostile calls from October 18th. (And I apologize for the bleed-over from Radio Disney that you hear beneath these calls. It's the way most of the radios in my house receive WWRL.) This first fella sounds like he’s at least four or five beers into his evening. It’s Dan in Chicago. Sometimes, ignorance can go so deep that it becomes profound.

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What’s really sad to me about this call is its heartbreaking authenticity. I’d so much rather think that sloth-like thinking and mindless animosity like this was really just a put-on or a prank. But no. It’s a real person. A real American. And the next one’s worse.

Jimmy in North Carolina is more direct. The call is a threat. Nothing more. It’s one of the most unfriendly calls I’ve ever heard on talk radio. It’s funny how some wacky right wingers wish or hope “the terrorists” will dutifully attack their people and groups they don’t happen to like. Here Jimmy openly wishes “the terrorists” would attack the “Emmy” or “Grammy” ceremonies, to kill a large number of those “liberal socialist Hollywood” types, who are bringing this nation to its knees.

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It’s just sad by the end. While Colmes knows how to attract and unfold bizarre telephone scenarios, he rarely finishes them off with an appreciable payoff. Instead of destroying lame callers, or poetically dumping them at the right moment, Colmes can keep arguing when there's no point, or get into a conversational slap fight that goes nowhere. He rarely goes in for the kill. And there never seems to be a punch line.

Here’s a more cryptic (but not substantially more intelligent) hate call to Alan. It’s James from upstate New York on November 7th. Like Jimmy, James also expresses his personal preferences as far as what misdeeds “the terrorists” should put on their agenda. “I regret that George Bush has been 100% successfully in saving the lives of people like you,” he tells Colmes. Such curious patriotism. Colmes actually kind of comes out on top at the end of this call.

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Here’s a harebrained caller from Massachusetts– “Tonto.” He kicks off the interchange declaring his simultaneous respect and dislike for Colmes. And he doesn’t care for his “character” on TV either. Apparently he thinks Colmes is a bit player in some drama, like Fred Thompson or something.

Tonto is a classic type of caller you hear on talk radio these days. Everything that’s in his head that passes for a worldview has been spoon-fed into his head by right wing talk radio and Fox News. When a guy like this calls up Rush or Sean, every thing goes pretty smoothly. But even the minor rebuttal you get from an easy going moderate host like Colmes shuts down every argument or theory the guy can come up with. All he's really able to do is get worked up and bandy cliches. But he has no follow-up. His political thoughts are like false fronts of buildings on a movie set or something.

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The other side of Colmes legacy– as the liberal TV pundit cable conservatives love to hate, is that he’s also the most prominent (or only) left-leaning talking head some folks come across in their media diet. So, not only does Colmes phone lines attract ripe republican hate, but he also draws in lost progressives and disconnected Democrats looking for common ground, or just a shoulder to cry on.

Listen to poor Ken in Indianapolis. He’s kind of just woken up to how across-the-board wicked the Bush administration really is, and he desperately wants to do SOMETHING to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s so paranoid he thinks that just by making the call to Colmes show may have tipped off the some evil Bush goons to come cart him away in dark of the night. (And it probably doesn't help that he lives in Indianapolis…)

No, Ken hasn’t thought through all his desperation and anxiety. He's all over the map during this call. But his fears are actually based on grim present realities– not bizarre schizophrenic fantasies. In other times and under other circumstances, I'd consider Ken's plight to be rather laughable. Or at least pathetic. But here and now, I find someone climbing on a soapbox and hopelessly rambling this way to be profoundly sad. And the sadness isn’t just for him, but for all the people like him, and Americans in general.

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And what’s weird to me about this call isn’t the martyrdom on display, or the or despair you hear in Ken’s voice. It’s Colmes approach to the call. Instead of agreeing with, or challenging, Ken’s paranoia, Alan plays psychotherapist with the guy, asking him to fully express his feelings instead of addressing the issues at hand.

In the end, I can’t decide if Colmes is actually missing some brain matter or is just a profoundly forgiving guy. He’s the polar opposite of a talk radio hothead like Mike Malloy. Somehow his outrage over the sad state of current events never turns personal, and he never seems to get angry. It’s a temperament that has served him well on Fox News. But the other night when I heard him chatting cordially on the radio with Lynne Cheney, I just had to turn it off (shudder). Somewhere along the line my outrage does become personal, and I confess that I don’t really understand what makes a guy like Alan Colmes tick.

While Colmes is sharp, articulate, and even-handed to a fault, he’s certainly not my favorite talk host out there. But one of the reasons I listen to political talk radio (left, right or center) is to hear the callers. And sometimes it’s not the point the caller wants to make, or even the interaction with the host, it’s the spirit of the calls themselves, and what it reveals about the American Zeitgeist. And from the flavor of common thought I hear coming out of the Alan Colmes show is often disturbing.

No, it’s not scientific to come to any conclusions about our culture by sorting through moments in talk radio, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone paying attention that we live in a country filled with ignorant and angry and desperate people. And more than any time I remember, people of almost any political persuasion harbor a desire to commit some act, or join some cause, to make a some change in the world. And for better or worse, some of the really intense and despairing folks out in the heartland choose calling Alan Colmes as their way to challenge the madness of our times. Why? I'm not sure. But it makes for some radio that is often as tragic as it is compelling.

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3 Responses to “The Strange Radio World Of Alan Colmes”

  1. tdevine Says:

    If you can’t hear the megawatt signal of WWRL (ha!), Colmes show is carried on “Buffalo’s Left Channel” 1520 WWKB. AM-1520 is probably better remembered playing pop 60’s music as KB-1520. The signal reaches much of the east and central U.S. at night.

    Colmes is a alright listen. I don’t care for his Fox Radio promos, pretty much asking righties to use him as a punching bag. And we wonder why he gets the weird calls ?

  2. Rufus Says:

    I’d say having a country full of morons like these doesn’t do much to set us apart from any other country. You just have to keep doing what Colmes does – laugh them off. It is pretty compelling stuff, though.

  3. Cris Says:

    My favorite Alan Colmes story has nothing to do with politics. It was about his date with Mallory Lewis (daughter of Sheri Lewis). They were having dinner at a restaurant when Alan noticed that they had lamb chops on the menu. “Don’t you dare order them,” Mallory said. “My mother used to do that all the time just to see the horrified look on the waiters’ faces.”

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