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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.