Since the early 1990s, the popularity of politically-oriented talk radio has exploded. Most, if not all, markets feature some sort of all-talk station, where right-wing hosts – and their guests – express their opinions. Some of the more obnoxious and over-the-top hosts – most of whom are fashioned after conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh – developed reputations as loudmouthed know-it-alls or smug Republican loyalists. Others maintained loyal audiences for specific philosophical beliefs and stances on issues. Things are becoming redundant, though, as new hosts ape old hosts and try to emulate their blustery announcing styles and commentary.
Luckily for Charleston, WTMA 1250 AM's daily show The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd steps away from the Limbaugh mold and delivers the news of the day with an inviting and even-tempered mix of reporting, commentary, and conversation. After only a few years on the air, the more libertarian-minded Morning Buzz has become one of the most respectful and civil-mannered news/talk radio shows in town.
"I'm not a partisan, and I'm not a fan of the Left or the Right," says host Richard Todd, an amiable veteran of Charleston radio who switched from rock to talk radio in recent years. "[When I started the show], I wanted to hear from everybody and create a perception, a reality, and feeling that you call this show and, whether you're a liberal or a conservative, Democrat or Republican, you're going to have a show that has some objectivity."
According to Todd, objectivity is something that is sorely missing in talk radio these days. "I have my opinion, and I've got my bias and prejudice, sure," the host says, "but I'm always trying to at least give an objective possible viewpoint, either by me or a listener calling in. It's much different than other shows."
Owned and operated by Citadel Broadcasting, the four-hour Morning Buzz is locally produced, unlike the majority of the national talk radio fare on the station – shows by Limbaugh-inspired hosts Neal Boortz, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. Another locally produced show, Radio Free Rocky D, also takes a page right out of the Dittohead Handbook, albeit adding a comedic touch.
"Talk radio is, by far, the most fun you can have on radio because nothing's ever the same," says Todd. "Life is show prep. Show prep is 24/7. I can get ideas, thought starters, and questions to ask listeners anywhere and any time. I'm always trying to devour as much information as I can get – online, television, print periodicals, non-fiction, and conversation out and about in the public. You need to know a little bit about everything."
Todd's been in radio since his college days, but for over four years, he has been at the helm of The Morning Buzz, which airs on weekdays from 6-10 a.m. on the 70-year-old radio station.
"It's a team effort for sure," Todd says. "You gotta think on your feet and use every resource that you can. Ultimately you're like the quarterback on the team; you make the calls and hope you execute."
The chemistry between Todd and his Morning Buzz teammates is remarkable. The unforced, respectful, and often humorous interaction between Todd, WTMA assistant program director and Morning Buzz producer John Quincy, news director/co-host Fred Storey, and guest commentator Jack Hunter (City Paper's own weekly Southern Avenger columnist) resembles that of a pack of sports junkies huddled together in the den with the big game on in front of them. Passionate and opinionated, they often get into fiery exchanges or fits of laughter. The level of respect within the banter and debate always remains high, though.
Todd delves into a mix of world news, current events, and political issues (local and national) on every Morning Buzz show, but he also touches on the lighter side of things with entertainment news and a handful of community happenings including concerts, benefits, pet-oriented events, and sports.
"Some people are like, 'Well, talk radio can't really change a thing,' but that's not really true, because you really can invoke a reaction and provoke that thought in conversation," Todd says. "You can then provide incredibly important information, analysis, and opinion ... and also other dimensions to a particular story that no one's even thought about, much less be the sounding board and release valve of the community."
Todd routinely calls his show "Charleston's morning meeting place," and the variety of callers, young and old, demonstrates that claim.
"The dynamic that we're a central hub and people are coming in and out of the room ... people are on their way to work or on their way to school, and, with the day-to-day basis, in some cases, you're a utensil for people's daily lives," he says. "People are using you to form opinions and decisions on their own."
Two weeks ago, Todd, Quincy, and Storey shifted gears from the usual mix. Reeling from the shock of Gov. Mark Sanford's awkward return to Columbia after his trip to Argentina and his now-famous press conference, they blazed full-on in crisis mode. Todd even referred it as "our Hurricane Mark."
The day after Sanford's salacious bomb went off, Todd stayed on the air for an extra two hours, preempting the Neal Boortz Show in order to cover the explosive news as it continued to break, taking call after call along the way. (Jack Hunter, who was subbing for Rocky D the day of the announcement, stayed on the air during Sean Hannity's normal time slot.)
The Morning Buzz even went national with an unusual simulcast with KABC in Los Angeles, with Todd commenting on the political ramifications of the revelation, speaking with local callers live on the air, and expressing his own mixed feelings about the still-unfolding series of events surrounding Sanford's revelation.
For the first few days of the Sanford scandal, WTMA listeners from all over the Lowcountry called The Morning Buzz exhibiting a wide realm of emotions: sadness, anger, sympathy, disbelief, confusion. Some had waited for nearly half an hour to get on the air and make their point, which flatters the host, but doesn't surprise him.
"Normally, the wait times aren't that long, but people will wait because they feel like they have something to add," says Todd. "When you listen to a music radio station, they're playing the hits – the same songs every three hours or so. For us, playing the hits is callers. You find that the more callers you put on the air, the more people will call to be on the air."
He adds, "If they feel that someone's been spewing B.S., or if they feel that they've got information that's more accurate than what someone else has been saying, they'll wait. The wait times for national talk shows can be insanely long. I think that shows people's desire to express themselves and let their opinions be known."
Whether during the frenzy of a hot news event or on a slow news day, most Morning Buzz callers – longtime fans and newcomers alike – seem very much at ease and delighted when calling WTMA's local shows, unlike some of the other syndicated programs on the schedule. Many probably feel they can relate more closely with the personality, manner, and life experiences of the hosts they're trying to reach.
"People love to eavesdrop on the conversation of others," says Todd. "If you can create a conversation, and people feel like when they're listening, that they're not listening to a show, but they're listening to a conversation, then they'll feel compelled not only to listen, but to possibly participate."
Luring listeners into the exchange every morning is one of the top priorities for Todd and his team. The host thrives on the engagement and spontaneity, and he handles even the most infuriated or disrespectful callers with firm politeness, if with a hint of deserved sarcasm and dismissal.
The healthy and dynamic rapport between the team and the listeners fuels the energy of the show.
"They won't call you if they think you're going to jump down their throat and not give them the chance to say what they're trying to say," says Todd. "I think they will get tired of hearing the same thing over and over, where you already know what the person's going to say before he even says it. There are slow news days, so it just can't all be hard-hitting topics, current events, and politics. There has to be levity. Life is not always serious, and neither is the show. That's why we do entertainment and sports ... it's like the old bit about the five things listeners most want to hear: what is it, how's the weather, how's the traffic, is there some big piece of news I need to know, and can you help me have better sleep, sex, and those types of things. It's life."