What’s Left?

Jim Hightower’s inability to find a radio audience says something about him, talk shows in general, and the state of Texas liberalism.

January 1998By Comments

POLITICS ISN’T ABOUT LEFT VERSUS RIGHT. It’s about top versus bottom.”

“Sure, Wall Street’s whizzing. It’s whizzing on you and me.”

“NAFTA, do we hafta?”

“Saddam Hussein: Is he insane or just jerking our chain?”

Five days a week, these and other twangy quips roll effortlessly off the tongue of Jim Hightower, nationally syndicated talk show host. Hat off, headphones on, sitting in front of a mike at Threadgill’s World Headquarters in Austin, the former Texas agriculture commissioner rails against big government and big business, standing up to the powers that be on behalf of what he calls “the powers that oughta be.” In our soundbite-obsessed society, it should be the perfect recipe for good radio—not to mention a good career after politics. “I’m in the tradition of the pamphleteer,” he told me recently. “It’s not enough to be agitated. You have to agitate.”

But after sixteen months on the air, The Jim Hightower Chat and Chew Show is struggling to be heard. Although right-wing king Rush Limbaugh is carried by more than 600 stations, and the AM airwaves are overrun with the equally conservative likes of G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, and Michael Reagan, Hightower’s show is carried by only 107 stations. Worse yet, in Texas, where Hightower is better known than anywhere else in the country, you can barely find him on your dial. Unless you’re within range of AM stations in Austin, Monahans, El Paso, Lubbock, and Odessa or FM stations in Seymour and Freer or are logged on to the Internet (www.jimhightower.com; www.audionet.com), you can’t get the show. Even if you’re sitting across from him at Threadgill’s, you have to request a pair of headphones if you want to listen.

It’s a surprising turn of events for a man who just eleven years ago was one of the top vote-getters among all statewide candidates, outpolling Governor Mark White, Attorney General Jim Mattox, and comptroller John Sharp. A political analyst and activist and a onetime editor of the Texas Observer, Hightower rode into office in 1982 as an advocate of the family farmer, promoting organics and slamming agribusiness, and as a champion of wageworkers, tackling issues from free trade to the environment. He was smart and quick on his feet, his critics had to admit, and he was funny: It was Hightower, for instance, who lampooned George Bush’s patrician upbringing at the 1988 Democratic National Convention by saying that he was “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Yet while in office, Hightower was accused of misusing federal funds for political purposes, prompting Governor Bill Clements to call for his impeachment, and his office became the subject of an FBI investigation that resulted in the conviction of three of his aides on charges of conspiracy and bribery (Hightower himself was never indicted). In 1990 Hightower was defeated by Republican Rick Perry in a squeaker of an election, but he remained in the public eye. After three years of speechifying around the country, he began syndicating daily two-minute commentaries to radio stations around the country; today they’re carried by more than 150 stations with a potential audience of 8 million and reprinted in several publications, including the Progressive Populist. He has been celebrated as a liberal icon in Mother Jones and other magazines. And last October HarperCollins published his first book, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, which gamely defends populism at a time when few others will.

Still, Hightower hasn’t made a splash as a talk show host. Why? First of all, Democrats—Hightower’s core constituency—are in trouble. All the great Texas Dems of recent years—Bentsen, Richards, Cisneros—are out of office and out of politics (unless you count Richards’ work as a lobbyist). Given their scant success in electing statewide candidates lately, Democratic voters in Texas may as well be out of politics too. As for the current Democratic flag carriers: When the Democrat running for governor, Garry Mauro, can’t win the endorsement of the Democratic lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, you know that Texas Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats, are in a bad way. Of course, progressive Democrats are in trouble all over. Bill Clinton is a centrist, as are most Congressional Dems. Except for the Ralph Naders of the world—who are busy fighting Microsoft, not the Republicans—it’s hard to imagine an audience for Hightower’s firebrand populism.

Talk radio has changed too. Since Limbaugh found his voice in the early nineties, the format has been the domain of conservatives, appealing mostly to white men whose high disposable incomes attract advertisers. Hightower, by contrast, means to speak to a multicultural audience that includes the working poor—a demographic that appeals to programmers about as much as small-towners who tune in to “Want Ads of the Air.” Lately, though, politics of all stripes have been elbowed out by another type of talk: quickie advice and esteem-building of the sort offered by psychotherapist Laura Schlessinger, whose daily show tops the ratings in many markets. If Hightower can’t compete with Limbaugh, he’s no match for Dr. Laura.

Then there’s Hightower himself. He hasn’t changed—and that’s the problem. His yapping terrier drawl (think Ross Perot, but less grating) isn’t exactly radio friendly, certainly not compared with the booming baritone Limbaugh honed in 30 years on the air. And Hightower’s professional Texan act may finally be wearing thin. It’s one thing for Kinky Friedman and Larry L. King to play characters, but another for thoughtful people like Hightower and Molly Ivins to wrap their political views in yeehaws and hot-damns—especially in the new New Texas, whose diverse citizenry now includes country club Republicans, Central American immigrants, and well-to-do California exiles who don’t know corn pone from crawdaddy.

This combination of realities dogged Hightower the first time he tried his hand at talk radio. Back in 1994, he launched a three-hour show that aired over the ABC Radio Network on Saturdays and Sundays. The early media buzz pegged him as the left’s answer to Limbaugh, but ABC pulled the plug a year and a half later. Hightower insists he got the boot because of his frequent on-air criticisms of the Walt Disney Company’s hiring and employment practices before and during Disney’s acquisition of ABC-Capital Cities in August 1995. In an interview soon after his cancellation, he blamed “the three m’s: my message, the merger with Disney, and marketing, or lack thereof.” But ABC’s vice president of programming, Frank Raphael, said at the time, “There’s a fourth m, which is ‘malarkey.’ His ratings never really grew.”

Whatever the case, a year later, on Labor Day, 1996, Hightower rose from the ashes to try again. The Chat and Chew Show, which airs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, came courtesy of the Florida-based United Broadcasting Network, whose initial investors include economic nationalists like the United Auto Workers and Pat Choate, Ross Perot’s running mate in 1996. “I finally had ownership that liked my message,” Hightower said. He also had a place to deliver it. Just as he was about to go live, Threadgill’s impresario Eddie Wilson was preparing to open his new location; he was only too happy to put him on public display on the stage of the new restaurant during the lunch hour.

From the beginning, The Chat and Chew has had typical talk show ingredients: interviews with guests, phone calls from listeners, monologues on issues, and recurring segments such as a report on Congress by labor lobbyists. He also kibitzes with a crew of regulars, including his longtime co-conspirator Susan DeMarco, producer Chris Garlock, engineer Melanie West, and pianist Floyd Domino; all join in the conversation to convey the atmosphere of a few enlightened folks sitting around the coffee shop talking politics. Unfortunately, the quartet evinces little of the spirit of Don McNeill’s old Breakfast Club gang, which Hightower cites as a major influence, and no one has developed into a genuine radio personality, like Howard Stern’s Stuttering John. The back-and-forth is so agreeable and leisurely that it sounds like no chat-and-chew I’ve ever patronized. Where’s the oaf with the loud voice who’s always bellowing above the din? And who the heck in this bunch is speaking for the redneck working man?

Which is not to say there aren’t some things about the show that are worth recommending. For instance, Domino’s piano vamping justifies tuning in regardless of your political leanings. Where else are you going to hear someone intelligently riff Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” in the same half hour? Hightower’s guests—everyone from Rolling Stone’s national affairs editor William Greider, who lucidly explained the significance of the Asian currency collapse, to a motorcyclist campaigning for industrial hemp, which he someday hopes will fuel his racing bike—are informative, entertaining, and in the great talk radio tradition, a little off-kilter. And the ads, if you can call them that, are entertaining too: the promos for the “School of Assassins” video that promises an exposé on U.S. Army’s School of the Americas; the plugs for Texas in the Morning, the alleged tell-all by Madeleine Brown, LBJ’s “secret” mistress.

In the end, as with most talk shows, Hightower’s is only as good as the day’s events. Take the debate over fast-track legislation, which President Clinton wanted to push through Congress. Hightower, an energetic opponent of fast-track, made it his obsession for several weeks on The Chat and Chew. He aired regular reports by Nader’s Public Citizens Global Trade Watch from the floor of the U.S. Capitol. He chatted by phone with fast-track’s fiercest foe, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, who gave an eyewitness account of working conditions in Mexico. He even identified undecided members of Congress and gave out their phone numbers in a “Targets of the Day” segment. “These are things that people want to talk about,” Hightower told me. “Something as arcane as fast-track can be a very lively discussion and can rally a constituency across party lines. Our callers aren’t card-carrying liberals. They tend to be libertarians, mavericks, and non-ideologues.”

Hightower sounds like he intends to play the insider-outsider game perfected by Limbaugh, who used his connections to manipulate the political establishment he vowed to destroy and unapologetically strafed the entire landscape, targeting Congress, the White House, and mainstream media, who always missed the real story—no matter what the story was. (Never mind that Limbaugh’s ratings made him the mainstream media.) The trouble is that Hightower isn’t Limbaugh, and his show isn’t Limbaugh’s—and, anyway, it’s hard to imagine hippies sipping smoothies and eating falafel while listening to Hightower in restaurant sections known as “Jim Rooms,” just as right-wingers puffed cigars and devoured red meat for a while in “Rush Rooms.”

After sixteen months, then, Chat and Chew is neither the influential local-affairs program it could be, given the sad state of talk radio in Austin, nor the national affairs program that it aspires to be, a goal that can’t be achieved until he gets picked up by more stations. Not that Hightower seems to care. He has decided that the microphone, not the ballot box, is his destiny, as he so succinctly explained to a caller from Houston when she pined for his return to politics: “Running my mouth, Joyce, is more effective than running for office.”

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